Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Network Execs admit the system isn't working

Network chiefs gathered yesterday for the annual Hollywood Radio & Television Society luncheon. No, I was not invited. From what I hear there was the usual company line about how healthy and vibrant the TV industry is. I wonder if anyone from the CW was there. But there were a couple of points worth mentioning.

Remember last month I did a post about how this pilot season was getting out of control with all the insane bidding wars and feeding frenzy for so-called hot projects? Here’s that article. Well, the network heads acknowledged that, but basically put the blame on the increased media coverage. Nowadays, if even a pilot script is ordered it warrants a blurb on Nikki Finke’s site or a mention in one of the trades. In the past, that was a complete non-story. Networks commissioned scripts everyday. Imagine the Los Angeles Times running a headline story every time Cal Worthington Ford sold a used Taurus.

But in this age of instant information, script deals are now news – as is which mega mogul owns the most land (Liberty Media’s John Malone, if you care)?  One network executive said, “Every single thing that happens is now being reported, from a pitch to speculation on the terms of a deal, and that does absolutely impact the business.” while another network executive added, “I get the email about a media inquiry while the producer is still in the parking lot. That adds to the frenzy.”

Let me ask a question, and this is probably why I wasn’t invited – Don’t you get into bidding wars based on the ideas themselves? Why would you let the media play you?   So now you’re stuck with all these projects that you’ve given production commitments to and you’re saying you kind of got bamboozled into them? Just wait until January when all these scripts-with-steep-penalties-attached come in.  I have a feeling you’ll really be cursing Nikki Finke then.

Kevin Reilly of Fox (who I really like and that’s after he killed a pilot of ours while at NBC) took the floor and was the most outspoken. He admitted that the current model of developing shows is flawed at best. “We’ve programmed those things and they’re usually hideous” was how he put it.

He also lashed out at the antiquated methods ratings were still based on. “I’m not going to fight the windmill of Nielsen, but we do need to keep them honest,” he said. “The fact that we still have people filling out diaries in their living rooms is insane.”

He couldn’t be more right, although he has more to benefit from that outmoded system than anyone else. When the idiots who can’t read or spell fill out their diaries by just scrawling a big X I’m sure Simon Cowell’s show gets credit for another family.

Something else Reilly said which really makes sense: He was discussing the current cycle of network development (scripts assigned in the fall, 80 pilots all filmed in March and April, the fall schedule announced in May, and the top new shows premiere in September). “The fact that we are in lockstep and choreographed from the same dance backing up from the upfront is stupid, highly inefficient, wasteful and not good for anyone in this room,” Reilly said. “Penalties become irrelevant and things can’t be done well if there’s bottleneck. When you watch the vast pile of product at the end of the season, a big majority of it is embarrassing. Creative is difficult, but there are also a lot inefficiencies we can get rid of.”

I would have stood up and cheered (if I had been invited, which of course I wasn’t).

What he says makes perfect sense. But here’s the thing: who’s going to blink first? Which network is going to break that cycle? They all want the upfront money so they can go to their stockholders and boast about all the advertising dollars they’ve taken in months before their new shows even air. Which network is going to step back and give up their piece of that pie?

Whoever does might ultimately assemble the best shows and reap the dividends in spades.

But really, who are we kidding?

When we see by the bidding wars that the networks are so afraid to let each other get a tiny edge that they way overpay for projects written by screenwriters and actors with no TV pilot experience, good luck expecting any of them to make a move any bolder and forward-thinking than redeveloping BEWITCHED (which one of them is actually doing). 

To be continued:  at next year's luncheon.

29 comments:

Johnny Walker said...

Yep, a lot of that makes sense. I can't believe the ratings are still done that way... WTH? That's something that should definitely change, right?

Susie said...

What an awesome report and thanks for sharing.

The X joke hilarious.

Melissa Banczak said...

If I can call my cable company for help and they know what channel my tv is set at, why aren't ratings hooked directly to them?

I'm a California native who has been wandeing the world these last 25 years. I miss Cal Worthington and his dog spot.

purplejilly said...

it seems with everything so digital, why can't the TV networks know exactly what I watch, and whether I DVR'd it and watched it later, and then tell if I watch it two or three more ties because I really liked it? Can't they tell exactly what the real-time viewing of a show, live, on demand, and dvr'd is, by the end of the week? It seems like that would give a much more realistic picture of viewers. Or don't they want to know?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Re the ratings: what seems to me insane is not that they include some people keeping paper diaries; that method probably captures a demographic that's hard to measure any other way. But they also need the statistics from DVRs, cable company set-top boxes, online, etc - and they should watch the torrent numbers. Those people don't provide eyeballs for advertisers but they *do* disproportionately buy DVDs. It was obvious, for example, that GOSSIP GIRL was going to be a hit from the early torrent numbers even while the press was still saying otherwise.

On another subject, I was much taken by this story/advice for novice writers. What do you think? http://www.stevenpressfield.com/2011/10/my-years-in-the-wilderness/

wg

Please Don't Eat Me said...

With the advent of the DVR what I'm watching and recording is almost instantaneous--maybe the network execs need a better tracking system...

And they've got nobody to blame for this "system" of buying crap but themselves... I mean, whoever bought Last man Standing should be shitcanned yesterday. Tired jokes, tired premise, tired everything.

roxy said...

Since it all comes down to advertising, some savvy network would be smart to hire an outside strategy firm to build the new model for them. Or maybe the networks could all contribute to a fund to hire a third party. Define the way audiences should be counted in the digital age and sell the advertising based on that. I think there is something to be said for keeping certain routines in place (i.e. shows premiering in the fall) but I completely agree that the current tracking methods are outdated.

Please Don't Eat Me said...

With the advent of the DVR what I'm watching and recording is almost instantaneous--maybe the network execs need a better tracking system...

And they've got nobody to blame for this "system" of buying crap but themselves... I mean, whoever bought Last Man Standing should be shitcanned yesterday. Tired jokes, tired premise, tired everything.

Charles H. Bryan said...

They're bringing back BEWITCHED? Who's going to want to play the first Darren?

As for the main point of your post: I don't know how the broadcast networks can keep going with any model, really. There are only three shows that bring in a broad network-y audience: DTWS, AI, and NFL.

wv: fling -- no kidding, an actual word

Tom Quigley said...

Melissa Banczak said...

"If I can call my cable company for help and they know what channel my tv is set at, why aren't ratings hooked directly to them?"

purplejilly said...

"it seems with everything so digital, why can't the TV networks know exactly what I watch, and whether I DVR'd it and watched it later, and then tell if I watch it two or three more ties because I really liked it?"


That will happen when the majority of programming starts being streamed via the Internet. I worked for several years for a market research company which pioneered Internet-based surveying that was trying to develop the capacity to offer that type of viewer measurement via a metering system that was connected via cable or satellite downlink.

The problem was that no one was willing to lay out the money to invest in the hardware and software that was needed to make it happen. The networks didn't want to do it, the cable and satellite companies didn't want to do it, and local channels couldn't afford it, so the idea is still lingering out there, and the old-fashioned method is still in use.

RCP said...

"When the idiots who can’t read or spell fill out their diaries by just scrawling a big X I’m sure Simon Cowell’s show gets credit for another family."

Thanks for that one. This is a system that definitely needs an overhaul.

Anonymous for a Reason said...

Here is my issue with Kevin Reilly and what he has to say.

First, while he was at NBC, he not only eliminated all of their multi-camera comedies, he actually started airing ads making fun of comedies with audience laughter. Did he answer for that? Has he said anything about the success of BIG BANG THEORY (which gets astronomical ratings against NBC's single camera comedies) or new shows like TWO BROKE GIRLS? I think he was very much riding the tide of popular opinion against multi-camera comedies at the time.

But, more to the point, when Kevin Reilly took over Fox, he cut the episode orders of all three shows Fox had in production for mid-season and pushed production on a super expensive pilot called THE OAKS with a series commitment because he was so certain it would succeed.

Of course, THE OAKS never made it to air, which means Fox lost money on both the expensive production and the penalty. (Though because the studio paid for production and the network paid the penalty, I suppose both could downplay the losses). And Fox did nothing to promote the midseason shows when they aired because they knew that there were only a limited number of episodes and Kevin Reilly didn't like them. So those failed, and Fox lost more money.

Did Kevin Reilly mention any of that when discussing the benefits of developing out of the development cycle or, for that matter, commitments and penalties?

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Obviously a lot of what Reilly says is right, but I'm not sure anyone knows what the solutions are. Pilot season certainly is inefficient, and always has been, but it also creates a sense of excitement and competitiveness; here in Canada, where pilots are made at any old time and shows air whenever the networks feel like airing them, there's not much of that. U.S. networks have tried to find alternatives to the system of rolling out a bunch of shows in the fall, but I don't think they've found it yet. They're not cable.

And the Nielsen system is antiquated, but when that's brought up it sometimes sounds like an excuse, as in: if we knew how many people were really watching this, it would be a hit and [show I don't like] would be a flop. Nielsen is basically a poll, and like an election poll, it can be off in one direction or another, but it does give a sort of broad snapshot of what's popular. (You barely even need numbers to tell you that Two and a Half Men is popular and Free Agents isn't.) Eventually ratings will have to expand to include more formats and delivery methods, but networks will still be implying that the ratings don't reflect the silent majority of real viewers out there.

-bee said...

Believe it or not folks, not everybody in America has cable and still watch TV via broadcast, probably most because they cannot afford it and some out of choice.

Doing ratings by DVR, cable boxes, online streaming or other pay TV devices means cutting off a percentage of the population from being counted - do we really want to go there?

Granted, advertisers no doubt care a lot less about those who cannot afford their products, but still...

Gary Mugford said...

Ken,

Do the British have it right? Lots of 3, 6 and 13-episode seasons where the writers get their best out and then have nine months to think up new episodes. I'm really enjoying the shorter season series on a lot of cable networks more than the often padded attempts at 22 on the traditional networks.
I just think a series of six episode series would do Fox a lot of good. Run one set before the baseball playoffs and then come back with different series after the Fall Classic is history. Then, another set to Christmas and a fourth set after the holidays. No breaks for viewers to forget the characters. And you could have multiple seasons within a single year with hits.
And no expensive pay-offs when the inevitable losers don't pan out. Cheaper to kill a six-episode series than 13, or heaven forbid 22 (and I'll refrain from mentioning a two-year commitment to a former/now continuing late night talker).
Just a thought. I continue to enjoy the blog on a daily basis.
GM

gottacook said...

In reply to both J. J. Weinman and G. Mugford: The only Canadian show I know well (in reruns, of course) is Da Vinci's Inquest, which appears to have been a big success by Canadian standards, lasting 7 full seasons (plus a sequel season under a different title) of 13 episodes each. I presume Canadian audiences were happy to make the same tradeoff in a broadcast TV context that U.S. audiences are happy to make (with series such as Breaking Bad) in a cable-TV context - that is, trading script and production quality against fewer episodes per cycle.

Kendall said...

Here's a suggestion: do away with mid-season replacements. Put the best shows you have on the fall schedule, promote the heck out of them, and stick with them for a full season. Having 6 shows with commitments waiting in the wings pretty much ensures failure because the network needs to free up some real estate.

YEKIMI said...

I am one of those people who receive OTA broadcasts via a good old fashioned antenna. I will NOT pay for cable or satellite unless they let me pick what channels I want to receive. Last time I checked into getting just basic cable over half of the channels were infomercial and religious channels. I DON'T want them and shouldn't have to pay for crap I don't want to receive or subsidize those that can't make it on their own.

WV: AFTER-Believe it or not, another actual word!

fragesteller said...

As long the ratings of the demographic group 18-49 can only be measured by the Nielsen system it will continue to work, even in so outdated form like diaries.

Sad, but how else the target group can be measured?

Dave Creek said...

Those of us out of the 18-49 range don't matter much anyway, so I guess it doesn't matter in terms of ratings what I watch (since I work in TV, I can't be a Nielsen family, anyway).

Parenthetically, I started to take a programming poll from a broadcast network (as Johnny Carson once said, I won't tell you its name, but its initials are NBC), and the first question was age range. When I clicked 50 or above, the next frame was, "Thank you for taking our poll," and I couldn't go any further. You'd think they'd at least have pretended to accept my poll, even if they threw it out!

Lou H. said...

Even though your DVR and possibly your set-top box records every button you press, enabling your cable company to know that you watched the last few minutes of BROWN BUNNY over and over, Neilsen actually needs somewhat different information: they want to know who in a multi-person household is watching what. So a few years ago, they came out with People Meters, one for each member of the household.

The question of how much time shifting ought to count towards ratings is kind of interesting. I think, right now, the networks only care whether you watch a show within three days of its original airing. The movie studios, anxious for a big opening weekend, want to know how many people watch their commercials on Thursday night, not how many watched them on the following Monday.

Anonymous said...

Uh, Ken, you don't have to be invited to the HRTS lunch. All you have to do is buy a ticket. I've been to a few and they were mostly pretty dull, expect the time Brandon Tartikoff was mobbed by a bunch of hysterical women.

Anonymous said...

Just saw what a ticket to the HRTS lunch costs: $485! But wait there's more!! It includes a years membership. And yes, The CW was there represented by President Mark Pedowitz who's on the board of HRTS....

Jeff Parker said...

Ted Turner is no longer considered a mega mogul?

BrigittaV said...

Before you throw out the "old" system, which is based on a roll-out of new shows in the fall, I should point out that the automatic publicity and public expectation generated by a massive, all network roll-out would be hard to duplicate on a ad-hoc whatever-whenever basis. It seems to me networks would have to work twice as hard (read: spend more money) to make the general public aware of new shows.

It strikes me, outside observer that I am, that networks are rather stingy when it comes to promoting new shows. That cable networks don't have the advantage of having an equivalent of built-in expectation that an annual new season event provides is one reason that I think small cable network shows sometimes have trouble finding an audience. I work in a cubicle farm, and I can unequivocally say that my colleagues are alert and aware of the new fall season, and totally oblivious to what might be running on a basic cable station such as F/X, AMC, or SyFy. Even if they are aware, the most constant complaint is that they had no idea a new season had begun, or that this one show they loved to watch had come back. People lead very busy lives, working long hours, shuttling the kids around, and keeping up with household chores. (We here, Ken's audience, are a rarified group, who have our collective antennae tuned in to what's going on in TV-land. By far, most people are the opposite.)

Could the TV industry be smarter about how they go about getting shows? Probably so. But I wouldn't toss out the advantage that The New Fall Season gives them.

Frank said...

I knew the Bewitched script I've been working on since Dick York left would eventually pay off. Time to open that bottle of Cold Duck I been saving.

sephim said...

Kelsey Grammer explodes backstage after talking marriage on Sunrise

Any thoughts?

Dave Ferrara said...

Ken,

Anonymous is correct in that attendance at HRTS Newsmaker Luncheon events does not require an invitation. HRTS is a membership organization comprised of 50 Corporate, and over 1400 individual members representing almost 230 companies all who have a vested interest in the ongoing success of the media business. The HRTS Newsmaker Luncheon Series is our organization's flagship activity which routinely gathers over 700 leading media executives under one roof multiple times a year to network, discuss and debate issues relevant to our bi-coastal entertainment industry membership. HRTS Newsmaker events are covered by the trades and other news outlets and if you are LA based and wish to cover future events in a press capacity I encourage you to contact Pam or Meghan at The Lippin Group (323-965-1990) who handle our press coordination. They will hapily assist you. In addition, if being in the room is not possible, they can also provide you with access to a live stream of our event. If you'd like any additional info on HRTS please feel free to peruse our website at www.hrts.org. It is chock full of backgound on our organization. Note that our next event is set for Nov 17th and will feature a Q&A with CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves. And for the record, Mark Pedowitz (The CW) is a former HRTS Board member, as are Nina Tassler (CBS), Paul Lee (ABC) and Kevin Reilly (Fox) who also is a past president of our organization!

Best,

Dave Ferrara
Executive Director
HRTS

KryptonSite said...

Someone pointed to the Canadian show Davinci's Inquest doing fewer episodes but with better quality. On the flip side, Canadian teen drama Degrassi - with a cast that I think includes something like 35 series regulars! - has been doing about 45 episodes per year the last few years.

Granted they're only a half hour long, but the quality sticks, and I think something like that would work wonders for a network like The CW, where the younger viewers have shorter attention spans and totally tune out when they have their winter hiatuses. So I think it can go both ways.

As for what's wrong with TV now - I think a lot of it is sometimes networks that try too hard to stick to their identities or buy politically rather than based on quality. There is no reason, for example, that David E. Kelley should have done a Wonder Woman pilot. Completely wrong for the job, but because someone wanted to be in his favor, they let it happen, and the results were a disaster.

See also anyone wanting to work with Whitney Cummings, which I still shake my head about.