White Noise

“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”
– Grouch Marx

Here we sit on the cusp of the annual network television circle jerk, or as it is known in the industry, the up fronts. For the uninitiated, that is where the networks all pitch advertisers about their new fall programming in the hopes of locking in advertising revenue. The largest source of hilarity about this annual dog and pony show is that both networks and advertising agencies think that viewers will actually give a crap about the crap they have slammed together.

For the most part, we don’t. The only people who care about this are the ad agencies and the networks.

What we want is good television programming and that doesn’t seem to be a priority for the networks. So God only knows what sort of mediocre to awful tripe they are going to offer up this year. I’m sure NBC will lead the charge because they have the most to prove and yet have proven time and time again their programming department is either completely inept or…or…actually, I am pretty sure they are completely inept. ABC and CBS will probably stay the course and offer up shows similar to what is proving successful for them. FOX is always a wildcard and with Seth MacFarlane getting at least another 30 minutes of FOX programming, don’t expect too much change there either. Once again, all eyes will be on NBC and once again, I suspect NBC will completely fail to deliver. If any network makes a case for cord cutting, it is NBC.

Much hullabaloo has been spoken and written about over the past few years regarding this proverbial “cutting the cord” concept and, while inevitable, I still feel we’re a few years from any sort of mass severing. The technology exists where you can watch your favorite shows via other channels, Apple TV, Roku, Netflix, iTunes, etc. (albeit at times, kinda spotty) which leaves network television and their minions in a real pickle. You see, they are still holding on to the paradigm that if they put it on TV people will watch it at that moment. That just doesn’t hold any weight anymore. We’ll watch it…if it’s good…and when we have the time to do so.

Bob Lefsetz recently wrote about some of this and I have to say I agree with a lot of it. However, he claims that cable television is going to crumble and crumble quickly. This, I do not agree with. I DO think traditional broadcast networks like NBC, CBS, ABC and FOX simply can’t seem to get out of their own way and unless they re-think their business model and re-align their focus, they’re fucked. It’s that simple. But cable television is still providing the more compelling scripted programming. They are allowing and fostering more creativity whereas the big four are basically trying to find ways to screw the other one. That is not to say that eventually cable will crumble, it will. But not before the big four.

Will streaming crush broadcast media? Not in the short term. Eventually? Yes, it will. Netflix is a force to be reckoned with. Disregard the noise coming from Wall Street about Netflix, they will dominate…for a little longer. I recently had one NBC executive guffaw at my praise of “House of Cards” saying “Oh you mean the 100 million dollar gamble?” Yes, it was 100 million dollars…for 26 episodes of a show starring a Hollywood A-list actor, produced by a Hollywood A-list director, directed and written by some of the best people working in Hollywood today. How much do you think NBC has spent trying to fill the 10pm slot that housed the broadcasting abortion that was the 10pm Jay Leno variety show, with infinitely lesser talents? Trust me, they’ve spent well over 100 million dollars trying to fill that and have yet to yield a hit there. Netflix original programming, so far, has been top notch and I don’t see that trend of quality waning anytime soon. Nonetheless, I think the streaming models of Netflix, and Amazon, will grow and become the destination for more intelligent scripted programming, bypassing traditional broadcast and cable outlets.

So where does that leave advertisers and their broadcast television teat suckers?

The future for broadcast television is with live sporting events and with reality and unscripted programming. That is the plain and simple truth. They both have an inherent sense of immediate viewing, which isn’t there for scripted shows. Networks can charge top dollar to advertisers for live events. Sports fans are sports fans and they need to see the game or event live.

As much as I bash NBC, I will say the rolling up of all their sports nets into NBC Sports was a good move and they actually have a leg up with both the Olympics and Sunday Night Football. They also have a bunch of niche channels which will yield some decent dividends in the long run (admittedly, the long run is not something any network is good at…Corporatism at its best). While I may think starting the Olympics a day early is dumb, maybe they have data that suggests otherwise. I doubt it. I suspect it is just a money grab which smells of desperation. But unscripted programming, much like sports,  have that sense of immediacy built into them which could serve them well.

The giant wild card in all of this is the baby boomer generation and NOT the 18-34 demographic. You know, the baby boomers? The demographic no one wants to talk about but the one that is poised to sustain every industry for the next 20-30 years. Advertisers and networks are still holding on that ideal that the 18-34 demographic is the key one to grab. Their logic is that if they can get them young they can build brand loyalty with them. I’m not sure how they keep missing this, but that demo doesn’t have brand loyalty. In fact, I am not sure loyalty is even part of their vernacular.

Historically, CBS has always been perceived as the old fogey network, which in this case should to carry them through the budding baby boomer explosion. If the rest of the networks had half a brain, and all evidence points to the contrary, they’d be building shows around the boomer interests, be they scripted or unscripted. More than likely, the boomers viewing habits will stay the same. Which is to say that they will continue to rely on the “talking box” to get their information and entertainment whereas the current 18-34 group is all over bejesus getting their information. The reason to work within the baby boomer demographic and build off of them is two fold. One, there is simply more potential eyeballs and therefore, revenue and two, it would allow time for nets to develop an exit strategy.

There is a lot of white noise surrounding the discussion of what the future of television will look like. Will it be a la carte, will there be massive cord cutting, is streaming the future, yadda yadda yadda. The truth is, no one knows and don’t let them tell you otherwise. BUT in order to look ahead, one can not look behind, those days are over. It appears that networks learned nothing from the collapse of the recording industry. If the networks had a theme song, it would be “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen.

If you really want to see where we are headed, look to a few bigger digital players, like Google, Apple and Amazon to see what they are futzing around with and the companies they are buying. History shows us there will only be a few key players in the long run for broadcasting and it simply won’t be NBC, CBS, ABC or FOX.

(For those wondering who that photo is of, that is John Logie Baird, the inventor of the television.)