Friday, December 26, 2008

On The First Day Of Christmas

On the First Day Of Christmas my true love (Television) gave to me.... a Nostradamus wannabe.

I'm talking about Jeff Zucker and by extension his little minion Ben Silverman. The truth is though that most of these pronouncements, whether they come out of the mouths of Zucker or Silverman (and often, before Silverman, Kevin Reilly) are Zucker's. And Zucker has a tendency to make predictions about things that are going to happen. Often – well sometimes anyway – these are predictions of gloom and doom. In my book this makes him a Nostradamus wannabe. The only thing is that Nostradamus couched his predictions in quatrains that are so vague and subject to interpretation that you really only knew he was "right" once things had happened. Who really thought that "Hister" equalled Hitler until after World War II? Zucker, bravely, does not couch his predictions in vague, if cryptic, generalities; he just comes out and makes statements. And his predictions tend inevitably to be wrong. This makes his most recent musings about the future of TV, and the more importantly the action that he took after making them, particularly bothersome.

But let's go back in history first to one of the first Zucker predictions that I took note of in this blog. Back in October 2006, when NBC was going through a batch of cost cutting that required the firing of 700 employees to make a saving of $750 million, Zucker announced that the network would no longer air scripted TV series in the first hour of primetime. According to the TV Squad article at the time Zucker stated that "advertisers just won't pay enough money during the 8 pm time slot to cover the costs of comedies and dramas." Instead the network would program game shows and reality series during that hour, largely I think because NBC was basking in the initial glow of Deal Or No Deal. While it was never stated – the article doesn't cite a source for the statement unfortunately – Zucker presumably expected all of his competitors to follow the NBC lead. At the time I stated that the truth was that advertisers weren't willing to pay enough for the NBC shows that were airing in the first hour of primetime. In the event NBC did try the "non-scripted only" strategy in the middle of the 2006-07 season. The only night on which they aired scripted programming in the first hour was the Thursday night comedy block. On other nights they were airing two episodes of Dateline NBC (then in the heat of it's To Catch A Predator popularity) plus one on Saturday; Deal Or No Deal; Thank God You're Here (the show where actors did "improv" to various pre-scripted situations); and 1 vs. 100 (which was replaced by a twelve episode run of Identity. But in the 2007-08 season the network added the scripted show Chuck (until the beginning of the strike) on Monday night, while airing two episodes of Deal Or No Deal and Biggest Loser (and the Football pregame on Sunday night). Dateline NBC only reappeared on Sundays after the end of the Football season. And this season? NBC is airing scripted series three nights of the week with the Football pregame, Deal Or No Deal (down to one episode a week now) and Biggest Loser. As for the rest, CBS has scripted shows on four of the six nights (the exceptions being 60 Minutes on Sunday and Survivor on Thursday); ABC has scripted series on two of six nights (Lost on Wednesday and Ugly Betty on Thursday); FOX does three (currently – this will change a bit when American Idol begins and changes a bit more when the new Friday night line-up debuts) nights of scripted shows; The CW does four nights of scripted shows (five if you count the Jericho reruns on Sunday night); and MYNetwork TV (which I mention because Zucker's most recent pronouncement apparently counts them as a competitor) does one (three if you count their two nights of movies) but doesn't have anything on Sunday nights. Score one Zucker prediction down the tubes.

Next up we had Jeff Zucker talking pilots and the traditional upfront presentations. This really started in January of 2008 when Zucker told the NAPTE (National Association of Television Program Executives) convention in Las Vegas that NBC would only be ordering five pilots a year instead of the more usual twenty. According to Zucker, "People want to ridicule the idea of making fewer pilots. It's usually those who have a vested interest in perpetuating the inefficiencies of the system. As I have said, this is not about making less programs. It's about making less waste." Supposedly – as was stated in a follow-up statement by then Universal Media Studios president Katherine Pope – was a script for the first episode so they could see what the show would be about. This also rationale also had a lot to do with NBC's decision not to hold a traditional upfront presentation at Radio City. At the same meeting Zucker stated that, "We believe the big show is a vestige of the last decade. What matters is the new schedule and the rationale behind it." And he added "We probably will be on our own in doing this at the start. Like everything else, if it's successful, others will follow." In other words everyone was going to do it but NBC was going to be innovative. There were mixed reviews from the decision not to do upfronts. According to a TV Week article from around the time of Zucker's NATPE speech, while some advertising executives felt that individual meetings with agencies were more important than "the big 'Here are the stars and the shrimp and the fun'" others felt that there were considerable advantages to the upfront system. John Miles of MediaCom stated that the advantage of the upfronts was that "You connect with the community at large, which includes clients. It can create some positive momentum. Does it have to be $20 shrimp? I'm sure it doesn't. But you know want? It's a people business. It's a social business, it's a relationship business, and part of relationship-building happens at those parties." And John Swift of PHD U.S. stated that there were advantages for both sides in the traditional upfront process, including – for the agencies – price advantages, the ability to secure spots when you need them and ratings guarantees.

As for the decision not to produce many pilots, John Miles stated that "We understand the economics, we understand the reality, but we are buying shows for audience delivery and environmental capability, and in order to make some of those decisions, you've got to see the program. The bait-and-switch is that we know that what we see is not necessarily what is going to end up on the schedule, but I think it gives us a flavor of the sort of direction that the network is heading in. And so I think pilots give you some good information about a network's sensibility." And Shari Anne Brill, VP of programming at Carat stated, "I don't know what any of these guys have in development and I like going to those meetings so I have an idea of what's new and coming out. They're going to have to have something to show us or describe because we have to do our [audience] estimates. What do I estimate on? I need to see some form of an attempt at a schedule." (Emphasis mine.) In other words the decision not to do pilots deprived the advertising executives of the ability to make decisions on what programs they should buy time on. Most of all though, based on the performance of the schedule that NBC put in place its "limited pilot" strategy seems to have been an abject failure. Of the new shows that NBC introduced in September, My Own Worst Enemy ended after nine episodes – all that were completed at the time it was cancelled; the Knight Rider remake was initially given a full season order of 22 episodes and then had that order reduced by five episodes and had the storyline "reformatted" to make it more like the original series; Crusoe was moved from Friday to Saturday night for the remainder of its thirteen episode run. The only "success" has been the American version of the Australian sitcom Kath & Kim which has done poorly in both total viewers and ratings in the demographic. From this standpoint the whole business of not actually seeing what you're going to put on your network seems to be an abject failure. While there may still be sufficient questions about the necessity for the upfronts to leave that prediction unresolved, it seems clear that the idea of fewer pilots is another Zucker prediction that's a flop.

Which brings us to the latest pronouncements from Nostra-Zucker-us, and the events that followed them. Speaking before the annual UBS Global Media and Communications Conference on December 8th, Zucker stated that the model for broadcast networks has to change: "Can we continue to broadcast 22 hours in prime time? Three of our competitors don't. Can we continue to broadcast seven days a week? One of our competitors doesn't." In the first part he is referring to FOX, The CW and My Network TV, while in the latter case he is talking about The CW (which doesn't program shows on Saturday) although he might well be speaking of My Network TV which doesn't program Sunday nights. The fact that three networks don't program the third hour of prime time each night is at least partially an accident of history. When FOX was established it could only program two hours a night if the company wanted to produce its own scripted programs; by programming only two hours it was not considered a network under FCC regulations. Networks at the time weren't allowed to produce shows and a major part of the FOX programming strategy required shows to be produced by 20th Century Fox. By the time the FCC regulations were changed the Fox affiliates had cut out a lucrative niche by presenting the news an hour before their "network" competitors. Something similar occurred with The CW and My Network TV – their affiliates had already established their late night news programming at the beginning of the third hour of prime time and they were unwilling to surrender the time. Using these networks – particularly the extremely low rated CW and My Network TV – as a model for the future is at best a questionable bit of logic.

Zucker's UBS announcement was followed the next day by the blockbuster announcement that some people thought the original statement was set up to lead into: NBC signed Jay Leno to do a talk show in the third hour of primetime five nights a week. This means of course that NBC has removed itself from original scripted programming in the third hour of primetime every night except Sunday, and then only after Sunday Night Football ends. And the truth is that no matter what NBC is paying Leno for that hour a week it is probably less than what a scripted series would cost. There are other implications however. Because in much of the country (though not all as the Parents Television Council never ceases to remind broadcasters thanks to their demands for FCC fines) the third hour of primetime fall beyond the so-called "watershed" when more adult programming can be legally presented, NBC's abandonment of scripted programming in that hour means that the network won't be able to do shows that "push the envelope" (although again – because of the PTC and their FCC complaints – the degree to which any of the networks has been willing to do that is questionable). Of course in real terms for NBC the loss is really minimal. With ER ending its run in March 2009, the only NBC show that has been established as a long-term resident of the third hour are Law & Order and Law & Order Special Victims Unit. The most recent attempts (as in this season) by the network to program the third hour have included shows like My Own Worst Enemy and Lipstick Jungle, both of which were cancelled by the network.

Zucker' assertion that maybe the networks should give up the third hour of primetime was hardly received with universal acceptance. Les Moonves of CBS told the UBS conference that, "I'm here to tell you the model ain't broken. You can still make a lot of money in network television. We like 10 o'clock shows." Other reaction to Zucker's statement has been mixed. An article in the Denver Post stated that, "At the very least, NBC is signaling its emphasis on cost-cutting rather than a pursuit of proud entertainment. The days of great NBC dramas like Hill Street Blues, Homicide: Life on the Street are long gone. With Leno as a lead-in, NBC affiliates won't get any ratings help for their late news." The article also stated that "NBC pulled off a clever move in the short term, keeping Leno in the family along with O'Brien. In one stroke, it filled a weeknight hour of prime time with Leno's solid brand, prevented ABC from hiring the comedian, and responded to the changing nature of television with a different economic model. The network saves $13 million a week by abandoning scripted dramas in the last hour of prime time. Smart business idea; lackluster entertainment concept. Shareholders are bound to be more pleased than viewers, who are right to expect more. Hailed as bold and radical, it's really a very safe move, aimed at cutting costs." And that's what it really seems to be about for Zucker and NBC – how the shareholders regard the bottom line. In a chart shown at GE's investor presentation on December 16th, the profits from NBC's broadcast business fell from $1.4 billion in 2005 to an estimated $400 million in 2008. At the same time profits for the company's cable arm went up by nearly $800 million. The Wall Street Journal article that this tidbit came from stated that "You can blame some of that loss on the fact that NBC has tumbled in the ratings and has never replaced the hits it had in the days of Seinfeld, and later, Friends. But hits are cyclical: Wait around long enough, and you end up airing something that works. If NBC thought that hits would be enough to claw back some of that billion, CEO Jeff Zucker wouldn't be conceding five valuable hours to Jay Leno, who costs less to air than the shows he's replacing, but has less upside potential. Instead, Zucker seems to be saying that broadcast TV is a big but shrinking business, and that he's not going to fight that trend." It is of course worth noting that the programming decisions that failed to replace hits like Seinfeld and Friends but instead kept those shows on the air by throwing money at their stars (and then after even that stopped working, giving us crap like Joey and the American version of Coupling) were made by one Jeffrey Zucker. As the Denver Post article points out, "Audiences deserve an array of smart scripted comedies and dramas beyond the lowbrow, vanilla humor that has come with NBC efforts like Celebrity Apprentice or The Biggest Loser. The broadcast networks are increasingly abandoning challenging drama to cable. Knight Rider is NBC's answer to Damages, Mad Men, The Shield, Weeds and The Tudors.... While spreading Leno across primetime makes fiscal sense, it sounds about as exciting as the virtual fireplace or yule log video loop so popular at this time of year. It's a game changer, all right. For many viewers, there are compelling dramas and comedies waiting on the DVR. Plan to catch five minutes of monologue, then switch to a meaty cable drama." Or maybe something on CBS or ABC. But that doesn't matter to Jeffrey Zucker. His motto seems to be "short term gain and long term pain" though he doesn't say the latter part out loud.

Concern for the bottom line is important but in both this move and his previous utterances and actions Zucker has proven that the bottom line is his primary concern. But surely success on the bottom line has a lot to do with the quality of the shows you put before the public. Because in truth the public aren't true customers for network television, it is the advertisers. The public – the TV viewers – are the real commodity that the networks are selling, not the shows. Advertisers are buying eyeballs in front of the set because those eyeballs might actually watch the commercials that the advertisers are producing. The financial straits that NBC as a network finds itself probably has very little to do with the existing network broadcasting model. It is in part a product of the economic downturn but also in part a product of NBC simply not putting on shows that the public wants to see.

Oh yeah, and CBS? The network that doesn't believe that the broadcasting model is broken? Well their audience figures are up over last year. According to The Hollywood Reporter, "Through Dec. 21, CBS has averaged 12 million viewers, up 1% from last year. NBC, ABC and Fox are each down 9%." And that's mostly with scripted programming including the third hour of primetime.

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