Monday, October 23, 2006

NBC to go to more reality and game show programming...

Much consternation is going on right now due to the fact that NBC is cutting $750 million dollars from their budget, and that this means that there will be less scripted programming on the network next year, and more reality and game shows, which is a lot cheaper.

I have to admit, I don’t know what the problem is, aside from a certain snobbery regarding reality shows. True, most of them such, but so do most scripted shows. And entries like The Amazing Race and Survivor still hold their own, quality-wise, with the best of network television. Meanwhile, while some are stupid and go off the air quickly, some of the recent gameshows (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Deal or No Deal) have been fairly ingenius.

While these critics moan that the networks don’t allow shows they like to stay on long enough to find an audience—which some shows have, but certainly not a huge amount—the fact remains that the producers of scripted shows are shooting themselves in the foot, like today’s movie stars, by charging too much for their product at a time when (again like movies) the concept is generally more important than the ‘star’ power.

The critically-acclaimed but poorly-rated Friday Night Lights, for instance, supposedly costs over $2 million an episode. A more notable case in point is perhaps this season's most lauded series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Frankly, the only reason this show hasn’t been cancelled yet is that it would lose the network a tremendous amount of face. This was the program that the network spotlighted and blathered on about the most in the pre-season, with the connivance of the critical community.

As I’ve noted in the past, the problem isn’t that Studio 60 isn’t a good show, it’s that it does nothing to bring in audience members who haven’t particularly cared for producer Sorkin’s previous two series, The West Wing and Sports Night. Until Sorkin can figure out a way to stop making niche programming—and it seems likely that The West Wing featured the best setting for his style of fantasy politics and soap opera, one that will be hard to top—it remains entirely possible that he’ll never attract a mass audience again.

The real problem, therefore, is that NBC is paying $3,000,000 an episode (about $75 million for a whole year's slate) for a show that is almost designed not to draw a mass audience. There will be much wailing and snide asides about how the non-viewers were too stupid to ‘get’ the program, but whatever, the fact remains that Studio 60 has shed additional audience share every single week. Sooner or later, NBC will have to bite the bullet and cancel the show.

What’s interesting is how often this happens. Making the Studio 60 debacle even more notable is that not only did NBC redo their entire prime time schedule to protect the program after it’s originally scheduled timeslot was shaping up as too competitive, but that it providentially got a tremendous break from ending up being placed after the show that actually is what Studio 60 was promoted to be; the season’s breakout hit. That program, of course, is Heroes.

There’s probably an interesting book to be written on how programmers keep getting these calls wrong, and that supposed toss away shows, that often just barely got on the air, are the ones that really hit it big. [Actually, that book has been at least partly written. See below.] This makes one wonder what potential mega-hits didn’t make the airwaves in favor of 'star'-laden flavor of the month programming that quickly, and expensively, died on the vine.

The X-Files was pretty much entirely ignored by Fox and the critics in favor of its lead-in, The Adventures of Bronco Billy. (That was a good show, don’t get me wrong. But it was ‘supposed’ to be the hit, not The X-Files.) Same thing with CSI, which only got on the air at the last minute, and was scheduled as an afterthought to run after the supposed slam dunk hit that year, an expensive redo of The Fugitive. Like Studio 60, The Fugitive was kept on longer than was really justified because the network had made such a big deal about it.

In any case, as market fragmentation continues, the real answer for the makers of scripted TV shows, the stars and writers and producers and everyone involved, is that they will have to start making these shows cheaper if they want to avoid being replaced by the American Idols and the Deal or No Deals. Either that, or the networks will have to get better at figuring out which shows are in fact going to draw big enough audiences to justify such expense. And those audiences are going to get harder to get as time goes by.

In any case, anyone who is interested in this sort of thing should definitely check out the recent book Desperate Networks, which covers one year of programming amongst the various broadcast networks and reveals that every one of the biggest shows of the last several years; Lost, American Idol, Desperate Housewives, CSI, etc., just barely got on the air. It’s a great book, and a fascinating look into one of the most influential businesses in America.


At 1:25 PM, Anonymous twitterpate said...

I've discovered that the best way for me to navigate in unknown territory is check the way my instinct tells me to go. Then proceed in the opposite direction.

Perhaps the networks should look at all the shows that to them are ABSOLUTE DEAD CERTAIN SMASH HITS, and give them a wide berth. It certainly couldn't be worse.

At 2:45 PM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

It is funny, but the fact is you never know what the audience will want. (Unless you're francising a show, like CSI or L&O.) All three 'alien' shows last year were considered knock-offs of Lost, and they all went off the air. This year Heroes is at least fairly similar, and it's a big hit.

The fact remains, though, that justifying programs with a $3 million an episode budget is going to become increasingly problematic, unless they can sell 'subscriptions' to it or something. I actually think subscription TV will hit somewhere in the near future.

At 5:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Uhh, Bronco Billy was a Clint Eastwood movie from the early 80's. I think you're referring to "The Adventures of Brisco County Jr." that starred ole wasshisname, Campbell something or other.

At 6:31 PM, Anonymous ScottM said...

Television? Is that thing still around?

Speaking for myself, I don't watch network TV (the last show I watched was *The Simpsons*), and there is probably nothing the networks could do to get me to watch.

At 6:41 PM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

Anon-- Got me. And Scott, at least from cable TV, this is a golden age of television, with shows like Battlestar Galatica, Deadwood, The Shield, etd. While perhaps no network shows are quite scaling those heights, I think those programs are forcing the networks to upgrade the writing on some of their programs.

The problem, of course, is that cable shows require a much smaller audience to be considered a hit. If Studio 60 were drawing comparable numbers for HBO, I'm sure it would be seen as doing pretty well. On the other hand, I'm not sure HBO would fund the program to the tune of $3 million per episode.

At 9:43 AM, Blogger Marty McKee said...

Well, THE WEST WING was an enormous hit, scoring in the Top 20 during the early years, so I don't believe that constitutes "niche" programming. And STUDIO 60 is improving, as I hoped it would. This week's episode featured a strong guest performance by Eli Wallach and did a wonderful job drawing us into the awesome history of broadcasting. There were a lot of funny lines, and the cast is really very good. I think the show could have done with fewer subplots, but maybe Sorkin is still figuring out who to write for.

The big reason NBC will be keen to keep it on is because, like WEST WING, the STUDIO 60 audience is rich and a demographic advertisers love. WEST WING should have been cancelled long before it was, but those rich viewers helped keep it on.

At 10:55 AM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

Marty, you're right about West Wing's success (although the term 'enormous' might be a bit much). Still, I think it can be reasonably argued that a top twenty show--especially at the lower end of that scale--can still be niche programming. It's just successful niche programming. The audience share of a top twenty show these days is nowhere close to that of a top twenty show even ten years ago, much less twenty or thirty.

My larger point was that since Sorkin's shows are rather similar to one another, it's a question of whether Sorkin would/will ever find another setting that matched up as well with his strengths (and weaknesses) as a show set in the White House. If not, then perhaps he should try branching out a bit rather than trying to re-capture lightning in a bottle.

My advice to Sorkin-and let me be the first to admit that I've obviously never had a successful TV show-is to lighten the program up. Studio 60 is entirely too self-serious for a program revolving around the making of a TV show. Acting like the world is on your shoulders makes sense with a White House setting. Acting that way when producing (for all intents and purposes) SNL does not.

Demographics will help, of course. However, with Studio 60 getting its brain beaten in by the likes of CSI: Miami, they are either going to have to

a) actually get a larger audience to watch the show (and the ratings fell again last night, as they have every week, despite Heroes getting its biggest audience ever),

b) move it to another time slot where maybe it can do better, or

c) keep the show on the air until they achieve a proper balance between losing large amounts of money versus the embarrassment of putting their supposed showhorse to sleep.

Great shows don't necessarily find audiences, and IMO it's silly to get all huffy about it. Homicide, my nominee for the best network show ever, was consistantly beaten by Nash Bridges. And I loved Firefly, but blaming either Fox or the viewing public for the fact that a large audience didn't want to watch a show that was both a space opera and a Western--two generally unpopular genres--is pointless. People watch what they want to watch. What are you going to do?

I think movie studios are moving past the point where they will be paying actors like Tom Cruise the huge salaries of the past, and that networks will likewise be increasingly leary of paying millions of dollars for an hour of television. If that's in fact the case, then producers will either have to start making their shows more cheaply, or, again, obtain additional funds through a subscription model or some other mechanism.

At 12:27 PM, Anonymous ericb said...

*sarcasm alert*

Maybe Sorkin should create a show about Congress.

At 12:37 PM, Anonymous ericb said...

Here's another suggestion: How about some non-cop shows that are episodic. I know long story arcs with detailed character developement are all the rage now but a show with a different "adventure" every week and that wouldn't require cliff notes to keep up with would be welcome. Frankly I much prefered X-Files episodes with the monster of the week rather than the onese with the convoluted story arc.

At 1:42 PM, Blogger David C said...

I think the real problem is that network television itself is a dinosaur staggering slowly toward extinction.

They're still operating on a business model that essentially hasn't changed in 50 years. While the rest of the world is in 2006, the networks are in 1956, with all sorts of things still being done for no particular reason other than "We've always done it this way."

I'm not sure exactly what they need to change or how to stay relevant, as it's not my job, but someone needs to.

At 1:46 PM, Blogger David C said...

Oh, one point I wanted to make in there is that the DVD-on-TV phenomenon indicates that many "flop" shows can become profitable - *very* profitable, in some cases.

*Firefly* ultimately made a lot of money. There was an audience out there, but for whatever reason, Fox was never able to make a connection between that audience's money and its broadcasting arm.

Lost profits on this scale should be causing a lot of people to seriously rethink the entire business, from the ground up.

At 2:20 PM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

Eric --

What's funny is that syndication used to demand stand alone episode shows, and so the networks were cautious about extended story arcs.

Now there's probably as much, if not more, money in DVD, and shows with extended, even season-long, story arcs benefit from being packaged together.


Ultimately, yes, that's the big picture problem. The networks haven't really adapted from the days when the Big Three owned 95% of the primetime audience. Now it's the Big Four (even Five, occasionally), along with cable and a thousand other entertainment options. The networks are basically standing on the remains of a huge iceberg, and it's still kind of roomy, but getting smaller all the time.

At 2:00 PM, Anonymous twitterpate said...

To slightly drift off topic (to keep up with Ken's iceberg metaphor, perhaps), it's a shame that the specialty channels haven't kept their core concepts. Sci-Fi is hardly sci-fi anymore, The Learning Channel is now the Home Renovation Channel, and how Roller Derby qualifies as Arts and Entertainment is beyond my knowledge.

I for one would rather be able to target my money on a few fairly small niches (sci-fi, science and arts) rather than be slowly drowned in a tepid swill of reality programming, twenty-somethings sex dramas, and "serious" programs involving characters who are all essentially despicable. Not that I think such programs should be driven off the air; but the networks are still chasing the "show that EVERYONE will watch, even if it's just background noise" rather than spend appropriate amounts to target select markets.

At 8:21 AM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

It is weird. As I understand it (having lacked cable for a couple of decades now), MTV doesn't even really play music much anymore. "American Movie Classics" plays stuff like Reptilicus. I mean, I love that movie, but yeesh. *That's* what should be playing on the Sci-Fi channel.

If a zillion channels doesn't mean speciality channels that do indeed stick with a niche, then what's the point?

Part of the problem is that various channels are owned by a handful of conglomerates. In a perfect world, the one that owns the Sci-Fi Channel would trade content with the one that owns The Western Channel (or whatever), so that everyone has varied and appropriate programming. Again, Reptilicus should play on Sci-Fi, not AMC.


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