Witness the Demise of Network Television

The strike has made it so.

At least, that’s what the studio heads are saying in an attempt to make it sound like this writer’s strike has finally unshackled them from their mountain of obligations, allowing them to remake their networks into the lean, mean entertainment machines they are destined to become. The public glee of the programming chiefs might lead you to believe they wanted this strike, that having writers around creating shows for them was putting an unfair strain on their corporate wallets. It couldn’t be spin, could it? Multinational corporations don’t spin!

It’s no secret that the Big Networks are struggling and have been for some time. Numerous articles have been written about the slow bleed of the network audience into cable, and there was a great deal of fear that this strike would be all the motivation the rest of America needed to leave network television for good. Is there any surprise that, once the strike actually occurred, that the VPs of programming start to talk like this was a good thing for them? And is it any surprise that the ratings are not backing them up?

I found the article above while writing this. If you go there, you’ll find them saying the same thing I’m about to say: the demise of network television has nothing to do with the strike, but is only hastened by it. I’m also going to say something they aren’t saying. In their attempt to punish the writers and lessen their control over the creative process by ordering less shows and relying on the “gut feelings” of business minded programming executive, network television is handing cable outlets a bigger win than the strike ever could have.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I know the networks are owned by the same big media conglomerates as who own most cable channels, and the big daddies will be getting their payday one way or another. But if you read between the lines, you start to see how the network’s entire model of programming has become toxic, and only their broadcast affiliate monopoly has allowed them to survive.

For instance, the networks will spend $10 million on a pilot for a show that’s budgeted to cost $2-$3 million when on. Yet that same show, which they’ve spent in excess of $40 million on by the time the show is going to air ($10 for the pilot, plus 10-13 episodes at $3 million a pop) has a reasonable chance at being canceled by the fourth episode. I don’t have a count of the number of shows which have been pulled from the air before the already shot and paid for episodes have been shown, but it’s a lot.

What this means is the networks have built a business model where every major dice roll will cost them tens of millions of dollars, but in which they will not even release all of the work for which they’ve paid. This has two effects. It means your overall profit for the shows that do succeed is reduced by the expensive failures. It also means the viewers who spent an hour a week for the past month becoming invested in your show get to see it suddenly canceled, knowing full well you have another 6 episodes you can’t even be bothered to show at some garbage dump time in the early morning.

So you’ve: A) wasted money and B) alienated the people you need to make money. Shows on cable channels run for the full production slate. They might get canceled at the end of a season, but they don’t yank a show when there are still episodes to burn. The networks have turned unaired episodes into a business model, slapping them on ironically named “Complete Series” DVD sets in an effort to get back their money.

Even if they do, they haven’t lessoned the anger felt by their audience. That anger, building for at least a decade, has left the increasingly unprofitable networks reaching for a solution. Like always, they’ve misunderstood the problem. The strike is indeed giving them the opportunity to rework things. But canning production deals with writers and constricting the development process won’t do the trick. Things are changing. Even if the same corporations are the ones rolling in the dough, they won’t be doing it through their affiliates for long.

A broadened market, full of specialty outlets can only be good for creative types. Writers may not see millions heaped onto their untested shows anymore, but they’ve got a better shot at finishing a full season on fX and ABC Family than they did on the big brothers of those networks. The Wire, Weeds, Big Love and The Sopranos are proof that networks using a subscriber model, rather than an advertiser model, are capable of producing more adventurous shows without risking a sudden drop in income due to failing one of network television’s most artificial tests: Sweeps Week.

As for the studio’s noise that canceling upfronts – the time when advertisers are given a chance to buy into upcoming shows – is some kind of solution: yawn. You’re losing viewers because you produce crap that looks and smells the same as last year’s crap, and you can’t even be bothered to give that crap a shot at a full season. The insinuation that reality television – a format not coincidentally free of pilots and the upfront process – is the magic bullet may also be wrong in the long run. After chasing off viewers like me, what you have left are the 5-10 million people in the audience who only want the showiest, most degrading thing they have to offer. Do you think that audience will be there forever? Do you think the law of diminishing returns only applies to Frisbees and scripted television shows?

Will American Gladiators make you more money, over the next ten years, than Seinfeld has?

Broadcast affiliates aren’t going anywhere. They’ll still be broadcasting Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Deal or No Deal and Moment of Truth long after the strike ends. The death they face is the death of irrelevancy. They’re losing to cable outlets, and cable outlets aren’t even the future of distribution. When people, desperate for something new, are defecting to the Hallmark Channel, how do you expect to stand up to YouTube when it starts getting pumped directly into people’s 50 inch televisions?

Oh, right. No pilots, no upfronts and the gut feelings of 50 year old white guys. Sorry. You win.

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