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At some point aspiring to run a broadcast network went from a sign of ambition to one of insanity. And unfortunately for almost everyone in those jobs, it happened after they’d already accepted their positions. It’s not like they were taking a tour of the offices before signing their contracts and got to see people jumping out of the windows in helpless confusion.
And so they are all — like everyone — witness to the massive shift that seemingly happened overnight but, of course, did not. In the Too Much TV era, everybody has been working with their heads down and either chose to ignore or missed the signs that fundamental, unmanageable change was afoot.
Now that nobody can deny its awfulness from a business standpoint, the fashionable excuse is, “We’re still trying to understand it and don’t want to make any rash decisions about it.”
But let’s set something straight right here: They understand it. Oh, boy, do they understand it.
However, you can’t fault them for tossing their hands up as if presented with an Archimedes TED Talk on Mathematical Insanity and claiming they didn’t comprehend a word. Everybody is embracing uncertainty — the alternative is too depressing and complicated.
Look no further than THR TV Team warrior Lesley Goldberg’s piece on “How ‘Trimmed’ Became the New ‘Canceled'” and you’ll see the problem. In her piece, network heads and insiders talk about why the networks aren’t canceling shows that were either DOA or DOSE — dead on second episode. Instead, they’ve been trimming episode orders.
All that does is delay both the obvious and the inevitable decision to cancel. That time will absolutely come, because pouring money down the drain, while a longtime network habit, isn’t as acceptable down in accounting when most of — not just some of — the shows are ratings garbage fires.
Goldberg’s story detailed the episode order trims on ABC’s Blood and Oil, NBC’s The Player and Truth Be Told, and Fox’s Minority Report. The working theory, she reported, is that network execs think the new world order on ratings — monitoring viewer and demo growth over three, seven or 30 days — is a much more complicated formula than those age-old overnights of the past.
The only problem here is that those execs are lying. Or in denial. Because, as stated above — they know.
This math is not hard math. It’s not TV Industry New World Math that stumps computers. Numbers, to this day, still don’t lie. They might not tell you what you want to hear — that your industry has a severely damaged foundation and the whole thing is framed in balsa wood — but they aren’t deceptive. The patterns are pretty evident. What you once learned by tracking overnight ratings is now the same arc with the same conclusion once you punch in the three-, seven- or (fool yourself all you want) 30-day ratings: The show is dead.
In relative terms, nobody is watching. The demos are terrible. Small spikes in viewership are not something to cling on to, like little handles of hope. They do not change the narrative. The show is dead. It’s underperforming for advertisers. It wasted your promotional budget. It’s not adding new viewers week to week. There is no Lazarus-like moment coming. The show is dead.
Here’s where things get more confusing, and probably sadder. Networks are holding on to some shows because they own them — congratulations, you own a corpse. There is a strand of logic in the industry that ratings woes, advertiser disappointment and network pride can be somehow mollified by stockpiling episodes for streaming purposes, and that if everybody in the company just wrings a disappointing show ferociously it will drip out a few more dollars that justify doing this whole death march again at midseason and next fall.
Here’s a short story about that: No.
For all the Hail Mary digital savior victories out there, the fact is most series can’t be monetized even with lies. They are just failures that pile up, and once everybody goes home for the weekend, the interns are going to stack the bodies in a pile and burn them and no one will hopefully ever speak of those shows again.
Maybe 2015 is the Age of Denial in broadcast television. And it’s fascinating to watch because so few movers and shakers are getting together and trying to figure out how to fix it. Because this isn’t a trend that’s going to be reversed. This is the new normal.
But instead of acceptance, we get euphemisms. “We didn’t cancel that show. We trimmed the episode order.” “Once Jim and Jane in research get a look at the numbers — we’re looking for a trend here, see, it’s super complicated — then we’ll evaluate where to go. But right now it’s too early to be rash.” “We need to study the problem.”
That’s the talk, but the reality is that smash hits — like Fox’s Empire — that hark back to the glory days of Big Four ratings are rare. “Hits” of today that recall “hits” of five years ago are pretty rare, too. But when your job is on the line, it’s natural to shine a light on the outliers. And while freshman shows like NBC’s Blindspot or ABC’s Quantico are healthy enough (right now) to hang with more established shows that perform well in the ratings, the actual story of the broadcast business is that there’s CBS and there’s everybody else. And everybody else is settling, in some way, for diminished returns each calendar year, whether in total viewers or the key demo.
What the broadcast TV industry should be worried about in 2015 (and 2016 and 2017 unless it collectively wakes up) is “all this other stuff.” The failure of “all this other stuff” to be viable in the Too Much TV era means that the model is broken.
It has been broken for a while. It’s just undeniably broken now. And that’s because all five nets want to believe they are broadcasters, when they’re really narrowcasters, or, if you want, cable channels. To make that world work, so much has to change as to be overwhelming (which explains the lack of change).
Yet if these five broadcast channels don’t want to concede that times have changed, that over the course of more than 60 years the industry has evolved and then calcified and now needs to be fundamentally altered — torn apart and reassembled — they can’t be helped (or saved).
But in very practical, simplistic terms, this much is clear: If networks don’t want to scale back their physical operations to look more like cable channels — if they still want to program multiple hours of television over what amounts to six nights each week — they need to first make most of that programming cheaper and then they need to make more of it. It’s the only way to survive with the ratings their shows are now delivering.
If Fox can’t pull Minority Report off the schedule — and don’t kid yourself, that show is dead — because it doesn’t have anything viable to replace it with, then what’s the point here? And that’s not to pick on Fox — most of the networks save CBS are facing this issue. Minority Report was supposed to be a big deal. Now it’s a big, expensive pile of useless parts. Had a system been in place to make cheaper shows and make more of them, built to reflect a drastically reduced audience and lower advertising revenue, failure wouldn’t be so painful and fixes would be more plentiful. As it stands, Minority Report is an unsalvageable chunk of burning dollars clogging up the schedule. Look across the broadcast landscape and that scene is repeating itself at most networks.
The problem in 2015 is that the industry hasn’t retrofitted itself. Nobody made a move to streamline or change the way 60-something years of television production has operated because nobody either had the foresight, the honesty, the power or the fortitude to do it.
There are strong parallels to the auto industry here. Forget the electric car revolution — nobody in broadcast television has even created an untapped sub-category like minivans or SUVs, yet. Well, fine, maybe the “limited series” or “anthology” category is the minivan of the TV industry. We shall see.
But there is no Prius or Tesla yet. Hell, for a first step, maybe something akin to the compact economy line would be nice.
In the meantime, an unwieldy, aging production line is cranking out the same product: expensive, unwanted, wasteful.
Outside of CBS and the rare huge hit, the broadcast television industry is in such disarray and denial that it can’t even kill its failures. What an inert, sad state of affairs.
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