I originally wrote this in February of 2013 and thought I would revisit it as we move into the annual broadcast television bukkake festival, also known as the network upfront season.
The big four networks, CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox have been spiraling downwards, not only in ratings but also in content, for about ten years now. This is not to say they haven’t produced some good, sometimes very good, yet never great, content.
A healthy debate could be made that each of the network’s programming and development departments are basing decisions based on…well…to be fair, I don’t know what they base their decisions on. Apparently logic and quality are not high on the list.
NBC has had a particularly tough time of it and despite three new programming heads in seven years, they continue to show only a further descent into idiotic programming. To that point, NBC currently has “1600 Penn” and has green lit a new Jessica Simpson pilot, comparing her to Lucille Ball. The latter of which is produced by non other than idiot savant Ben Silverman.
You may recall Ben Silverman as the man who, along with Jeff Zucker, took the former blue chip NBC and drove it right into a brick wall, got out unharmed and pointed at the audience and said “NOW LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO!”
(Update: NBC has plugged the idiotic hole and moved from the moronic programming to only questionable programming, that shit show “1600 Penn” was cancelled and the Simpson pilot never aired.)
An argument has often been made that programming highs and lows are cyclical and while CBS currently rides the wave of success, NBC is being flogged. And I would have made that cyclical argument as recently as six months ago too. However, not anymore.
I think it is time for the networks to finally accept that the week to week viewing we all grew up on is over. Done. Kaput. The future of week to week broadcast television is in live programming and the future of episodic television is on cable and in episodic binge viewing.
After devouring the first three seasons of FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” in one week, I’ve spent the past two weeks binge viewing Netflix’s “House of Cards”, AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and Showtime’s “Homeland”. I can say emphatically that this is the way to watch TV. Obviously, dramatic series lend themselves to this type of viewing because of their emphasis on storytelling and the performances. More importantly, it gives dramatic series a more cinematic feel.
I think the jury may still be out on situational comedy as binge viewing. FX’s “Louie” certainly plays well either as binge or week to week. Conversely, I fear watching NBC’s “1600 Penn” in any capacity may induce a coma, but more likely suicide. Nonetheless, with Netflix releasing “Arrested Development” soon, we may have a better idea how comedy fares with binge viewing (update: turns out pretty well as “Arrested Development” was a big hit for Netflix, as was “Orange is the New Black”, but then I suppose neither of those really fall into the situational comedy category).
Why are the big four networks continuing to get the future of television programming all wrong? Well, I suspect they are driven by a few things?
1. Saying no to anything different or challenging to keep their fat paychecks (read Bill Carter’s book Desperate Networks for more insight…network heads lost their jobs by saying yes to “Desperate Housewives” and “Survivor”).
2. They’re focused only on advertisers and the profit motive.
3. They’re beholden to fictional and nebulous ratings.
4. Despite the industry nepotism and Ivy League education, they’re mostly lemmings with nary a singular thought among them. (update: how to make friends and influence others? maybe not referring to them as unoriginal lemmings.)
Here is where networks are getting things wrong.
Here’s the hard truth no one wants to admit, the ratings that networks build and shape their business and programming decisions around is based on +/- 30,000 viewers and then projected into overall percentages. Besides hardly being representative of the population, Nielsen ratings exclude hospitals, schools and prisons; three institutions where television is integral to the day-to-day (and just consider the prison population explosion in the past 25 years).
At last census, there were over 300 million US residents. Of those, approximately 120 million had television sets (that’d be less than half). I would hope we can all agree that these numbers can’t truly be considered a representative slice, especially when you couple it with the exclusions.
More accurate data exists and if networks ever got around to snapping free from the chains of Nielsen, and this archaic way of business, they could reap the benefits.
Netflix has been able to gather and look at real data and, to date, have given us two solid shows, “Lilyhammer” and “House of Cards”. Of course, analyzing hard data and marrying it with creativity presents its own pitfalls (great Andrew Leonard Salon article here) but the point being that they created shows beholden to little else other than creativity.
And it shows.
It’s high time we admit the Nielsen rating gig is up. It’s worth with traditional programming was always overrated and questionable, at best, and now that they are taking those already questionable overnight numbers and then factoring them in to three and seven day estimates would seem to the rational mind to be unimaginable. But then, throughout my life, imagination has never really been part of the networks business model.
I suspect it can work with live events and, in fact, prove useful.
“M*A*S*H” was a great sitcom and so was “Friends” but I think almost everyone can agree they went on too long.
Scripted shows, regardless of format, need to be pitched and produced with an exit strategy. Presented as a complete story arc, a beginning, a middle and an end. We are starting to see more of this, but still not enough. This is partially the fault of the show-runners, but I place the most blame at the foot of the networks attempt to squeeze every last bit of advertising dollar from a successful show.
No, is not a bad word. “No, the show can not last another season“, “No, that is a dumb idea Mr. TV Executive, the show can only be XX number of episodes.” FX’s John Landgraf seems to have an understanding of this and is getting more right than wrong, as is AMC.
I think “The Walking Dead” is a great show but how long can you really bleed a zombie apocalypse? After three seasons, I already want to know the why it happened and then I am going to want to see it wrapped up. If it goes any longer than five seasons, it will move into pure silliness. Whatever Illuminati hints you may think are in there, it is a television show about a zombie apocalypse. (update: the show is now on its third show-runner…that could be good or bad, stay tuned.)
Kurt Sutter’s “Sons of Anarchy” is straddling a fine line between caricature and drama right now. The fact that we’ve gotten five seasons of the SAMCRO bunch is amazing. But as an avid viewer, even I am beginning to recognize the reality that the show needs to end. These are not good people and justice, one way or another, has to be served. (update: and it will be, Sutter announced midway in the sixth season that there will only be seven seasons…kudos to Mr. Sutter.)
British television seems to have the right approach in this sense. Shows are as long as they need to be to tell the story. They do gritty crime drama better than anyone, just watch “Luther” or “Whitechapel”, or really any UK dramas, for examples.
Networks need to stop bleeding the creativity. Most show-runners have more than one idea so why not sign someone up to a long-term deal so that when one show is finished, they have another queued up and ready to roll? I would much prefer a new show over an unneeded season of “Homeland” where Carrie and Brody retire to Montana and raise goats. (update: Brody is dead and it seems that networks are getting the hint by starting to work with creatives for the long-term i.e. Ryan Murphy and Vince Gilligan and more first look deals.)
We don’t want shit. Seriously, we don’t. While there are maybe only a few stories that can ultimately be told, man vs. nature, man vs. man, man vs. machine, etc., networks need to stop rehashing the same old tired tropes. It doesn’t need to be revolutionary, it just needs to be good. And judging from what networks have ordered to pilot, “good” has a very liberal definition and will be in short supply.
You can see what the networks have been ordered to pilot for 2014 here.
You know what? Maybe a show isn’t ready for broadcast television but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth producing. Take a chance, make it and give it to Netflix to release all at once. It’s a smart move and a long-term investment in creativity. It will invariably reap rewards, both creative and financial. (update: Hulu has started doing this, as has Amazon and Yahoo is throwing its hat into the original programming ring.)
And no, this isn’t something for your Hulu thing. Hulu is marginally better than broadcast. You wouldn’t go to Ralph’s or Stop-n-Shop for the best price on a one gallon jar of mayo, you’d go to Costco. Netflix is the Costco of digital distribution, if Costco were like Saks Fifth Avenue.
Digital only distribution will end up having three, maybe four, players Hulu, YouTube and Google+ (save the Facebook TV argument, it won’t work in the short or long-term) and maybe Apple TV. These are the players, find a way to work with them. (update: the battle is getting larger, but the end result will be the same. Is Apple better buying Beats or Netflix? I’d go with Netflix. But still, there will only be a few players in the long run.)
Web Only Content is the minor league of creativity and this is where you nurture the talent. By creating web only shows and teaching young show runners how to create and work a show, you are teaching them what it takes to make a show work. Why not sign talent, given them a tiny budget and let them have at it. There is plenty of talent out there and networks can capitalize on it…provided they grow a set of balls to do so. (update: This is happening. Disney recently purchased maker Studios, Fox made a huge investment in Vice Media and HBO gave them a series, etc.)
Do NOT underestimate the power of the Web as both a work farm and a revenue stream.
This is a tad tricky to be sure and I hate writing about product placement but let’s be honest, it’s where the money is. Characters need to wear clothes, eat and drive cars or motorcycles and why shouldn’t the makers of those products pay for that? Of course they do now, no question, but perhaps maybe networks could get a tad more mileage out of that if they didn’t jam it down our throats coupled with 18 minutes, on average, of adverts per one hour show.
The goal is to have the viewer identify, in some sense, with the people on the screen. And what better way to do that than if they discover little things they like their characters wearing, drinking or whatever. They will seek them out.
Networks need to have more subtle engagement with the viewer and trust the viewer.
There is no denying that this is where much more revenue can be generated.
We’ve been standing at a digital crossroads for years now with every single network staring at that fork in the road waiting to see who goes first or which path is the right path. Well, there is no right path, there is only the path that moves you forward. Despite what they tell us I see very little evidence of progress, in any capacity, in their programming decisions. (update: it has admittedly gotten better, but there is still much room for improvement. The name of the game is to set the precedent and not play catch-up.)
Data shows that we want to watch television. Be it on a mobile device or on a computer, we just want to watch good television.
So, this week begins the carnival that is the upfront season. And on that note, hats off to Kevin Riley at Fox for deciding to eschew the upfront season wisely stating that “The broadcast development system was built in different era with three networks and is highly inefficient. It is nothing short of a miracle that talent can produce anything of quality in that environment.”
Nonetheless, that is what I was thinking about 18 months ago. It’s nice to see some of it taking shape, but network television, believe it or not, is still a very large part of broadcasting. It still has tremendous influence but, as we will continue to see, it will have less so with scripted programming.
To be blunt, the future of broadcast television is in live events, be they scripted or sports while the future of storytelling will be found on the cable outlets.
FURTHER READING 2014: