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The Death of Network TV Has Been Greatly Exaggerated – Or Has It?

The Death of Network TV Has Been Greatly Exaggerated – Or Has It?: © Kurt Stier/Corbis

© Kurt Stier/Corbis

It is a dizzying new world for the television consumer, and even more confusing for the industry. This is a time in which viewers are more in control of where, when and how they view a television series than at any other point in history, and that means the concept of the traditional TV season that runs between September and May is quickly losing its relevance.

Even so, the idea of the fall TV season – a concept created in the middle of last century by the auto industry, to promote their latest car models – remains in place, in spite of the fact that the television industry, and the technology that serves it, has profoundly changed.

When thinking about the state of broadcast television today, the words of one of the entertainment industry’s most famous executives comes to mind: “Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months.”

A dire statement, certainly, and one that might have any number of showrunners and studio suits nodding in agreement — because given the current state of affairs, he could be right. Making television has long been a high-stakes gamble; showrunners and network programmers enter any given September with the expectation that between 70 to 80 percent of the series they’re promoting now will not see the sunlight of May.

Between this month and November, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and The CW will add 22 new series to their primetime line-ups, seeking to make their mark among more than 80 shows occupying broadcast primetime schedules. We’re only talking about broadcast here; add in cable and new series from Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Crackle, and if the rumors eventually prove true, Apple. To the viewing audience, those 22 new series may have all the gustatory impact of a Tic Tac on the tongue of an elephant.

By midseason, a fair share of those new shows will be gone; by next May, most of them, along with more than 20 others network series currently slated to premiere over the course the season, will be dust.

Knowing this, the average person might agree with the aforementioned executive and think that network television itself is on its way to the graveyard. And he’d be right…in a sense. So is it time to play taps for broadcast TV?

Courtesy of Fox

the cast of Fox’s ‘Empire’ performs at the network’s 2015 upfronts

THE AGE OF PEAK TV

Tempting as it may be for the jaded viewer to write off the broadcast format as outdated in an environment where cable channels and online providers offer more freedom (and, as reporters are more and more likely to hear, fewer notes) let’s take a moment to appreciate how challenging it is to both create a broadcast television show and deliver it to the viewer.

Scott Sassa, currently the vice chair of cable’s El Rey Network, spent almost a decade working at Turner Broadcasting before joining NBC, where he served as president of NBC Entertainment from 1998 through 2003. During that period, NBC was the #1 rated network. He was the executive who helped develop The West Wing. (On the other hand, he’s also the guy who helped get Fear Factor on the air.) Sassa calls the creation of a broadcast series “a hard art form.”

“It’s hard to do 22 episodes, formatted to an hour, delivered every week, formatted for language and violence and sex,” Sassa says. “There’s no other creative art form — think about movies, publishing — where you have a statutory amount of content that you have to produce every hour, every week, in a format under those constraints.”

Then, after delivering content within that format, writers, producers, the cast and the network itself must seek to promote each episode and ensure the largest audience possible is there to see it in its timeslot, on their televisions, if not the night of then at least soon after via DVR playback.

Even with the most amount of hype possible, if a network series fails to win healthy ratings in its first few outings — or worse, opens well but then sees more than a 20 or 25 percent ratings decline in episode two, the industry knows. Viewers hear about it. And with a few exceptions, that can feed more ratings declines, which means the advertisers aren’t getting the return on their upfront investment that they were betting on. This can be television’s equivalent of crib death for a new series.

Compare this challenge to that of cable, where with certain exceptions like AMC’s blockbuster franchise The Walking Dead, raking in only a few million viewers each week is seen as a win. Then there are online providers like Netflix, companies that don’t release ratings and can declare a series to be a success because they say it is.

“It’s really hard for broadcast networks,” Sassa adds. “It’s probably easier for cable networks, because you can create a psychographic to program to. It’s more like a magazine.”

Now chew on this staggering statistic: According to data FX Network provided to reporters last month, more than 400 scripted, original primetime series will have aired on American television outlets — that includes broadcast, cable, and online providers — by the end of 2015. Not the end of the current TV season, the end of this calendar year. (Remember, that number does not include non-scripted series.)

In years past, a network’s main concern was to get the broadest audience possible to sample the first episode of a new show, then to return for subsequent weeks. Now there’s the question of whether audiences will find most of these new comedies and dramas at all.

Lots of new episodes are set to flood broadcast and cable schedules and debut online, all battling for audience share. Then there’s the competition offered by Netflix and Amazon, each of them seducing viewers with the idea of binge-watching and ever more delayed viewing on the consumer’s schedule, not any primetime chart set by networks.

Thus as we head into the 2015-2016 broadcast season, the landscape ahead looks less like the annual re-enactment of the assault on Omaha Beach that the industry has come to expect, and more like Edge of Tomorrow. Meaning, over the next few weeks, many new network shows will spring to life, only to die weeks later. Repeat. Live. Die. Repeat.

All of this is a great and terrible problem for the TV industry to have, whether we’re talking about networks, studios or showrunners. Consumers have more content to choose from, as well as more ways to watch all that content. Television creators have more venues hungry for product, which ostensibly means a more open marketplace and more possibilities to find work.

“There’s still no game in town like network television,” declares Thomas Schlamme, the Emmy-award winning executive producer who helped shape such acclaimed series Sports Night and The West Wing. “If you think about basic cable, Big Bang’s basic cable reruns will do better than any original basic cable show. It just does. So it’s still a big thing for people who are trying to produce television, and also produce a profit for their shareholders.”

Which brings us back to that earlier quote from that historically prominent executive. Darryl F. Zanuck reportedly said it almost 70 years ago, in 1946. Here’s the rest of that quote: “People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”

so many screens, so many shows

A Brief History of Fear and Growing

At the time, Zanuck was head of 20th Century Fox — a movie studio with no television aspirations whatsoever. Back then, movie executives probably looked at this new innovation much in the way that some entertainment executives are looking at the evolving landscape of episodic content today. Surely they were in awe of the possibility television offered: the chance to reach American audiences not just in movie theaters, but in their homes.

Studio executives also had ample reason to be profoundly worried, if not outright terrified. After all, given the option to watch entertainment in the comfort of one’s living room, why would anyone choose to go to the movie theater?

Maintaining perspective when it comes to discussing whether broadcast television is in its death throes is important. Although television sets gained a place in many American homes after World War II, television did not, in fact, destroy the movie industry. It also was assumed that TV would render radio extinct. It did not. (But we’ll get back to that in a bit.)

Similarly, the rise of music videos in the ‘80s didn’t kill episodic television, as many in the industry once feared it would. Neither did the wide adoption of the VCR, the proliferation of reality television and the emergence of niche-targeted cable channels in the ‘90s, or YouTube and online video in the ‘00s.

All of the classic entertainment mediums — radio, movies, and TV — remain. That said, each of them has changed dramatically over the decades. Television may not have brought an end to radio, but it did kill the scripted radio serial. Filmmaking is still a multibillion dollar industry, albeit one that lives in fear of VOD’s impact on box office revenue.

Today, the over-the-air broadcast network model teeters on the precipice of evolution, which can look and feel like death, but usually just spells change. The entities that comprise broadcast television — the big four networks — are not going away.

But the way they currently do business, including the fall season itself, likely will.

The New TV Era: What It Means for Broadcast Networks

To get an idea of where the television industry is going at any given time, a good person to speak to is FX president and CEO John Landgraf. Twice a year, Landgraf gives a brief, in-depth state-of-the-industry speech to TV critics and reporters covering the Television Critics Association Press Tours. Because of the accuracy of Landgraf’s predictions based on the data he shares, he’s earned a high level of trust among reporters.

When asked whether he believed broadcast television was dead, Landgraf replied with a definitive no.

“It serves a function in society. I think you still need broadcasters,” he said, adding that broadcast networks’ reach, and their ability to reach the largest swath of viewers with nationally televised sports, political coverage, large-scale breaking news and even live awards shows, still can’t be matched by cable channels. And unlike cable, it’s still available to anyone for the cost of an antenna. “I really honestly don’t think Congress is going to let the broadcasters stop providing that signal.”

“What I do see,” Landgraf added, “is that broadcasters are going to have a dwindling part of their emphasis and their revenue predicated on what they get in over-the-air, free television, and more and more of their revenue, and more of their consumption, coming from pay television.”

His own network is already moving in that direction. Ten years ago, according to Landgraf, FX gleaned 55 percent of its revenue from advertising and 45 percent subscription fees. Today, the network’s revenue balance stands at 55 percent subscription fees, 32 percent advertising, and 13 percent content ownership. So as FX’s advertising has gone down, content revenue has gone up.

FX is just one part of Fox Broadcasting’s corporate stable. And, just like Fox, ABC, NBC, and CBS are powerful brands run by media companies that own a great deal of cable and digital real estate. On basic cable, NBC Universal owns Bravo, USA, Syfy, Oxygen and E!, among others. CBS Corp owns The CW, Showtime, and upstart network Pop. ABC is one kingdom within Disney’s sprawling media empire.

In spite of having many tentacles writhing in many seas, however, the networks are still coming to grips with stark declines in same-night ratings. Neither have they figured out how to effectively monetize non-linear viewership on non-traditional platforms.

In plainer terms, if more people watch an episode of television days after it premieres on their phones instead of on their televisions the night of its debut, networks are happy to let us know just how many eyeballs we should add to those overnight ratings. But the data that still matters most to advertisers — the numbers that inform where they’ll be placing the bulk of their ad spends every May during the upfronts — are the ratings generated by Nielsen measurements of over-the-air broadcasts.

paul lee abc upfronts

ABC’s Paul Lee showing off the network’s programming schedule at their 2014 upfronts

“Broadcast used to be single revenue stream. It used to be based just on the ad sales revenue just for live,” explains ABC Entertainment President Paul Lee. “Now, we’re not yet monetizing as much as we could monetize. But we do monetize delayed viewing all the way up to three days for ad sales.”

CBS entertainment chairman Nina Tassler had a much more sanguine view of the industry’s rapid changes when she spoke to reporters last month. “The network remains the all-important content engine that starts it all,” she said. “But there are so many different ways to measure a program’s appeal and reach that go beyond the overnight to even the demos.

As an example, she pointed out The Good Wife’s average of 12 million viewers per episode, which is still a good bit lower than the season-to-date viewership of TV’s top drama NCIS, which clocked in an average of 17.26 million viewers. But The Good Wife also is CBS’s No. 1 show on iTunes and one of the network’s most popular series on video on demand services. CBS rakes in revenue for all of that.

“The bottom line here is really simple,” Tassler told reporters. “We want to be wherever people want to watch. It doesn’t matter if it’s on TV, a tablet, or even their phone, as long as they’re watching. Distinctions between television companies and streaming companies miss the point.”

Another way that networks are getting paid is by owning their own production studios and distributing that content to air on other networks. CBS’s new comedy Life in Pieces came from a 20th Century Fox Television production shingle, just as Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was produced by NBC Universal.

More potent than this, however, is when a network produces a program, and keeps it on its own schedule long enough to enjoy a syndicated afterlife. This explains why shows that don’t have huge ratings, like Fox’s New Girl, continue to be renewed in spite of its viewership shrinking to 3.42 million viewers on average. New Girl just debuted in syndication and will soon be turning up on your local station’s lineup.

“In this age of vertical integration, there is a lot of effort put towards owning your own content,” Fox co-chairman and co-CEO of Fox Television Group Dana Walden explained in a recent press conference. “When you own the content, you have a tremendous amount of flexibility, in terms of rights and having meaningful conversations with your participants about what the right thing is to do with a show that, when you are on a third party network, it’s a little more complicated to do.”

ABC’s Lee echoes that idea: “Because we’ve integrated network and studio, we have the revenue stream of all the syndication that we can do both in SVOD and in syndication here, and around the world, for all our shows. We sell How to Get Away With Murder, and Black-ish, and every show that we make, all around the world. So the ability to move to interactive, which we’re doing more and more, the ability to move to multiple revenue streams, the ability to be fully distributed, and to be based around originals gives us four competitive advantages. But the most important part is brand and show.”

Well, that and a redefinition of how to gauge success. With so many more choices – remember, an estimated 400 shows by the end of 2015 — that means both broadcast and cable networks must be content with a slimmer piece of the ratings pie and giving longer life to series that could be seen as perception hits, if not ratings knockouts.

The End of the TV ‘Season’

“I don’t believe that 15 years from now, the bulk of television consumption is going to happen in linear channels,” said Landgraf. “I don’t think the bulk of commercial views are going to be stacked, commercial-interruption breaks with multiple different shows. I don’t believe that most television will be, at that point, broadcast over satellites or airwaves, or distributed through cable boxes. I believe the medium will move, over time, to an Internet-enabled platform with interactivity and automation.

“And so there’s going to come a moment in time when enough revenue potential has shifted from the way upfront deals are negotiated to other forms of monetization,” he added. “The effect will be that the fall season will wane.”

Indeed, any broadcast network executive will point to the fact that they all program year-round. Fifty-one established comedies and dramas will return in midseason. By our count, around the same number of new network series, 22, are scheduled to premiere outside of the fall launch window. (Bear in mind, some of those series may never get on the air.)

More frequently, broadcast programmers are saving their big swings for midseason instead of sending them out in the fall. Lee reminded us that Scandal premiered on ABC in midseason, as did Grey’s Anatomy all those many years ago. Last year, ABC’s midseason yielded buzzy victories in Agent Carter and Fresh Off the Boat.

“I wish we only had to worry about the fall,” said NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt. “We launch things in January, and in March, and in June. It really is a year-round roll out. But we really are just holding on to this ceremonial idea of fall, and that’s OK. It’s the start of a new school year. Everybody likes to reset in September.”

Why, then, does the fall TV premiere season persist? Part of the answer is that it is determined by, yes, advertisers. Not only for automobile manufacturers, but across the board. All of those commercials you see during your primetime shows were purchased after last the May’s upfronts. To the consumer, that’s the week when we find out if our favorite shows are coming back; to advertisers, it’s the week where they determine how they’re going allocate the billions of dollars they want to spend to get viewers to buy a particular brand’s snacks, shampoo, and clothing.

“It’s a structural artifact of the system,” Landgraf says. “You have these large media agencies, and a handful of them control all or most of the money. …They have very, very low profit margins. So they don’t have a huge amount of staff of negotiate hundreds of thousands of little deals for little pieces of media here and here and here, and to painstakingly add them all together into a national media plan.

“I just don’t see the upfront ending very soon,” he adds, “because essentially, again, it’s a structural artifact, the way these agencies are built.”

Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

fear the walking dead

There’s another, even more powerful reason the fall TV season exists, and that’s viewer habit. Think about it — how much TV do you really watch during the summer? Probably less than any other time of year. Historically, HUT levels (Nielsen-speak for “households using television”) have been at their lowest in July and August. This is why fewer large-scale scripted series are launched in the summer, with HBO, Showtime, as well as FX and AMC — which scored a winner with Fear the Walking Dead — proving to be exceptions.

When fall arrives, worse weather comes with it, as do shorter daylight hours.

“Television viewership goes up massively during that period of time,” Landgraf says. “It’s a time when people are shopping for and open to new shows. …We’ve launched shows like Rescue Me and The Strain in the summer, but essentially, it’s bright. I don’t know if they want gloomy serialized dramas. The fall is really a good time.”

Whether that holds true for the 2015-2016 season, of course, remains to be seen. But in spite of the tremors of transformation rocking the industry, there’s also a lot of opportunity — and ample reason to keep hanging on.

“Look, Martin Mull used to have a great line,” says Schlamme. “It was, ‘How much do you want to be paid?’ And he said, ‘Just a little bit more than what’s fair.’ I just think we’re probably going to get to a point where what we get paid is what’s fair. We don’t need to get paid a little bit more than what’s fair, because I think we all have to realize that the profit margins of what we do is less and less.

“So whether we get paid what we got paid when we did network television shows or not, that’s going to change. We’re still going to be well-compensated for the work that we do, if we do it well.”


Melanie McFarland is a Seattle-based writer who serves on the board of the Television Critics Association. Her work has appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Times, Variety and Salon, among other outlets. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision.

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