Broadcast Television & The Future of Storytelling

old-television

The big four networks, CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox have been spiraling downwards, not only in ratings but also in content, for about ten years now. This is not to say they haven’t produced good content, they have. Overall, a healthy argument could be made that each of these networks programming and development departments are basing decisions based on…well, to be fair, I don’t know what they are based on, but clearly logic and quality are not in the mix.

NBC has had a particularly tough time of it and despite three new programming heads in seven years, they continue to show only a further descent into idiotic programming. To that point, NBC currently has “1600 Penn” and has green lit a new Jessica Simpson pilot, comparing her to Lucille Ball, produced by non other than Ben Silverman. You may recall Silverman as the man who, along with Jeff Zucker, drove the network into a brick wall.

An argument has often been made that programming highs and lows are cyclical and while CBS currently rides the wave of success, NBC is being flogged. And I would have made that cyclical argument as recently as six months ago too. However, not anymore. I think it is time for the networks to finally accept that the week to week viewing we all grew up on is over. Done. The future of week to week broadcast television is in live programming and the future of episodic television is in binge viewing.

After devouring the first three seasons of FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” in one week, I’ve spent the past two weeks binging on Netflix’s “House of Cards”, AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and Showtime’s “Homeland”. I can say emphatically that this is the way to watch TV. Obviously, dramatic series lend themselves to this type of viewing with their emphasis on storytelling and performances but watching shows in this manner also gives them a more cinematic feel.

I think the jury may still be out on situational comedy as binge viewing. FX’s “Louie” certainly plays well either as binge or week to week. Conversely, I fear watching NBC’s “1600 Penn” in any capacity may induce a coma or suicide. Nonetheless, with Netflix releasing “Arrested Development” soon, we may have a better idea.

Why are the big four networks, and many of their cable outlets, continuing to get the future of television programming all wrong? Well, I suspect they are driven by a few things. One, saying no to anything different or challenging to keep their fat paychecks (read Bill Carter’s book Desperate Networks for more insight. Department heads lost their jobs by saying yes to “Desperate Housewives” and “Survivor”). Two, they are only focused on profit. Three, they are beholden to ratings, Madison Avenue and advertising dollars. Four, despite their Ivy League education, they’re idiots.

Here is where networks are getting everything, and I mean everything, wrong.

BEHOLDEN TO NEILSEN

Why do ratings matter any more? Here’s the hard truth, the ratings that networks and trades love to roll around in are based on less than 25,000 viewers and then projected into overall percentages. At last census, there were over 300 million US residents, with approximately 120 million television sets. Somehow, 25K is not a representative slice, any way you look at it.

REAL data exists and if networks ever got around to snapping the chains of advertisers and Neilsen, they could reap the benefits. Netflix has been able to gather and look at real data and, to date, have given us two solid shows, “Lilyhammer” and “House of Cards”. Of course, analyzing hard data and marrying it with creativity presents its own pitfalls (great Andrew Leonard Salon article here) but the point being that they created shows beholden to little else other than creativity. And it shows.

The Nielsen rating gig is up. I suspect it can work with live events, but it’s worth with traditional programming was always overrated and questionable. Now more than ever.

BLEEDING CREATIVITY DRY

“M*A*S*H” was a great sitcom and so was “Friends” but I think almost everyone can agree they went on too long. Scripted shows, regardless of format, need to be pitched and produced with an exit strategy. Pitched with a beginning, a middle and an end. We are beginning to see more of this, but still not enough. This is partially the fault of the showrunners, but I place more blame at the foot of the networks. No, is not a bad word. “No, the show can not last another season”, “No, that is a dumb idea Mr. TV Executive”. FX’s John Landgraf is getting it right more than getting it wrong.

For example, I think “The Walking Dead” is a great show but how long can you really bleed a zombie apocalypse? After three seasons, I already want to know the why it happened and then I am going to want to see it wrapped up. If it goes any longer than five seasons, it will move into pure silliness. Whatever Illuminati hints you may think are in there, it is a television show about a zombie apocalypse.

Showrunner Kurt Sutter’s “Sons of Anarchy” is straddling a fine line between caricature and drama right now. The fact that we’ve gotten five seasons of cheering for the SAMCRO bunch is amazing. But as an avid viewer, even I am beginning to recognize the reality that these are not good people and justice, one way or another, has to be served.

British television seems to have the right approach in this sense. Shows are as long as they need to be to tell the story. They do gritty crime drama better than anyone, just watch “Luther” or “Whitechapel” for examples.

Networks need to stop bleeding the creativity. Most showrunners have more than one idea so why not sign someone up to a long term contract so when one show is finished, they have another queued up and ready to roll? I would much prefer a new show over an unneeded season of “Homeland” where Carrie and Brody retire to Montana and raise goats.

GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT

We don’t want shit, and I am looking right at you NBC. While there are maybe only a few stories that can ultimately be told, man vs. nature, man vs. man, man vs. machine, etc., networks need to stop rehashing the same old song and dance. It doesn’t need to be revolutionary, it just needs to be good. And judging from what networks have ordered to pilot, “good” is apparently a very liberal idea and one that will be in short supply.

You can see what the networks have been ordered to pilot here: network pilots.

WEB ONLY CONTENT

And you know what? Maybe a show isn’t ready for broadcast television but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth producing. Take a chance, make it and give it to Netflix to release all at once. It’s a smart move and a long term investment in creativity. It will invariably reap rewards, both creative and financial.

And no, this isn’t something for your Hulu thing. Hulu is marginally better than broadcast. You wouldn’t go to Ralph’s or Stop-n-Shop for the best price on a one gallon jar of mayo, you’d go to Costco. Netflix is the Costco of digital distribution.

Digital only distribution will end up having three, maybe four, players Hulu, YouTube and Google+ (save the Facebook TV argument, it won’t work in the short or long term) and maybe Apple TV. These are the players, find a way to work with them.

Web Only Content is the minor league of creativity and this is where you nurture the talent. By creating web only shows and teaching young show runners how to create and work a show, you are teaching them what it takes to make it in the big leagues. Why not sign some talent, given them a tiny budget and let them have at it. There is plenty of talent out there and networks can capitalize on it…provided they grow a set of balls to do so.

Do NOT underestimate the power of this as both a work farm and revenue stream. Roger Corman did this. And look what we got out of his farm.

EMBRACE PRODUCT PLACEMENT

This is a tad tricky to be sure and I hate writing about product placement but let’s be honest, it’s where the money is. Characters need to wear clothes, eat and drive cars or motorcycles and why shouldn’t the makers of those products pay for that? Of course they do now, no question, but perhaps maybe networks could get a tad more mileage out of that if they didn’t jam it down our throats coupled with 18 minutes, on average, of adverts per one hour show.

The goal is to have the viewer identify, in some sense, with the people on the screen and if they discover little things they like their characters wearing, drinking or whatever, they’ll seek them out. Networks need to do more subtle engagement with the viewer and trust the viewer. We don’t need to have a tight shot of a Rolex or Ray Ban Sunglasses. The more subtle, the better.

There is no denying that this is where more revenue can be gained.

We’ve been standing at a digital crossroads for years now with every single network staring at that fork in the road waiting to see who goes first or which path is the right path. Well, there is no right path, there is only the path that moves you forward. Despite what they tell us I see very very little evidence of progress, in any capacity, in their programming decisions.

Data shows that we want to watch television, be it on a mobile device or on the computer, we just want to watch good television. Therein lies the rub.

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