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If FX chief John Landgraf had the option today, he wouldn’t dream of green-lighting the acclaimed drama series Damages.
“You’d be crazy to make [a show like that],” Landgraf told an audience gathered for The Hollywood Radio and Television Society’s cable chiefs newsmaker luncheon at the Beverly Hilton on Wednesday. It was not a knock on quality, he noted, but rather a commentary on the challenges that technology has presented for the television business. A complex, heavily serialized show like Damages is often better-suited for pirated or DVR viewing, which makes it a struggle to fully monetize.
For every ratings disappointment like Damages on the cable dial, however, there is at least one more Nielsen juggernaut like AMC’s Walking Dead to crow about. In fact, with continued ratings records and a profitable financial model to tout, those running cable networks are, in many ways, the envy of their industry. For that reason, the four panelists — Landgraf, BET’s Loretha Jones, Showtime’s David Nevins and USA’s Jeff Wachtel — used the hourlong conversation to argue that the difference between broadcast and cable television is now more philosophical than it is real.
But you shouldn’t expect any of them to start dancing on broadcast’s grave anytime soon. Despite frequent talk about Conan O’Brien’s move to TBS and Oprah Winfrey’s launch of the OWN network being watershed moments for the cable industry, the executives suggested such proclamations were overstated.
“I think cable has become an incredibly vibrant business,” said Landgraf, “but I don’t think the broadcast networks are going away anytime soon.” And, it is worth noting, he doesn’t want them to die. With his fellow panelists nodding in agreement, Landgraf acknowledged that the broadcast networks are in the process of fixing their model with retransmission fees. “You still need a top predator in the ecosystem.”
Jones admitted the lack of African American-themed programming on broadcast networks in recent years has proved a significant challenge for BET because there is little off-network content to buy. When she arrived at the network some two years ago, she quickly realized that she was without off-net offerings geared to her niche and struggled to find a way to program the network. “It forced us to create BET studios and produce our own shows,” she said. Her network is now riding high with the commercial success of one of the first efforts, The Game, which was revived from the scrap yard of the CW.
While cheerful about those 7.7 million viewers who tuned in for The Game’s premiere in January or the ongoing popularity of MTV’s Jersey Shore, the executives were also realistic about the challenges that lie ahead.
Among them, according to Wachtel, is the ongoing issue of not only luring an audience to his shows but also counting and monetizing those viewers. Though he recognizes the value of making USA content available to viewers wherever and whenever they are, he is kept up at night by the financial complexities of having so many viewing alternatives (DVR, Hulu, Netflix, iTunes).
Landgraf agreed, arguing that the better the programming is, the more likely it is to be time-shifted or pirated. “It hurts the best of the best,” he explained.
The remainder of the hour was dominated by praise for shows (The Game, Walking Dead, FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and networks (AMC, CBS and History) that have found a way to successfully navigate television’s changing landscape.
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