Critic's Notebook: At TCA Summer Press Tour, Fear of Failure With a Dash of Denial

The consensus after a week of the TCA summer press tour is that big changes are coming, but cable channels (and streamers) all seem to think the damage will be suffered by the others.
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Kevin Reilly, president of TBS and TNT

The first week of the Television Critics Association's summer press tour, mostly centering on cable, is over, and the word in the wind is that death is coming for everybody else.

Yay?

It's not cheery, and not even entirely true — all of those entities that feel safe face big challenges of their own that they don't seem ready to acknowledge — but as 2017 slowly shuffles off toward the end, it's true enough that there's bleakness afoot for the weak among us.

I talked to a number of execs before TCA — and more while here — and there are varying degrees of hope and worry. What's interesting is that everybody believes change is coming, but they don't agree on how bad it will be. Many do believe that the worst possible hell on earth is running a broadcast network.

Small mercies.

Netflix and Amazon aren't coming this year and Showtime and FX will appear later, but if you're scanning for patterns you don't need all the cable channels and streamers to storm through the TCA's "cable portion" of the tour in lock-step. The modern world of mergers and vertical integration makes that an antiquated idea. There was enough early representation at TCA to see some trends, some worries of the mind.

The streamer that arguably had the best year and biggest forward movement, Hulu, was here. Two of the top three premium channels — HBO and Starz — were here. And two of the three most important ad-supported cable outlets — AMC and Turner — were here. As mentioned, FX and Showtime will arrive in the coming days to complete the story — and that story can't be written until John Landgraf from FX checks in, he of the "Peak TV" coinage and, for many years running now, arguably the smartest person in the room.

Netflix and Amazon not being here is slightly disappointing, if only because I could have sat through an hour of them explaining away why they don't promote their shows well enough. (And while that doesn't matter so much to them, it matters to people making shows for them, so that's a festering wound to be monitored if you like failure analysis as much as I do). Alas, some other time.

The big picture for those who have blown through here already is they believe — rightly, I think — that brands matter and the big (Turner, as an example) and beloved (HBO, as an example) will survive. Smaller channels are in peril.

What's interesting is that the discussion has moved away, ever so slightly, from "Peak TV" providing "too much television" and how viewers at home (or critics in the room) will handle that burden. It's now a darker, more ominous narrative about how that glut will actually bring companies and channels to their knees and their end. It's about how the machines fail.

Kevin Reilly, president of TNT and TBS — who has been around the block several times with stints at FX, NBC and Fox, and who is also very visionary about the industry — said critics would still be covering an unrelenting amount of series but from fewer entities. (This is something I've already written about, so I concur). When pressed, he was blunt.

Question: "So what does that mean? Are you saying that networks are just going to drop off the map or stop doing..."

Reilly: "Yes."

Question: "…original programming because they can't afford it?"

Reilly: "Yes."

Well, OK then.

For clarity, Reilly mostly means cable networks (the terms "channel" and "network," like grander English words before them, are now hopelessly mangled), and not broadcast networks. Then again, who knows on that front? The networks will wobble in here soon enough to defend themselves.

Nobody knows what Reilly was thinking but not saying in regards to media companies owning tons of channels that might, you know, not make it, but you don't have to look far in the current landscape to see that some outlets have messy portfolios. Take Viacom, for example — the conglomerate that owns Paramount-branded entities like production companies Paramount Studios, Paramount Television and the Paramount Network (which will officially launch in January, out of the ashes of the Spike channel brand). Viacom also owns MTV, BET, VH1, TV Land, Comedy Central, Logo, CMT, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr. and whatever else I'm forgetting. The question is whether that's too many channels that can reasonably be sustained, especially if you want to put scripted programming on some of them.

Who knows? But the go-to tale of survival I heard was that a solid brand matters, not a portfolio of off-brands or underperforming brands. Take from that what you will.

One exec told me that it's hard to see a future where ad-supported anything existed, and wondered about the toll it would take on channels not named FX and AMC.

That's a bit bleak. Or is it not?

Streamers seem confident they are the future and that the coming years in cable television will be marked by bloody and endless contraction.

Also bleak. But the future arguably seems to be right now, which makes putting the doom off by a couple of years seem … optimistic?

Premium cable channels, on the other hand, believe their combination of traditional subscribers and OTT streamers is a balance that straddles both the present and future — and that, more importantly, they are a key component in MVPDs like AT&T/DirecTV and Comcast maintaining their user base.

In lieu of any of this yet coming true, everybody seems to be partnering up. Starz merged with Lionsgate. Epix, which also came through TCA with its third scripted series, Get Shorty, used to be a joint venture between MGM, Lionsgate and Paramount, but is now wholly owned by MGM. See above for how Paramount dragged Spike out back and sacrificed it for the company good — or at least the company name.

You don't have to be a genius to see the people who are the most confident about their survival are aligned with other companies, or are the shiniest jewel in a collection of semi-precious entities. But you can also see that everybody thinks it's someone else who will fail or has more to worry about.

And that can't be true, can it? Surely everybody has a weakness they fear will be exploited.

HBO, Starz and the yet-to-arrive Showtime must be worried every night about Netflix and Hulu and Amazon in some capacity, yes? Everybody streaming everything. All of that development money. The sexiness of being the new thing. They must be worried, right?

And Netflix, Hulu and Amazon must, on some level, be worried about Apple, right? Apple is about to jump into the TV business and, oh God, the chlorine in the eyes from that splash. That should also worry HBO, Starz and Showtime, yes? Competitive craziness. Cash blowing down empty freeways. It's a cinematic nightmare.

And if you're an ad-supported cable channel? Sure, Turner — with TNT and TBS — has a good brand name to fall back on, as do FX and AMC and a few others with a solid track record of quality. But who wants to watch ads? And if streaming is the future but you're tied to the cable tracks in the last act of the MVPDs, what then?

Shivers and shudders — it all sounds so worrisome.

But nah, everybody thinks the other guy has got it worse. I love this town's positive thinking. All that chakra-centric focus, all those cleanses, all that kale, all that yoga; everybody thinks they'll live forever, while preaching the doom of others.

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