Critic's Notebook: Why Being Critical of Broadcast Television Matters

Despite the sad state of affairs that the upfronts couldn't truly mask, some smart moves might be happening with the networks.
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Not a job I'd want, but an industry worth covering critically.

Now that the cavalcade of audacious dreaming is over — aka the network upfronts — what does it all mean?

No, really, that's an actual question. Other than broadcast networks presenting their new shows and selling them and spinning and maybe even lying in the process, what is the take-away from this last week of circus-hoopla? What happens now to this most interesting of businesses?

The short answer is probably "more of the same, only worse than before."

Of course that will only make even more people think I'm a cynical buzz-kill out to ruin everyone's good fun — conclusions they might have reached by reading my last critic's notebook or, for that matter, a lot of stuff I've written for the past decade.

But here's a truism for you: The most fascinating thing right now in all of television — and believe me, there are so many intriguing take-aways throughout the industry — is monitoring the state of network television.

And there are not that many left doing it, at least not critically.

Why? Because it's not sexy. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu — all the streaming services are the sexy of today. FX, HBO, Showtime, AMC, Starz — all the cable channels attracting the most talented creators and visionaries remain sexy and interesting. But broadcast networks are not even yesterday's sexy thing. They are a thing you carbon-date.

Writing about the state of broadcast television — and by that I mean covering it critically, not cheerleading for its stars or fan-boying up its soapy dramas or gif-girling on its best comedies — is not going to win you a lot of friends because, seriously, most of the news and much of the content coming out of it is not very good.

But I'd argue that it's important and, if you like failure-analysis, intriguing. Still, it's not super exciting and it's almost impossible to be upbeat about the industry if you've been paying actual attention, but it's valuable nonetheless. Broadcast network television is the foundation of all of television — the ur-business of the industry, the IBM before the Apple. Right now its vaults hold the largest percentage of accrued culture in the medium.

Also, right now broadcast television is one feisty-ass entity. From CBS' Leslie Moonves boasting that ad money is leaving digital and coming back to broadcast to every entertainment president arguing that breakout hits still confirm networks are where the most eyeballs are — and that's worth paying for, everybody's aggressively on point. If you work in broadcast television right now, your talking points memo is that reports of your death are very premature.

And yet, whoa.

No amount of spin can counter the diminished ratings (the ones that have people using words like "end times" after reporting them on Twitter), the yearly lack of breakout hits and how difficult it is to actually maintain what generously might be considered a hit not only from the start to the end of the season (where the show might be better called "on the bubble") but from season to season, where further drops are often forthcoming.

I've detailed a lot of the issues the networks face — a lengthy list — and watched while some improvements have come (shorter seasons; anthologies, etc.) and some dumb decisions continue (shell-game shifting of times and days, particularly with new series, etc.).

This latest upfronts overload of hype brought some good and bad into focus. For starters, if network sales teams can get Madison Avenue to pay the same rates as before on diminished ratings returns — I'm very dubious that this is the case — then godspeed. It's not my money. The entire television industry, not just broadcast, has been very good at shifting the discussion away from both overnight ratings and Nielsen-only ratings to other quantifiable metrics that have nudged dollars out of pockets, so that alone is an amazing achievement.

But beating back digital ad buying (whether its hammering home accuracy and accountability or ad effectiveness) is a minor victory. Streaming services Amazon, Netflix and even part of Hulu, with its no-ad premium offer, are not competing for network ad dollars; neither is HBO, Showtime or Starz. Ad-supported cable (and the influx of cable channels producing very good content) remains broadcast's biggest financial issue. Given that many niche channels are producing ratings equal to or better than network offerings means the frontline of the dollar wars is and remains with cable.

No, the bigger-picture issue confronting the broadcast networks, one I think they appeared to uniformly address in this upfronts, is the choice/time conundrum that's central to virtually everyone's life. Meaning, people are now overwhelmed with choice in television and they don't have the time to watch all of the choices they are given.

Choice/time is the main driver for reduced ratings across the board. That's irrefutable. Poor quality is also part of that, but plenty of bad shows get good ratings. Systemic network issues like trust — viewers know that networks cancel series at an alarming percentage and thus wait or don't opt in at all — are also in play. (Netflix drops entire seasons, which is an advantage, and both Amazon and Hulu are new enough to not have bad reputations around mid-run cancellations). But mostly too many choices and not enough time is the culprit here.

Which is why I think networks did, for the most part, something smart this year. They doubled-down on familiarity, whether it was Dick Wolf or spinoffs or identifiable franchise names. Because there's a paralysis that can come from too much choice and some people will revert to what they know rather than experiment with something new. I'm not saying that's the best strategy for quality, but I don't really look to network television to meet my quality expectations unless it's a comedy. I look to it for entertainment, as do most of its remaining viewers.

Familiarity at the network level is a plus. Shorter seasons also will help it. Better and more original unscripted content is absolutely due for a comeback. Live shows — everybody wants to do a musical — and sports continue to work. I still think there's plenty that can go right at the network level with some innovation.

That doesn't negate the fact that there are massive structural problems still in place, plus years of repeated boneheaded mistakes (both in programming and scheduling). It's early yet, but there are signs that the financial structure — so out of whack vs. cable or, for that matter, international series — is getting adjusted and in-check. (A must, despite all the institutional barriers.) Fear continues its stranglehold on the people making the most important decisions — more gut, less data, please. You're going to get fired eventually anyway (and yes, they know that).

So despite what it might seem like, I'm not trying to bury broadcast television. Hell, it's almost getting that underdog likability to it. But neither am I going to sugarcoat or buy what its executives are selling in public (and I learned that by having it told to me by the best in the business — Moonves). Broadcast television will forever be fascinating because there's no manual on how to run it or, these days, save it. In the last decade, it has never been further behind the proverbial eight ball.

It's currently in that position mostly of its own doing. And it deserves the scorn and cynicism that come from repeated failure.

I love covering that failure. But being there for a smart comeback wouldn't be a bad deal, either. And that's all the optimism I've got until I see proof.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine

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