Zero Sum Is No Win

I wonder how many books will be written on the failure of network television.  Endless missteps combined with rapid changes in the technology of media have left it a hollow shell of itself.  The analysis will be nearly as endless, and probably as unsuccessful at keeping people in the future from making the same mistakes.  Sadly, I think the mistakes are hardwired into the genetic makeup of the people who end up running big media conglomerates.

Many, though not all, of the problems of network television can be chalked up to an egotistical competitive streak shared by all of the networks.  It’s never enough to do well.  You have to do well in relation to your competition.  Profit?  Yeah, that’s nice, but it’s only comforting if your profit is bigger than their profit.  In fact, it’s not even all that satisfying if they’re making a profit at all; winning means them losing.

It’s Upfronts week, and that means the networks are all releasing their new schedules.  One of my favorite shows, Community, will continue to hang out at 8PM on Thursday.  It’s been successful there, and that’s good news for viewers; Community is the best new sitcom in years, and anything that keeps the show on the air is good by me.  Meanwhile, over at CBS, they’ve got their own successful, newish sitcom: Big Bang Theory.  It’s been showing on Monday until now, but as of next season, they’ll be moving it to Thursdays at 8PM, where it can compete for roughly the same audience as Community.

So rather than pick a time slot where it can compete against different shows, CBS has decided that its best strategy is to fracture that audience between two similar shows.  What’s the rational here?  Even if Big Bang Theory wins, which seems to be the prediction, what’s been gained here? The best case scenarios is, what, killing off a competitor’s success, hopefully at minimal expense of your own?  How is this better than putting a different show against Community, servicing an audience that show is not, and putting Big Bang Theory elsewhere, against, say, a Law and Order clone?

Because it’s a zero sum game, I suppose, and if NBC is having success with an audience that you also target, even if you’re doing so on a different day, well that shit can not stand, man.

The reality is, people who watch both shows will continue to do so, you just increase the likelihood that people will do so on DVR.  Heck, there’s a good chance you might convince a few people who hadn’t DVRed either show to this point to start doing it with one or both of them.  And you increase audiences overall frustration with a television model designed more to enable arm wrestling matches between few ambitious media executives than be financially successful by putting out successful shows.

So when HBO or TNT or AMC puts out another show that they air fifteen times in a week and put instantly on On Demand, doing everything they can so that you can catch their show regardless of what other shows you watch, you lose a little bit more. You lose audience who doesn’t trust you to do what you can to help a show succeed.  You lose writers and directors who are sick of seeing their shows become pieces on a chessboard.

And you continue lose money.  The supposed purpose of the whole enterprise.

All because a few people at a few companies can’t stand to see someone else succeed along with them.

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