The TV Landscape is Changing, and We Better Be Ready

by Paul William Tenny

While the studios and networks that produce virtually all television content are monoliths that respond slowly to change, and often fight it to their own detriment, we're all experiencing a transformation of that medium in ways that nobody truly seems to understand.

Last year's fall television season would likely have continued an unfortunate yet increasingly common trend where the networks divide an industry-standard 22 or 24-episode season into two distinct halves. Some networks have taken to calling the forced mid-season hiatus the "season finale" without bothering to call the corresponding return the "season premier", as if the industry is floating the idea of redefining the term until a "season" consists of about 11 or 12 episodes, but don't really want to spend the effort to make it happen. By that measure, ABC's Lost is currently in its seven season rather than the first half of its third.
The near legendary mythology of the year-around development schedule has been making the rounds for years, but so far, no network has really tried. The mid-season break that typically drives down ratings and nearly universally annoys viewers may be an experiment in that direction, or it may just be a sign that the networks -- the people responsible for making this work as a business that has been inexorability married with our popular culture and in many disturbing ways has come to define aspects of it -- simply don't know what they're doing anymore.

100 Days
That's roughly how long the Writers Guild of America spent on strike from November of 2007, until February of 2008. It was half the length of the 1988 strike that ushered in the unkillable "reality" genre of "entertainment", but ended up costing nearly three times as much money.

Because of the strike, many shows came up short with their initial entrée and all of them were forced to end production due to a lack of scripts to shoot from. Because of the above mentioned trend of cutting seasons in half, the shortage wasn't as severe as it might have been otherwise. Some shows that got an early start actually managed to produce as many as 11 episodes, and while all of them had to shut down eventually, it's worth considering that the true cost for the studios and networks was the production delay, not the episode shortfall. Most of these series ran out of episodes only weeks before they would have gone on a planned break anyway. What matters in the end is that while the network would have stopped broadcasting new episodes, the studio would still have been hard at work making new ones, and when they had to stop, it delayed the networks schedule for when the new episodes would have returned to the air.

In short, the half-season experiment that nobody seems to really like only made things that much more complicated this year than it should have been. Perhaps that's a lesson for the future, but given how stubborn and in many instances devoid of any discernible intelligence network executives are, that may be asking for too much.

These are the executives that proclaimed to a popular industry blogger that they were happy their fall televisions season was scrapped by the strike, making for a convenient excuse as to why all their new shows were falling on their faces. Why admit their choices were bad when they can just change the subject? This was actually an opportunity, according to the CEOs, to burn down the house and take an entirely new approach to making television. It was bad for the writers who were now out of work, and great for the companies that would be losing billions in advertising dollars for not having new, top rated content on the air.

Only it didn't really work out that way. With the strike behind us, there were only two changes made by studios and networks. The first was that many long standing and lucrative contracts between the studios and top writing talent -- called overall development deals -- were canceled during the strike in order to "free up money and cut loose dead weight." These deals are often given to writing executive producers (showrunners/series creators) that have proven their ability to create and successfully helm shows with some level of consistency. It's a reward for being a talented, known quantity. The contract ensures that such a person is married to a specific studio for a given length of time -- 3-to-5 years or so -- so they can't take their great ideas to a competitor. If you happen to discover the next J. J. Abrams, you want to lock him up so he's yours for the foreseeable future.

A clause in these contracts allows them to be dissolved in the case of an unforeseeable disaster or incident that is outside the control of either party. I'd like to think that the original intention of that clause might be, for example, a actor that is convicted of murder and sent to prison and hence cannot fulfill the contract. On the flip side, a studio or production company may go bankrupt or have their lot accident burn down. I'm pretty certain they were never meant to be invoked due to a labor stoppage which is neither unforeseeable, nor is it an uncontrollable. These dissolutions were of questionable legality and looked more like vindictive, adolescent retribution than a wise business decision.

Any contact held by a writer who was currently employed under that contract -- such as a writer who, as part of that development deal, is to "run" a specific show that is currently on the air -- would legally have had their contract reinstated as a matter of process. Everyone else had their hard earned deals throw out the window under questionable justification.

The only other change was that NBC announced it was going to abandon the "upfronts" altogether. The upfronts are like a giant press conference where the networks announce their schedule, which new shows are ordered to series, and by way of not saying which shows are going to be renewed for another year, which shows have been canceled. This is also the time that advertisers pay the networks for commercial time, hence I suppose the "upfront" payment. After all the other networks seemingly confirmed their intent to still hold upfront presentations this year, NBC folded and announced that it would be doing the same.

Other than that, it's business as usual behind the scenes as far as anyone knows.

It's a mixed bag
While almost all of the fall shows have either resumed production, or are getting ready to soon, not all of them are going to attempt finishing out the season that began last year. Lost on ABC will return with new episodes before the fall, while NBC's Heroes will not. Some shows had enough heads up that they were in a position -- at least with serial dramas -- to structure their last episode or two in such a way that they could serve as a season-shortened finale. Fox's freshman The Sarah Connor Chronicles was actually supposed to debut in the fall of 2007, but with a strike seeming more likely every day, Fox may have held the series back in order to secure fresh content while other networks ran out. CBS may have been doing the same by holding back new episodes of the recently resurrected Jericho.

Who will come back now, who will come back later, and who won't be coming back at all is going to make this year one of the most fractured in television history. Ratings across all shows and all networks have been on the decline for the past two or three years which had nothing to do with the strike, and most people will tell you they don't really understand why. The 1988 strike caused a severe and almost permanent drop in the ratings when people who were only casual viewers were annoyed and left that venue of entertainment altogether. The rapid increase in competition to the networks by literally hundreds of cable channels (no longer limited to cable) could also account for the steady decline.

In service of that theory, one might note that the all-time highest rated single episode on television -- or any event for that matter -- was the 1983 finale of MASH, landing over 105 million viewers for the evening. The most watched Super Bowl ever was also the most recent, when the Giants defeated the previously undefeated Patriots, garnering 97.5 million viewers. The problem with that comparison is possibly the reason for the continuing fall of network ratings: cable channels.

There simply weren't that many cable channels in 1983 to compete with network television -- not to mention there were only three networks back then -- much less the over 100 cable channels that we have today. More options for content means a more diversified audience. If that much competition was eliminated, the ratings for network television would undoubtedly be much higher.

Two genres enter, one genre leaves
Hardly deserving of its own title, and yet unique in many indiscernible ways, any look at the changing television landscape would be incomplete without noting the insurgency of reality television, and the gradual death of the sitcom. Once the highest rated genre on TV, and especially NBC by anchoring its "Must See Thursday", the sitcom has fallen out of favor with the public on about the same curve as reality has come to the foreground.

I can't think of a single sitcom currently in the top 10 in weekly ratings. Mostly, it's reality, sports, and drama. Was this a sacrifice worth making, and is it healthy for our society to become so focused on reality without giving ourselves a chance to laugh once in a while? The three choices we're left with these days are depression (drama), feeding of off other peoples misfortune and suffering (reality), and sports.

At least there's sports.

Television as the inevitable sports metaphor
The first entertainment property that most resembles a TV show, made specifically for the Internet, made an unsuccessful jump from the web to television via NBC's strike-fearing desperation this year in the form of Quarterlife. NBC only aired a single episode before making plans to ship the series off to cable where it will likely air a few more episodes, and then die.

It's hard to consider such a pioneering experiment a failure, though. NBC may have been more desperate for new content during the strike than it was brave and intrepid, but it set a milestone by airing a series shot for the Internet, and it begs the question as to whether or not the studio's and network's fear that the 'net will replace them as the primary distributor and eventually producer of content is actually going to happen. It could very well be, but right now, online content producers are going to face the exact same facts of life that the larger studios do: it's really really hard to make good content.

If you take 10 Internet-only shows and broadcast them on TV, Sturgeon's Law (90% of everything is crap) means only one will be any good, without guaranteeing that it will even be successful. With that kind of failure rate that already plagues the studios and networks today, what we could end up seeing is that the Internet becomes a bit of a "farm system" for the big boys down the road. Someone comes up with a great idea, shoots it on the cheap, and gets a popular reaction from the 'net crowd, but then signs a lucrative deal with a studio that will reshoot the series with professionals and expensive equipment, only to turn around and shop the product to a TV network.

Just like major league baseball clubs continually pluck up-and-coming talent from the minor league system, the Internet may in fact become the primary source of discovering new content producers that can plugged into the existing system, leaving satellite, cable, fiber, and the airwaves as the most efficient means to broadcast it all.

If anything is apparent from what has been going on over the past six or seven years, it's that the television landscape is changing in ways we don't fully understand. Slowly, I'll grant you, but it is changing nonetheless. If the networks and studios had any good sense left in them, they would put all the animosity from the strike behind them, and work with writers, actors, directors, and all the other players to explore these changes and embrace them.

It is the future, regardless as to whether we like it or not.
in Feature, Television


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