TCA Journal No. 3: Stop Blaming Entertainment Presidents for Network Failures. What?

Les Moonves - H 2016
Getty Images

Les Moonves - H 2016

Chief TV critic Tim Goodman will be writing these journal entries throughout the Television Critics Association's winter press tour, offering insight, analysis, big-picture perspective and snark from the two-week event.

There comes a point in talking about broadcast networks being unsustainable dinosaurs that it's no longer interesting; waiting for the inevitable brick crumbling isn’t nearly as thrilling when you watch it live.

Maybe in some not-too-distant year there will be a supercut of ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and The CW crumbling into dust as a chyron of plummeting ratings numbers and Madison Avenue complaints sits underneath it.

The reckoning is coming unless the five networks band together to help offset it, but at this point everybody is just whistling past the graveyard and trying to blow loud enough to drown out the doomsayers.

In the meantime, a couple of interesting things have happened. The first is more tangible: cord-cutting and big channels/companies being amenable to over-the-top options and “skinny bundles” means smaller cable channels will be dying off a lot sooner than broadcast networks. The second major change is coming on more subtly: an erosion of the historical pattern of network presidents taking all the blame. 

You may recall that entertainment president at a broadcast network is a terrible job. Well, not terrible in the sense that you make a lot of money and control the creative content at a network. But not-particularly-great in that you’ll eventually be fired or, if you’re lucky enough to work at CBS, moved onto a bigger pasture. But someone is always waiting to take your job and history has proven that you’ll be fired 90-something percent of the time unless, as noted, you happen to be at the only network that consistently gets an audience year to year.

But things appear to be changing. In a strange twist to the degeneration of the broadcast model, the fate of the network is no longer in the hands of the entertainment president.

More accurately: No network entertainment president can single-handedly destroy a network in the ratings by creating a schedule so terrible that people flee to other networks. That’s how it used to be — you were fired when you couldn’t find the hits anymore and your development slate was horrendous. It happened to a lot of people.

But in this current climate, the effectiveness of a slate of new (and midseason) shows is not the end-all because the audience is no longer big enough to make it so. Meaning, the five broadcast networks have been playing with a diminished audience and a declining sellable demographic for so long that they’re slicing ever-thinner pieces of the pie, offset ever-so-rarely by a big hit.

Worse, for them, the onslaught of scripted fare in the last few years and the concomitant expansion of channels providing that content has further diluted the available audience. People have an overwhelming number of choices from a wide range of outlets — networks, cable, streaming. They are distracted. They aren’t loyal. They are AWOL.

All of this means that network presidents are no longer the primary target for blame when their networks don’t measure up, because this is an institutional problem and the people who need to fix that are, strangely enough, higher up the food chain, corporate-wise. Bigger, lesser-known, lower-profile business wonks are the ones who have failed to address the problem starting at least a decade ago. The failure to make changes to the infrastructure and introduce strategies for surviving an unlevel playing field and laughably antiquated practices are not the fault of the network presidents.

So, breathe, everybody. All you can do is work with what you’ve got and try to create some compelling television with your normal FCC-content restrictions and your enormous number of programmable hours and outrageous fees and cast costs and unreasonable 22-episode seasons. Everything will be fine.

But seriously, wrapping one’s head around this change will be difficult. Those of us still left covering the industry as well as functioning as critics don’t have to go back very many TCAs to find columns predicting that so and so will be fired or that sagging ratings were so and so’s fault. Ahem. It had been that way for so long, it’s hard to blame us for the habit. But there isn’t one entertainment president at a broadcast network who can fix what’s wrong with the broadcast television industry. Not one.

They can band together and collude — something they should absolutely do in secret, probably in New York and Los Angeles — and try to work together to make a dent in the problem. For instance, the cost structure is out of balance compared to cable, which makes failures all the more damaging. And changing the structure of the season — scripts, casting, pilots, the fall launch, upfronts, ownership issues, summer season, etc. — needs to be put in the woodshed, or think tank, or Hampton’s hideaway, until smart, workable changes are made in unison.

It won't be easy. And it won’t ultimately be up to entertainment presidents to make that happen. They need to participate, obviously, but that kind of stuff gets moved way up the chain into Les Moonves Land and the like. Those are the kinds of people who can start implementing the massive changes needed to turn the dinosaur into oil.

In the meantime, the former fall guys — the men and women who are network entertainment/chairman level — can probably stop looking up at the guillotine.

It’s not all on you anymore.


Twitter: @BastardMachine