Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Death of Network Television

Link to article

Cable networks target just those viewers who want what they have to offer. Broadcast networks want everyone. And the business of wanting everyone has never been worse. At the end of last season, ABC, CBS, and NBC reported their smallest combined audience ever, an event that has become a gloomy yearly occurrence.

Ways that broadcast TV might be reborn:
  1. Accept the fact that niche is the new normal
  2. Know your brand
  3. Don't count on "flow" unless all your programming is aimed at the same audience
  4. Content counts
  5. When you say the TV season is 52 weeks, you have to mean it
  6. Don't break faith with your audience
  7. If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em
  8. Lowered expectations can be your best friend
Conversations about the future of television tend to vault way past next week or next year into a world where schedules don't exist and 10,000 programming options are all available at any moment, half of them fully interactive... It sounds like fun. But in reality, the number of cable channels has topped out. And the number of households that subscribe to basic cable—about 65 million—hasn't budged for a decade.

To redefine itself, FX had to make casual viewers expendable in order to build its rep with committed ones. "We want to have somebody's favorite show," Landgraf says, "not everybody's 10th-favorite show."

"A lot of times, we'll premiere an episode of Top Chef and then rerun the episode right when it's over. And people stay tuned! Some of our shows are really like crack," he laughs. This practice makes sense in two ways: It's cost-efficient and it builds loyalty. The tactic used to be dismissed as killing the goose that laid the golden eggs, until people noticed that the goose kept on thriving. Now it's just a matter, as Cohen puts it, of "feeding the beast."

Discussions at the networks about what's depleting their viewership tend to focus on familiar culprits: YouTube. The internet. Xbox. The iPod. Too many options. Instead, the networks should try to make TV shows for people who want to watch TV shows.

Broadcast networks routinely spend three months promoting a show that they then cancel after two airings. Or they get a few million viewers hooked on a serialized drama and then drop it midway through a season, leaving fans hanging. This simply never happens on cable, where if a series gets a 13-episode order, those 13 episodes are damn well going to air, even if it's just because there’s nothing else to take their place. Every time the networks reshuffle their grid in a spasm of quick-fix panic, they disenchant more viewers. (a textbook example: Joss Whedon's Firefly)

For 50 years, pop culture has moved in only one direction—toward more options, fewer mass phenomena, and greater consumer control. And there's no turning that around, especially with a generation of viewers that sees no meaningful distinction between a broadcast network and a cable channel.

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