Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Television Networks

I often marvel at how poorly the television networks are run. In fact, if it weren’t for the airlines, I would say that no industry in America is more poorly run than the networks. Consider the following:

At a time when people are abandoning the network news because they offer nothing that can’t be found on the internet, the networks are laying off news staff and relying more on wire reports. . . the same wire reports that supply every internet news site. Wouldn’t it make more sense to increase resources so the networks can offer stories that can’t be found on the wire?

The networks are obsessed with competing head to head. If Fox gets a science fiction hit on Friday night (e.g. the X-Files), other networks (cough cough NBC) will try to come up with similar science fiction shows and run them opposite the Fox hit. If there’s an NFL game on one channel, rest assured someone else will run “guy films” to try to steal that audience. Wouldn’t it make more sense to grab the audience that isn’t flocking to the other guy's main attraction each night?

The networks spend a fortune coming up with “new” programming each year, but their failure rate is incredible. More than 80% of new shows will fail each year, with about a third not lasting a month. What’s worse, to achieve this “success rate,” they take the safest, i.e. “most cowardly,” approach possible. They do nothing that hasn’t been done and isn’t already airing. All sitcoms are either knock-offs of Friends or the awful generic family sitcom. All dramas involve cops or lawyers or over-sexed teens. They recycle stars more than environmentalists recycle their garbage. Yet, only 20% even make it to year two? And every year network audiences shrink even as the population grows? Wouldn’t it make more sense to try something new, like taking risks on content? HBO, AMC, and FX are all taking risks, and are being well rewarded for their efforts.

Also, wouldn’t it make sense to change the whole model? For example, you could start a show with a 15 minute pilot tacked onto the end of an existing show to see if people like it. You could spend a week running new pilots and getting audience to vote on them. Or you could start them on cable auxiliary networks and “promote” them to the network if they succeed. What other industry would accept a 20% success rate on new products without changing their business model?

The networks also spend a fortune bidding on sporting events like the Olympics and the NFL, on which they admit they will lose vast amounts of money. They do this to earn the “prestige” of having these events. But does anyone really watch NBC sitcoms or dramas because NBC had the Olympics or because they have the NFL? Do you think any less of ABC because they don’t? And if you’re going to spend money on these properties, why not do more tie-ins like having NFL players appear on sitcoms or doing a show about the NFL?

Finally, why would these networks let their shows and their news become so politicized? Does it make any sense to turn off half (or more) of your audience? Could you imagine WalMart blasting right-wing propaganda over its loudspeaker when you enter the store, or having its cashiers lecture you on the problems caused by unions? They don’t do that because they aren’t a political organization and it doesn’t make sense to offend their customers. So why do networks do/allow this?


Tennessee Jed said...

Ideology apparently trumps business sense. some of them have become wealthy enough that they can be cumudgeonly about it. That said, yes, they are poorly run, their business models suck. I do not know to what extent F.C.C. has anything to do with any of this.

Anonymous said...

Fun post.
Aren't TV shows just a vehicle for selling stuff on commercials? I think the teenagers watch that sexed up night time soaps. Anyway, since I try not to buy stuff (have bought everything at least 3 times!!!, especially something I only "realize" I need b/c I saw an ad!

But the reason I am writing is that I noticed my 21 year old daughter did not watch TV or movies over Thanksgiving. She surfs the computer. The older one, who is a professional, says she may see funny excerpts of a TV show on HULU.

Main idea here: aging TV population. Future is doubtful.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Good question about the FCC, but I doubt they are responsible for most of this. I get the feeling that the television networks are very insular, that they promote from within and only people who have spent their lives in the industry, and that they don't do anything they that their predecessors didn't do.

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, I get that feeling sometimes, especially about kids shows -- they are 30 minute product placements.

As for television audiences dying out, I think that may actually be true. I've noticed that older people tend to see television as something you sit down and watch. But the younger people I know see television as something you have on while you're doing something on line or doing something else.

And if the internet is creating shorter attention spans (which seems likely), then television could well be doomed unless it changes its format because the internet will have more to offer.

Ponderosa said...
oligopoly...unions...control of distribution...80% crap...years to produce new model is the same as old...

Detroit before 1980?

FoxNews is Datsun.

AndrewPrice said...

Ponderosa, Good analogy, right down to the talk of the government bailing them out.

It's funny how it's always the same old problems, yet somehow people never seem to get that. Let's see, let's make it impossible to fire bad people, make it impossible for consumers voices to be heard, and fill our ranks with management that thinks it's better than the rest of the world.... I can't imagine why things are going wrong?

You might be right about Fox, but I'll tell you, cable was the first huge warning for the networks and they largely ignored it. NBC tried to buy their way into cable, but none of them changed the way they did business to reflect the new reality that consumers suddenly had choices.

At some point, some cable channel will come up with a new innovation that will polish off the networks -- maybe some internet connection.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the unions have as much influence over this than, say, the teachers union does over teachers (at least in terms of the creative process). Every writer is in the WGA but if you perform poorly, a showrunner can fire you. Now in terms of production items (schedules, budgets, etc.), then, yes, there is probably some influence.

Re: politics, I have nothing to add that I haven't already said. Take a bunch of left-leaning writers, have them report to a bunch of left-leaning execs, and what do you expect? Of course, this isn't always the case but it would be nice for things to be kept on an even keel.

Every showrunner complains about the bureaucracy. There are good TV execs but you have to get approvals from too many of them! And you have not only the network but the studio as well.

I've read volumes about the problems of pilot season but I don't know what the solution is (other than shortening TV seasons to 6 - 10 episodes, like in the UK). Voting... I don't know. I see the appeal and no one should try to predict what the public wants but I have a problem with it. I haven't thought it out so I might chime in later on this.

To prove that NOTHING CHANGES, I give you the letter Gene Roddenberry wrote defending the first Star Trek pilot. Read it here.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, A couple thoughts.

While there may be a few good executives, most of the ones I've seen interviewed were fools. Indeed, I've never heard anything the least bit intelligent from any of them. Also they don't even seem to realize that their model is a problem (except "it costs too much to make new shows"). Moreover, most of them seem more interested in empire building and infighting than in actually improving their model. In fact, whenever there is a regime change, you usually get some of the nastiest books/exposes in the business world -- nastiness you never see in other industries.

On politics, yeah, I think that's the problem. Ironically, I don't think you would have the same problem with right wing writers and executives, who are not as interested in making everything political.

I'll tell you why voting would work. Voting gives people a stake in the outcome. It's like American Idol. By letting people vote, they turned nobodies with little appeal into major stars with strong followings. Granted, those have faded when the quality didn't keep up, but it gives you a strong start.

Also, by voting, you can tell intensity. If you get 55% yes for two programs, but one drew 10 million votes and the other got 200,000 votes, you can tell which is going to be the real winner.

Unknown said...

Andrew: Another one of my favorite idiot tricks at the networks is to put a show on, wait one episode, then see what Nielsen says. If it's bad, the show is gone almost immediately. If it's good, they don't have enough episodes in the can, so they hype it, get viewership, and go on hiatus for six months. By then, half the audience doesn't care any more, and the show ends up getting canceled anyway. Four or five episodes is enough to recognize a really bad show, but some need at least that many to build a loyal audience.

Anonymous said...

I understand (re: voting) but I think audience fragmentation could be a problem. If I create a show that is geared towards 20-something males and females (20 = age, not quantity!), I can't expect it to get a high vote since that isn't the only group that would be voting for it. But that leads to a whole 'nother argument: am I obligated to create a show that will appeal to everyone? Lest we forget, Seinfeld was deemed "too New York" and "too Jewish."

And such a method would probably rid the airwaves of "cult shows" - we'd never get a show like Firefly if people had to vote for it. (I'm being cynical - one could say that Firefly would still be on the air if people could vote for it).

And I agree with LawHawk - too many shows are axed after only one or two episodes.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Boy do I know those tricks. I can't tell you how many times I heard about something interesting, but it was gone before I could even find it on the schedule.

And what Lost did to lose me was the 4 weeks on, 4 weeks off schedule. By the end of the 4 weeks off, I'd lost interest. Then, by the time I started getting back into it, it was on mid-season hiatus. At that point I just gave up on it and said I'd see it on video -- I just never got around to it.

And you're right, 4-5 episodes is not enough to figure out much of anything. That's why I think it would make more sense to start them on cable, kind of like a farm team. And then promote them to the majors once they have an established track record.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I get your point and it might be a problem that television becomes very generic if you just went with a voting system. But I wouldn't just go with that alone.

I would combine a system of (1) picking a much wider variety of shows, (2) running them on cable to see if they can develop an audience, (3) giving them time to see how they play out, (4) using the voting scheme to measure intensity of support AND to try to get people to buy into a show (to "feel ownership"). Plus, if the show doesn't do well enough to stay on the network, but does well enough to justify giving it a chance, it just stays on cable.

Also, I would probably do the voting thing by bringing the shows to the network temporarily and having people vote there. That might let you bring the cable audience to the networks and vice versa if they decide they like the show but it doesn't rate highly enough.

It's like a way to segregate programs into three groups. Those that are hits (on the network), those that have an audience but aren't hits (on cable) and those that just never panned out (canceled).

I think that combo would let you create cult shows as well as others and would make it more likely that what you bring to the network would be a success.

Ed said...

I think Ponderosa's analogy to the American car companies is perfect. The networks are living in the past and just won't accept that the world has changed and their way of doing business doesn't work anymore.

I like the vote idea too, though I agree with Scott that it might kill off the cult hits. Although, I don't think the network responds to cult hits anyway unless they make a lot of money on video.

CrispyRice said...

"Wouldn’t it make more sense to grab the audience that isn’t flocking to the other guy's main attraction each night?"

This is very typical in most corporate products, too, though. We're slowly losing variety as companies run to the middle ground in an effort to be #1. Sometimes, there's a pretty good market in being #2, but that doesn't matter.

CrispyRice said...

Oh, and I've got to agree with Anon, too! I'm older than his daughters, but I don't pay for cable TV. We watch what we want from Netflix or other streaming. I can't say I'm missing out on the shows the networks are putting out. Anything that is decent comes along on DVD on Netflix eventually.

Tennessee Jed said...

One of the things I seem to recall that used to be a network axiom was go for the "youth audience." The reason was advertisers supposedly recognized that consumers tend to develop brand loyalty early on. Thus, it was programming by demographics. Problem is, youth doesn't have the same viewing habits. They tend to do other things than watch network television shows. I am a geezer, and have plenty of money, but am not a target since my brand loyalties were developed long ago. No wonder it is a dying breed.

Pay-per-view may be the purest form of voting. Whether or not it would turn a profit is unknown. HBO is an interesting example. I just canceled since it was expensive and they turned me off with liberal politics, and the stuff I really liked was too few and far between. But would I pay for a subscription to Band of Brothers, Rome, or the Sopranos? Probably. Would that model be more profitable than monthly subscription to HBO. Don't really know, but it's interesting to think about.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Good post, Andrew, and interesting discussion.

The networks can't seem to learn from cable station examples of success.
The closest they come is trying to copy some of the shows, for example, CBS basically copied USA's "Psych" with "The Mentalist."
The basic premise that is.
And The Mentalist is not bad, although it's not consistant, IMO.

Nevertheless, I would rather see less copying and oversaturation and more of a creative process, like the cable channels are doing.

I wholeheartedly agree that the PC, left-wing politics and the anti-Christian themes in network shows (over and over) is a real turn off.
I quit watching "Lie To Me" because of it, and it ruined "Law And Order."

I can stand an occasional remark aimed at conservatives here and there, or at least I used to. Now I rarely give a show a second chance if they pull that BS.
Funny, when shows like that don't do well they blame it on everything but the producers, directors, and writers who are apparently auditioning to be Obama speech writers.
Sort of like the Democrats: "It can't possibly be our message that turns them off."

Denial of reality is a very bad business model.

That's not to say the networks have no decent shows (ABC's "Ordinary Family" is refreshing and fun to watch), but they are few and far between, and their number is dwindling.

Incidently, I think it is another smart move for cable channels to air new programming during the summertime.
A simple idea the networks can't seem to comprehend.

Notawonk said...

this is why folks are unhooking from television and shifting to netflix, hulu, and other sources for their entertainment. the bad programming walks hand in hand with the failure of newspapers. we don't want to pay for propaganda; we want to be entertained.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I also like the analogy to car companies. Both seem to be in this self-deluding bubble of "we're the top and no one can challenge us because we were here first." It's going to be interesting to see what happens to the networks over the next decade. I'll bet things look a lot different for them by the end of that.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, I notice that all the time, when for example, my toothpaste or deodorant changed to become like everything else on the market. And then you start to hear lots of people complain -- I liked XXX, but no one makes it anymore. That's because they all want to aim for the largest segment in the market, and they don't care about the rest of us.

I think a network executive could make a killing by aiming for the second biggest audience in all time slots. If there is a big sporting even that draws males, put on chick flicks. If there's a program that draws old people, put on youth programming on the other channel... etc. etc. Go for 90% of 30% of the audience rather than 30% of 50%.

if th

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, I think Anon's comment is very insightful. I don't "watch" television at this point either, I have it on while I'm doing other things. I think younger audience never developed the television habit, and that will be bad for them in the future.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, You're absolutely right. That brand-loyalty theory was developed in the 1950s and is largely still believed by advertisers today. HOWEVER, I think it's flawed (or at least it no longer applies) and they are starting to realize that.

In fact, there was a study done by one of the investment banks that horrified advertisers about two years ago. They looked into things like Twitter and the such and they found that modern youths sign up for all these programs, but they don't actually use them and they never develop any particular brand loyalties. That means the old model of building brand loyalty and getting a permanent consumer base simply will not work with younger audiences.

And you know where I see this is in things like cars. Older Americans remain loyal to the same car companies where their parents bought their cars and where they then bought their first, second and third cars. Younger Americans have little loyalty to any particular car companies and are looking for the best deals.

AndrewPrice said...

USS Ben, "Denial of reality is a very bad business model." -- I agree completely.

Great example about the introduction of new programming in the summer. That seems like such an obvious thing to do, but the networks never figured it out and still won't follow the example. I note, for example, that the Sci-Fi channel has new programming the entire year round. I don't care for some of it, but I like the rest and some of it has caught my attention simply because it was new when everything else was a rerun.

I agree about the bias. It's a real turn off and it's gotten to the point that it's ruining shows. Law and Order does come to mind in that. I watched it way back when it started, when it was just a fast-paced, interesting drama. But these days I know it will a lesson in political correctness and I've stopped watching.

And I would love to see less copying. It's amazing to me how quickly the other networks come out with copies of shows that become hits -- not to mention the network itself starts building spin offs almost immediately. Oh look, CSI Cleveland... CSI Denver... CS Smallsville....

When I look back on the great shows of the past, they all stood out for being unique.

AndrewPrice said...

Patti, Very true. And too much of what they are "forcing" on us is propaganda these days. But, what they don't seem to get is that we now have alternatives and they can't force anything on us.

Dane said...

I don't even watch the networks anymore because I hate their leftwing politics. Just shut the hell up about your BS beliefs and put on entertainment. I'm serious, I don't take that anymore.

AndrewPrice said...

Dane, I think you're not alone in that. I hear that more and more.

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