Sunday, October 07, 2007

SO FAR, NOT SO GOOD

The 2007-2008 TV Season officially kicked off a couple of Sundays ago. Unofficially, it began about 6 weeks earlier when pilots for about a dozen shows, including NBC's "The Bionic Woman", ABC's "Pushing Daisies" and "The Sarah Connor Chronicles" from Fox, were mysteriously leaked online.

I use the term "leaked" advisedly, because it was odd that none of the escapees, which also included CW's "Reaper" and the first two episodes of Showtime's "Dexter", were work prints, rough cuts or bore the other watermarks of material clandestinely spirited from their rightful owners.

In other words, 12 pristine, DVD quality pilots for series whose debuts impact the bottom lines of several networks in a major way, all got loose at exactly the same time.

Sounds like a marketing plan to me.

And one that was both useful and necessary for the studios and networks involved.


This is a make or break season for television as we've known it. Audiences are receding, budgets are exploding, advertisers are cautious and the usually dependable media hype has been diluted by the disappearance of TV writers and critics in many markets and an increasingly concentrated focus on Celebrity misbehavior in the television and magazine arenas.

There was a time when "Entertainment Tonight" and fan mags could be counted on to create TV stars. Now, they get more mileage by trying to destroy them.

An AOL/Time Warner poll conducted in late September found 62% of Americans holding the opinion that TV was getting worse, with a mere 7% indicating a desire to sample even one of the new offerings.

In a situation like this, an imaginative approach is essential. And since not much imagination had been evident in the announced pilots, most being takes on previous hits or well worn TV paradigms; the hype machine needed to create buzz, controversy and spin in a short period of time. And what better bunch to do that with than the less-discerning-than-journalist fan bloggers and genre geeks.

At some level, I think the Studios and Nets got what they wanted, for a number of the leaked shows were soon re-tooling ("Caveman") throwing staff overboard ("Bionic Woman") or taking out full page ads ("Pushing Daisies") to trumpet their imminent arrival.

One thing that caught my attention during this whole exercise was that anybody who took the time to assess and respond to the material would have to have been, in Hollywood terms, "A Pirate". Yet, there was Hollywood now embracing such rogues when it fit their needs.

Ever since Jean Lafayette, American desperation has begot strange bedfellows.

It'll be interesting to see if the next kid charged with illegal downloading by the MPAA will have a lawyer smart enough to ask how his client is supposed to differentiate between pirated material and that placed on P2P sites by the studios themselves.

It'll take a few more weeks to know for certain if the online buzz created by "The Great Escape" will make a difference where it counts most -- in the Ratings. But if the first week's numbers are an indication -- it wasn't much help.


On the season's debut Sunday, the highest rated prime time program was a football game. By the second week, the numbers were saying that the overall audience had declined a full 7% from the same week in 2006.

Last month, the networks handed their advertisers $150 Million in "Give Backs", representing the 8% dip in audiences they'd suffered for all of last season.

While the numbers confirm that the audience hasn't found a reason to come back to Network television, perhaps of greater concern is that, so far, none of the new series has generated any real excitement.

We're now 2 episodes into most with nary a "Desperate Housewives", "Lost", "Heroes" or even an "Ugly Betty" emerging from the pack.

This is significant for two reasons. First, if there is no breakout hit, how is anybody supposed to know what to copy for next season?

And second -- if the first wave of shows underperforms as badly as they appear to be doing, the Nets are faced with throwing a new slate of programs (deemed over the summer to be of even lesser appeal) into the breach. But few, if any, of these series have banked episodes. And with a Writers Guild of America strike imminent, failure by the reinforcements will mean we're in for a long winter of dance contests, spelling bees and bug eating.


Canadian audiences seem to be following the same path as those parked on American couches. Hockey Night In Canada's season debut was down 41% from last year. I'm not going to blame that one entirely on a disinterested audience. The season debut was on a Thursday, a night now so dominated by programming aimed at women that it's long been "Boy's Night Out" for most of the married or attached men I know.

I'm also one of a growing number of guys who won't be watching any hockey on CBC this season.

As I endured play-by-play stalwart Bob Cole stumbling over names and losing track of what was happening on-ice, as well as three times refering to players as "that guy" -- as in "That guy misses the pass" and "Wow, that guy hit the crossbar"; I realized that the amazing hockey coverage I'd seen from ESPN and NBC during the playoffs hadn't budged the traditionalists at HNIC. Don Cherry's anti-Francophone opening line confirmed that the same-old-same-old is what's on tap over there.

So this year, I'll be watching hockey online at www.nhl.com. Their Center Ice (No Canadian Spelling Here) package costs less than the cable/satellite versions and will also help wean me off the masochistic relationship with the Toronto Maple Leafs that the CBC and I seem to have shared.

Go Penguins!!! I think...

Losing me won't pitchfork the numbers at Hockey Night, but I'm certain I'm part of the same trend that already has the National Football League scheduling more of their games on their own network and online, despite being offered a king's ransom in TV license fees for them by several US Networks.

The NFL also introduced new rules for the media this season. To protect the internet operations of their 32 teams, they informed news organizations that they can post no more than 45 seconds per day of video online on any team. That includes player interviews, news conferences and comments by coaches.

When one of the strongest brands and most reliable suppliers of a captive audience begins to shift content away from traditional televised media and also makes sure they are the "Go To" source that gives fans what they want when they want it, you know the handwriting is on the wall for broadcasting as we know it.

And when guys like me, who spend half their alloted TV time watching hockey to start with, begin to watch it online -- how much longer until we start questioning how badly we really need most of the channels we're paying for but hardly ever watch.

That's when a trickle of audience depletion turns into a flood.

Unfortunately, the people in broadcasting, though clearly under threat, don't seem to be diverging from their traditional development and scheduling paths. Despite acknowledgment that their lunch is being eaten by cable services like HBO, Showtime, AMC and even Turner, nobody in the free-to-air executive suites seems motivated to pick up the gauntlet or use the awesome strength they still have to join the battle.

At the CBC, "Little Mosque", which did well last season (though not in an earth shattering way) was simply supplied with fresh horses, but not adjusted to expand its reach. It debuted down 25% from last season's average and "Intelligence", a series which had no business (beyond dubious artistic merit) being renewed, saw its audience decline by a full 50%.

Whether the audience opinion is wary interest or outright rejection, if you're going to renew a series, you also need to give them a reason to suspect their first opinion might have been lacking and they need to give the show more attention.

That doesn't seem to be happening anymore. And did I miss a meeting or is there a resurgence of 70's style television going on in Canada? Because CBC has two offerings about to debut which clearly reflect that ambience and style.

I'm not sure how "Triple Threat" and "Heartland" will fare, but after watching the online promos, I can't see either of them threatening anything scheduled opposite, and I sure wouldn't want to be aboard the shows that follow them.

Meanwhile, a nasty scrap has broken out between CTV and Global over who programs the better selection of American series. While such dust-ups are common in most competitive markets, it caught us off-guard in Canada, where all our networks are more or less publicly subsidized and therefore expected to be courteous in polite company.

But it further exemplified just how high the stakes are this season.

No matter what the Canadian ratings are for US series, our viewing habits won't impact on their potential cancellation or demotion to an alternate time slot. Those cancellations and time shifts wreak havoc with the Canadian simulcast system, so advertisers for specific demographics need to be locked in before the cull commences.

Both Canadian Nets are also strapped for cash after a summer of corporate take-overs and with little product to market to ipods or on DVD, immediate ad cash is all that's keeping the lights on.

Job cuts might hide the bleeding for a quarter or two but after that...

To be sure, DVR numbers(once tabulated)will pretty up the picture for everyone. But I'm still not exactly sure how they know I watched "Chuck" later the same night, the following Saturday afternoon, or intend to catch up over the Christmas holidays -- let alone whether I fast forwarded through all the commercials or just the boring ones.

The spin going on in our industry isn't just Networks pretending their product mysteriously escaped online, it's in their pretending that nothing's wrong, that band-aids are enough and things can go on just like they always have.

In a way, "Cavemen" isn't just the name of the first new series that's likely to be cancelled this season. It's a description of the TV Executives occupying the boardrooms.


1 comment:

Bill Cunningham said...

Good assessment, Jim. I'm looking at all the netsare offering this season and planning my computer time accordingly. While there are some shows I will watch no matter what, I am extremely disappointed (bewildered?) by most of the choices made this season.

In other news, you may (or may not) be pleased to know that REGENESIS is in local syndication here in the southland. The timeslot sucks - sunday afternoons at 1pm - but it's here.