Tim Goodman's TCA Journal No. 4: Cable Channels, Try Not to Drown While Testing Scripted Waters

WEtv The Divide - H 2014

WEtv The Divide - H 2014

The Hollywood Reporter's chief TV critic Tim Goodman will be filing a series of journals from the Television Critics Association's summer press tour, looking at the bigger picture, unspinning the spin or crushing the life out of things.

After a year of going on and on about what "Too Much TV" or "Peak TV" really means – lots of amazing choices for viewers, lots of extra work for critics, etc. – with the occasional diversion into parsing whether having too much of anything is really a problem – the reckoning has arrived on the horizon.

You don't even have to squint to see it.

What that means for broadcast networks, cable channels and digital outlets is vastly different, but since the last main day of cable vanished Monday at the TCAs (though more channels will arrive later), that's the focus now. 

The bottom line is this: Nobody I've talked to in the industry currently understands how it will shake out in the next two months, much less the next two years. But they do expect a number of outlets who recently or currently jumped into the scripted game to get tossed out on their asses when the money and the numbers don't make enough sense and the dollar ends up ruling the day.

As it's wont to do.

The problem is exactly what it's always been, if by "always" we mean the last three years: There's too much television. Viewers/consumers can't keep up with it and thus can't find it and end up not watching it. This is a base-level economic decision. This goes way beyond the "they are watching it a month or more later" truisms. No, this falls squarely within the much uglier realm of "they've never heard of it and will never watch it."

That's a huge problem. That's a you're-dead problem. It's been inevitable but now it's here.

So, who gets out of this alive?

Probably not the channels getting into the scripted business yesterday. Probably not anyone without very deep pockets. Probably not anyone with deep pockets but a fidgety set of executives who were dubious about getting into scripted in the first place. The bubble is going to burst and it's going to wipe out the broke and the squeamish pretty damned quickly.

Chris Albrecht, who has been in the business a long time, first running HBO in its heyday and now running Starz as he's successfully made that premium channel a major player in scripted, admits these are strange days. "It is wild and I've never experienced anything like it," Albrecht said, answering my question at a panel. "I'm swimming upstream just like everyone else is."

"It would be nice to have $6 billion to spend on programming," he added, the second time in two days that a cable head has thrown shade at Netflix's outrageous budget (Charlie Collier who runs AMC and Sundance TV was the other). "Probably makes the job a little easier – just a guess after having been in the business a long time."

One of the biggest issues facing everybody in the industry is just getting their content noticed, no matter how much is spent on it or how much of it there is. Even with massive ad budgets, social media chatter, big stars and awards recognition, sometimes people just don't show up. Look at Emmy-nominated, critically-acclaimed Mr. Robot on USA, which just went into its second season as hot as anything on television and promptly failed to equal its first season haul with live-plus-same-day and even gains in L+3 and L+7 are not going to be a salve for what must be some big broken dreams at USA Network.

If Mr. Robot, freshly nominated for six Emmys including best drama and  lead actor (Rami Malek) and can't move the needle, what does that say to all the others getting into scripted – including newbies Epix and Pop, who came through TCAs on Saturday and Sunday, or even a powerhouse like National Geographic, which touted its upcoming scripted series Mars?

In short, it says, "Good luck with that"  – and add your own favorite swear word between good and luck.

But Pop and Epix are not the only channels getting into scripted. The easiest way to list those who are is to simply say "everybody" and be done with it. I wrote about this issue (and the cable glut of smaller players) six months ago and not only is it not going away  –  it's getting worse.

More scripted, more problems.

Why? Because more choice creates fewer viewers and fewer viewers means less money.

Even subscription-based channels and digital outlets are going to feel the effects of excessive choice, because even though Amazon, Hulu, HBO, Showtime and Starz have done an excellent job of using apps to target a new market of less wealthy and younger people who either couldn't afford a full cable package or have always preferred streaming, the fact is that subscriptions are not forever. People can and will cancel if they feel like there are more (good) options elsewhere. And yes, the reason Netflix can spend $6 billion on programming is because it's the one true international content provider and every time it puts a stake in foreign ground it makes more money – if there's a demise coming for Netflix it won't be anytime soon.

Everybody else has got problems to deal with right now:

       1. Get noticed.

2. Stay noticed.

3. Get paid.

       4. And hold the hell on while others fall off and give up around you.

None of the first three are easy. Everybody at cable channels I've talked to is fully aware that the first two are insanely hard. For the third, ad-supported cable channels (and broadcast networks too – but more on them another day) need to own their own content. That's essential. Premium cable channels and digital outlets need to keep finding ways to sign up new viewers – Starz and Showtime have been particularly effective in circumventing the traditional cable-package route.

But the last element – staying alive in all of this craziness when literally no one knows how to manage it, what will fundamentally change forever or what might revert to some semblance of normal operating procedures circa 2010 – will likely come down to brand strength.

That's not a super-thrilling business hack, but it's true. Fine-tuning and/or redefining those brands will be essential. People will go where they know what they will find when they get there.

In the cable scripted world, HBO (though to a far lesser extent Cinemax), Showtime, Starz, FX, AMC, PBS, TNT/TBS, Comedy Central and probably Syfy (and we could haggle about some others) can rely on their reputations and/or content attraction. The three premium channels, especially now that HBO has restocked its pipeline a bit, have a history of strong content. FX is arguably the best curated and most reliable cable channel in the business. AMC (and sister channels BBC America and Sundance TV) are strong; PBS is a legacy brand with new vitality; TNT and TBS were already signature brands before Kevin Reilly began to revolutionize the content of both; Comedy Central has really blossomed with its comedy brand; and while Syfy might still be looking for a defining hit, people know what they're going to get there.

In the digital world, Netflix will be Netflix until proven otherwise, and it will grow internationally. There's a good argument that Hulu is now a more defined brand than Amazon (meaning Amazon Studios, and making that distinction kind of proves the point) despite the latter having Transparent and Catastrophe.

Where things get murky when it comes to branding and scripted is whether gigantic, known brands like Discovery and National Geographic, where people traditionally go for unscripted, can pull an audience. They have the benefits of deep pockets and odds are they will continue to press in that direction if they are hell-bent on expanding, but you have to wonder if Nat Geo's Mars or Discovery's Harley and the Davidsons doesn't get an audience whether we'll see them in the game or not in a few years. I doubt they'll quit if scripted diversion is what they want, but it can't be ruled out either if the audience prefers that they stick to what they do best.

The really interesting question is what happens to Lifetime, WGN America, OWN, USA and all the other channels who were relatively new to scripted a few years ago and are still keeping up with vastly mixed results. This tier – and there are plenty of others on it – is the one with the most erosion ahead. One or more may get out of scripted all together like We TV  (which is, whether you think so or not, a pretty huge entity). It ramped up and then out (unless it's not completely out, which also wouldn't be surprising).

All the other middle tiers that have good shows, but don't have the long-term track record of a (new) reputation to fall back on when their shows either go sideways or brighter lights pop up elsewhere for viewers, are in real trouble. Decisions about changing course will absolutely be on the table, sooner rather than later. Keeping an eye on their brand reinventions or retrenchment will be intriguing in the next few years.

Of course, the most vulnerable of all cable channels doing scripted are the places like Spike, Pop, Pivot, Esquire, El Rey, etc. – small channels most people either don't watch or can't accurately say whether or not they exist in their cable bundle. People pay for a lot of channels they don't know they have – that's an old fact. Creating shows that make them aware of the niche channels they are paying for – series that outshine hundreds of others – is not a proven business strategy, which is a new fact. At least for television.

The winnowing is coming. Your only hope of surviving it is your brand.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine