Lost in the Supermarket: How to Survive When There's Too Much Good TV

Danny Huston Magic City - H 2012

Danny Huston Magic City - H 2012

One of the great ongoing mysteries about the television business that keeps intriguing me is failure analysis. I’ve written about it seemingly for ages -- and the problems only get worse or more complicated or more numerous.

How the hell does anyone survive in this business?

That’s pretty much the through-line of these pieces. And one of my current obsessions is how too much of a good thing is hurting everybody -- except viewers. We are well beyond the notion of a 500-channel universe. Hell, most people don’t even know what they get in their cable package. And if you get DirecTV like I do, it’s almost imperative to periodically delete channels just so it cuts down on screen after endless screen when scrolling the guide.

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We are lost in the supermarket of television. There’s no getting around that. Viewing options are endless. And it’s not like there are only a handful -- or even two handfuls -- of networks or channels churning out watchable product. It seems like everybody is in the original-content business and making shows worth watching -- some of them making absolutely great series that demand you watch them.

But not everybody does.

How can they? We are all lost in the supermarket, remember? We are overwhelmed. Freedom of choice is gumming up the works.

Granted, things would be a lot worse if the situation were inverted and we had three channels and four decent shows. Too much of a good or even a great thing is a first-world problem. But how do people deal with that problem?

The main option is to fill the DVR with whatever you’ve heard was terrific. Not having to be in front of the television at the appointed time or on a specific day is just another example of technology making our lives easier -- and making it more miserable for people who are trying to pay for the shows they’re giving you. Once on the DVR, you can sample as you will. Delete what you don’t like, furiously add all the new stuff you’re hearing about. And then the last potentially overwhelming obstacle is to find time to actually watch everything that is stacking up on the DVR.

The other solution, on the far end of the spectrum, is to wait for the DVD. And by this I don’t mean watch it on Netflix or Hulu or iTunes a month after a particular show’s season is over. No, when I said far end of the spectrum I meant way, way, way over there. As in, it’s 2013 and you’ve just discovered The Wire.

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The belief that shows always being around, archived for your viewing pleasure sometime later in life, isn’t actually true, of course. If nobody is watching in the present, shows get canceled. That’s just how most business models work. And it’s why the people who make all this television want you to watch it in real time if possible and, if not, sometime in the seven-day window. (Here you should visualize an executive or a series creator on his or her knees, adding “please, please, please” to the end of that last sentence, with hands pressed together, as if praying.)

I was thinking about this overwhelming problem of overwhelming abundance while watching Orange Is the New Black, which will premiere on Netflix on July 11. The show, a one-hour drama about an upscale woman who goes to prison for 15-months, turns out to be yet another show I really like. Series creator Jenji Kohan (Weeds), has given Netflix another must-see series. As if you needed to know this, Netflix is a serious player in the content business now. My review of Orange Is the New Black will be an exclamation point on that . (The show will premiere in a two-week window where Showtime’s Ray Donovan and FX’s The Bridge will also exist, and those are three series you absolutely need to watch -- three series that could very well end up being great and thus putting an exclamation point on this column.)

But as I watched, I didn’t fear for people not being able to find Kohan’s emerging gem, or have any worry at all about Netflix. Now, compare that to Mitch Glazer’s terrific Magic City on Starz.

At the start of its second season, not enough people are watching or even know about Magic City, which I think is a shame. And part of the problem is that not enough people know about or subscribe to Starz. It’s the abundance thing. And it’s about branding. (It’s also about money, since Starz is a pay cable channel that is trying to do battle with HBO and Showtime and must pry those dwindling dollars out of your pocket by giving you added value above and beyond the latest big-screen movies. And that added value is original scripted television.)

But if you take away the financial element, this is really about branding. You have to pay for Netflix too, but Netflix, which is also competing with HBO and Showtime, is a more popular brand.

And branding is more essential for survival now than it has ever been. Why? Because when you’re lost in the supermarket and overwhelmed with options, what is the most likely default option?

Choosing the brand you know. Selecting the brand that you have faith in. The brand that you trust.

This is the absolutely essential element of survival. HBO, FX, Showtime, CBS -- you know what you’re getting from those brands. And if branding is essential in the modern television age, perhaps the most impressive accomplishment in the lot is CBS. You want to know why CBS is No. 1? Because viewers understand exactly what they’ll get from it. High-end procedurals, broad-based comedies and at least two gold-standard reality series in Survivor and The Amazing Race.

What’s ABC’s brand? What’s NBC’s brand? Fox? Sure, you can probably give all-encompassing, almost-accurate assessments of each but nothing pinpoint. Nothing definitive. That’s because broadcasting as opposed to narrowcasting, or being a niche programmer like cable channels and Netflix, is difficult. It’s why assessing the limited offerings of the CW is easy because it’s both narrowly focused like a cable channel but also well branded.

If the networks want to survive -- and they seem overwhelmed in this battle -- they need to better define their brands.

In the wider world of cable, this is what channels are frantically trying to figure out. It’s not easy. Look at the Sundance Channel. Now that’s a brand name. Indie movies, Robert Redford, film festival -- you can check off all the boxes from what immediately springs to mind. But the channel is in the scripted game and recently offered two excellent choices: the series Rectify and the miniseries Top of the Lake. I’m intrigued by the ongoing branding there, not only because Sundance seems to be going for something visceral -- its dramas look more indie film than “television” -- but also because Sundance is in the same family as AMC and IFC.

You can make a good argument that AMC, with Mad Men and Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead is pretty close to the upper tier of well-branded channels (though series like Hell On Wheels and The Killing haven’t quite reached the same level of critical acclaim). As a branding slogan, dropping “Story Matters Here” for “Something More” seems boneheaded to me. But ultimately viewers are coming to AMC because the channel has been cranking out good dramas since Mad Men revolutionized it.

IFC, formerly the spelled-out Independent Film Channel, is opting for comedies and doing a fine job of it so far with Portlandia and Maron. But Sundance has to be different than AMC while doing much the same thing, so their approach bears watching (the early emphasis seems to be on miniseries). In any case, some kind of clear brand is necessary because both Rectify (renewed for a second season) and Top of the Lake were excellent. Just more options for grateful viewers, though I'm not convinced enough people saw either.

This is a brutal business. That makes it fascinating to watch and analyze but not so thrilling to compete in for survival. Channels can’t rely merely on relentless buzz -- see the superb Orphan Black on BBC America -- to get by. They need to stand out or get pushed out.

But branding is a slow build. And being slow in this insanely competitive television business is one reason more people will ultimately see Orange Is the New Black than Magic City.

How does anyone survive in this business, indeed.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine