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There is no element of the television industry more intriguing at this point than the broadcast networks and their fascinating slow death. The Big Four — ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC — have had their heads in the sand about the complicated future they face. Only one of them, CBS, appears able to thrive working under the old truisms and rules that governed the industry for 50-plus years.
And there’s no guarantee that will continue.
Ratings continue to be down, and there’s an unsettling inability to reverse the trend. Each season the bar that measures how many millions of viewers in the 18-49 demo constitutes a “hit” gets lowered. Cable series such as The Walking Dead or Duck Dynasty — any number of shows from an increasing large reserve — have crushed many of their network competitors. Former sure things including American Idol and Dancing With the Stars are not nearly as dependable. Shows are failing at an alarming rate. And there’s still a financial disparity between the cost of network shows and the cost of cable shows, so every underdog ratings victory isn’t just a blow to broadcasters egos but a cash casualty as well.
You’d be crazy not to look at this scenario and wonder aloud what the hell will happen to this group. The networks have been suicidally insular as they wince at the future — adhering to outdated ideas and outmoded structural issues within the industry and oblivious to innovation.
Now, it would be naive to tell you that someone as lowly as your resident TV critic could fix this mess — that I have the answers no one has found in the past decade. If I could put two supercharged paddles on the figurative chest of the broadcast industry, I’d be making a lot more money than I am. But here’s what I do know, for certain:
The networks need their own version of Steve Jobs.
They need their iPod moment. They need their iTunes moment. They need their iPhone and iPad moments, too. Hell, at this point they just need their colored iMac moment.
They need someone to step forward and say, “Few industries are as tied to the old ways of doing things as the television industry, and the old ways don’t work anymore.” They need someone who will change the culture, find success and have his or her ideas stolen and copied immediately — a concept of business that everyone in television is overly familiar with.
But who is this person? Where is this person? And how soon can he or she get here?
Now, after covering television for some time, I can tell you that at least two people within the industry fit this Jobs notion. (I’m sure — no, check that, I hope — there are more, but these two are here and now.) The first is Leslie Moonves at CBS. He’s long since moved on from the entertainment president title he held years ago when CBS was a laughingstock. He was a big fish then, but he’s a whale now. There’s a reason CBS is the one network that doesn’t need a savior: It already had one in Moonves years ago.
Look, CBS isn’t sexy. It’s still the butt of age jokes and whatnot. But there isn’t a better-run network from top to bottom, and that all started with Moonves (who, by the way, was an invaluable help when I first started in figuring out what the hell was going on in this crazy industry).
Then there’s John Landgraf at FX, who I would argue has been the Steve Jobs of the television industry for some time now and is, in my opinion, the smartest and most creative person in the business. But what the hell would he want with changing the broadcast network business model? His track record at FX is off the charts. Only a fool jumps into the broadcast business at this point, and he’s no fool.
Which means I don’t know who this Jobs-esque visionary will be. Maybe he or she is already in the industry — perhaps in a top cable job but not running a channel. More likely, this person will come from outside the deathly insular business.
Who or where from doesn’t matter as much as when. This person will have to deal with all of the age-old, unfixed issues that have led to this ratings downturn.
Start with the fall rollout. Look, it doesn’t take a genius to see that 50-plus years of television running a season from September to May is out of date and that we are, instead, a nation of viewers demanding a 52-week schedule, even when the industry as currently configured does not support that.
Also, who believes launching 20 to 40 shows between late August (for the daring) and early October (for the inconclusive) — both of those descriptors being a joke — is a good idea? Raise your hand. For those of you with your hand in the air — and I’m guessing there’s at least, um, five — I suggest you go buy an old Devo classic and listen to it carefully: “Freedom of choice/Is what you’ve got/Freedom from choice/Is what you want.”
The people are overwhelmed with options.
So how about making it easier on the public? For example — and this is a long-held gripe from viewers that people in television have never, ever addressed — why would you “sneak preview” a show on a day and in a time slot that it will not appear? Yes, I know, you want the best possible lead-in, but if the show is not going in that slot, don’t sneak it there. It confuses people; they don’t like shell games.
Any new visionary is going to have to overcome the industry’s terrible reputation. Viewers will not commit to a show if they think you’ll kill it after two or three episodes. This is a distinct and damaging reputation for networks.
Also, the notion of 22-episode seasons needs to be re-evaluated. Unless you can show them all interrupted, which you can’t or won’t, it’s a flawed idea. Viewers despise the notion that you’re pulling their show off the air for a month or two and then you expect them to come back, particularly if it’s a serialized drama. (Now, cable is no better at this of late – taking a much more feasible 13-episode season then, for some reason, breaking it in two. Madness!)
The networks also must instill in viewers — an advertising campaign maybe? — the notion that shows scheduled after May (the historic shutdown-for-summer, season-finale time) are being “burned off.” Why? Because this is what the networks have been doing for decade after decade: lighting their failures on fire when no one is looking.
After ceding the summer to cable – now there’s an idea that killed you dead – something has to be done to convince viewers that anything scripted in June, July or early August is dead before it even begins airing. It’s what people think because you’ve trained them to think that way. But those three months need to be in play.
Lack of patience — see the cancellation/trust issue — also needs to be addressed. Most cable shows air the entire 10 or 13 episodes and only then, if the series doesn’t work, is it announced that the show isn’t coming back. Pulling a show at two or four or six episodes? That’s treating your customers badly. That’s wasting their precious time. And it sends a bad signal. A signal you’ve been sending for decades.
Other areas of concern? Giving up on Saturdays completely and across the board is inexcusable. Period.
Promotion — either too much of it, not enough of it, or selling a show as something that it’s not — is an extremely important issue. Massive overkill does not equal a hit; you should have known this for decades now. Could that money be better spent? Is there another, cheaper, more targeted approach?
Lastly — only because it’s time to move on to new world issues — here’s something only a brilliant Jobsian architect can fix: So many network shows are nearly exact replicas of each other or are so predictable and unambitious as to be offensive in their obviousness.
Why is The Walking Dead so popular? Because there’s only one television show like it. There’s only one Mad Men. Only one Breaking Bad. Only one Sons of Anarchy.
And directly related to that, why are so many supposedly niche unscripted cable series so popular? Across the board, the answer is the same: The real people in these shows are nothing like the vanilla, cookie-cutter characters that scripted network television has given viewers for decades. Why hasn’t this been obvious? Viewers don’t want to see characters that are copies — 100 times over — of other characters they’ve seen. They want originality. They want someone real, not the wacky neighbor.
In short, too many dumb ideas being repeated in dumb shows.
Now, while not comprehensively thorough, that’s at least a partial outline of what has doomed the broadcast network business model. Those are issues that have remained unfixed since well before the start of the 21st century.
Any new Steve Jobs-like savior will have to deal with stuff the real Steve Jobs knew a lot about: how the digital world is changing the entire world, television included.
Multiplatforms. Time-shifting via DVR– the C3 and L7 revolution. Well-financed online competition like Netflix and such. How viewers consume television in our digital age often is working in opposition to how television has been made since, well, forever.
This has caused missteps and guesswork, naturally. Giving pilots away free online, for example, before you air them? People, that is not the answer. Have you learned nothing from the newspaper industry?
On and on it goes — from tiny tinkering to massive rethinking, there are issues galore that need to be addressed at the network level.
Any person coming in with bright ideas will have to take these basic issues in hand and find fixes, not to mention have the capacity to see and anticipate changes coming in the not-so-distant future. The broadcast television industry refused to believe that change was necessary and now, with decades of missed preparation time, those running it have no real clue how to reverse course. Hence, heads in sand.
Are you out there, Steve Jobs version 2.0? Can you arrive and change the culture, create magic, produce a revolutionary iPod or iAnything moment? Who out there can not only think outside the cliched box but smash the ones in our living room to pieces and reassemble it into something magnificently modern?
Step forward. And hurry.
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