Critic's Notebook: Why Network Presidents, More Than Ever, Have the Worst Job in TV

This is Us Still Mandy Moore - Split - Publicity - H 2017
Left, courtesy of Ron Batzdorff, right, Paul Drinkwater, both NBC

There's a journey to everything. The road down which the broadcast networks once strolled, like the boulevards of kings and queens, would make a pretty dramatic movie of the week as it ends in a cul-de-sac of horror.

Wait. Too much?

Cul-de-sac of confusion? Of irrelevance? Of settling?

Honestly, this is not like one of those TCA columns I've written in the past about how all the network presidents are going to be fired eventually; how their programming should, for best results, probably be safe and familiar; how they should "go big or go home" before even getting to the Television Critics Association's press tour; how they should be scolded for not showing up for TCA at all; or how they should be absolved of blame for their inability to fix things.

Actually, that's not true — this one is a little bit like the absolution column, with a twist.

After talking to lots of people in the business about this, I can safely tell you that nobody really wants to run a broadcast network anymore because it's hands-down the hardest job in TV. Running ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and The CW kind of — what's the word? — oh, right, sucks. Not every day, mind you. Since they don’t really program Saturdays, maybe that's a day they feel happy.

It's uncomfortable feeling sorry for people making lots of money and wielding power but, honestly, I do — at least a little bit. What we're talking about here is a job that everybody in this town once coveted and now, if you have it, people hug you sorrowfully at parties.

One day while recording a podcast (yes, I have a podcast about television — who doesn't?), I was faltering for words and inexplicably came up with the expression "dinosaur ship" while trying to explain how difficult it is for broadcast networks to be turned around. Have you ever seen a ship trying to turn around in a tight harbor? Yeah, well now imagine it as a dinosaur…ship.

Anyway, reversing decades of baked-in habits is not easy, and most network presidents are fired before they make changes and so many don't even try. But what the five networks face these days is something so daunting as to defy a beautiful mind.

How do you fix an industry where you almost never get any good Emmy nominations unless you're a comedy? Where critics (ahem) think most of your dramatic work is institutionally constricted to be, at best, good (while random cable channels are churning out prestige dramas, no matter how far off the dollars being spent are from the ratings being earned)? How do you make shows with commercials nobody wants to watch? How do you bring the sexy back to the entity your grandparents watched (and still do) while Netflix and Hulu and Amazon exist in the same world?

Hell, those are the easy questions. How do you compete inside a business model where the cost of doing business was established in a three-network, no-cable, no-streaming era that produced overnight ratings so absurdly massive you could film a clock ticking and still get 27 million people in the key demo?

Last year I believed the broadcast networks were, for the most part, putting shows on their schedules that they absolutely had to — series tied to easily recognizable, pre-proven franchises or ideas so simple to sell that one picture could tell the story. In short, the networks had to make series that didn't need to break a sweat to stand out because nobody was going to give them, in this insanely crowded and wonderfully creative Platinum Age of Television, a chance to take chances.

And they did that.

And that did not work.

Were there successes? Sure. I think CBS knows how to make money in a down market of any kind. I have said, repeatedly, it's the best-run network. CBS doesn’t make many shows I want to watch, but that's not the point. I think, for the last several years, The CW has made the best network dramas and, like CBS, has been successfully laser-focused on its brand, its core audience. I do like CW shows. In the new world of international sales, OTT deals, voodoo and magical thinking, maybe all five networks are making money. I think the shell games as they relate to financials and bean counting are more complicated than I care to follow in an effort to prove otherwise, so until one of them goes out of business, I'll buy that they've all made a few pennies more than they've spent. Also, I don't really care. Not about profits or ratings. I care about quality; it's really the only thing a critic should care about when evaluating a series.

But unlike most other critics, I do write about the industry, and there's absolutely no getting around the fact that the network television industry is not robust. Ratings are down and have been trending down for years. Many cable channels have higher ratings for series that were often made for less money. Other than some top-tier comedies (yes, I like a lot of network comedies) and the rare drama like This Is Us or Jane the Virgin or American Crime, you don’t hear much buzz about network shows. They aren't sexy. They aren't in the zeitgeist. It could be argued that a lot of shows are "popular" — but they are also dumb. There are very few smart, high-quality and "popular" network shows. People talk about The Handmaid's Tale or Game of Thrones or FX's stable or various Netflix offerings (it's always Netflix that people seem to talk about — it's never broadcast anymore); discussions around television vigorously ignore network shows, particularly dramas.

At TCA, for the most part, the fall network offerings are virtually buzz-free. If people are talking about network series for this coming fall, they are doing so with hissing tongues.

That is not good.

There is an ominous sense that the fall season will be creatively terrible. I cannot fathom what that will do for the reputation of network television but, given its current state, I'd say — wild guess — it will complicate the turnaround.

How do you fix a mess that appears on the verge of being messier? I'm not sure. Thankfully, that's not my job. And I'm not ready to weigh in on network fare just yet — that is part of my job, and I'll slog through the task when the time comes and not a moment earlier. But apart from the reviewer aspect and squarely in the industry analysis part, I will say this much about the schedule: I would have put a lot more reality programming on it.

Yes, there are the mainstays in series like The Voice, Dancing With the Stars, Survivor, Shark Tank, newer entries like To Tell the Truth and, of course, the NFL (plus, later, retreads like American Idol), but I would have expected some network to do more zagging while others were zigging, since taking a chance on an inexpensive but creative unscripted series is in the historic DNA of the industry.

And, yes, everybody wants to have a musical. That's good. Not the copying so much as the variation. But it works.

So, why not more and different? Again, the lack of fresh reality programming on schedules that aren't exactly turning the dinosaur ship around seems a little stunning and lazy.

I was waiting for someone to come up with a political reality show this year. Kind of a no-brainer, really. Any kind of series in this mold — the mind reels with potential ideas. Given what the country has endured from the real world, perhaps something aspirational like Oprah would do. What about a reality show where you build the next best politician from scratch? Two "teams" representing Democrats and Republicans or, if you like pipe dreams, a third party. Political specialists. Seasoned advisors. Each side creating, from a pool of willing citizens, a newly minted candidate who wants to "create change in America." Less a "makeover" show than a bake-from-scratch slice of feel-good Americana, a series built around groups of eager, dedicated and hopeful contestants that are winnowed down to one candidate from each team who, in the finale, readies to enter a real race.

Go ahead and tell me that person wouldn’t garner tons of media attention, blow up on social media — Tom Hanks would play them in a future movie! — and, who knows, maybe win a city council seat, a small-town mayor's race or be your new local representative to Congress.

Far, far weirder things have happened.

Go ahead and send me that check.

Getting back to the larger point — I think this lack of reality programming is a mistake. And I think, if yet another season of scripted shows fail to lift off, it will finally be remedied. You know, by the new network president.

It's just a thought. And it probably won't help. That ship, it's a dinosaur that doesn't want to be turned around. But if you're in the hardest job in Hollywood — a job nobody really seems to want anymore — doing something different in a desperate bid to change your fate seems like not a terrible idea.

But hell, don't look at me. You were fool enough to take the job.