Friday, August 29, 2008

Convention coverage with no talking empty heads

It's hard to imagine, being able to watch on television important political speeches without a couple of talking heads telling me before the speech what the speech should and should not include, why the speaker will or won't succeed, and what he or she did for lunch.

Then immediately after the speech, not having additional talking heads tell me what the speech did and/or did not accomplish, what was right or wrong about the speaker's dress or smile, etc.

Dish Network allowed me to try using my own brain to receive and analyze speeches at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) and is going to allow me the same opportunity for the Republican National Convention (RNC).

Dish has, in both high definition and standard definition, dedicated a channel to gavel to gavel audio and video of the conventions, without commentary.

The DNC without the talking empty heads providing "color" was pure enjoyment. I recorded it, of course, so I could skip the dead air times.

It did stretch my brain a little, having to consider the candidates' words with only the context I could provide. And I had to measure the sincerity using only my judgment.

But it was an enlightening experience. I also recorded some broadcast and cable network coverage. After watching that, I knew exactly why I refer to them as talking "empty" heads.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

To Congress: Let the TV stations free!

"I think the broadcast television universe has kind of, on a certain level, devolved, if you will," said Steven Bochco, in a recent interview in Forbes. "Additionally, the working environment in broadcast television has really shifted radically over the last half a dozen years or so."

In those few words Bochco described the malaise infecting the television industry everyone can see exists but no one seems to be attempting to cure. Perhaps it is because the cure is radical. So the American TV viewer may become the loser. It could happen as part of the digital TV "revolution."

The fact is broadcast television stations have been moribund for two decades. While one can always find examples of a quality documentary production offered somewhere around the United States, broadcast stations have a license for broadcasting 24/7, not 60 minutes every six months. If it weren't for content through seven networks - ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, PBS, The CW and MyNetwork - it's highly likely that viewers within most of the 210 broadcast television Designated Market Areas (DMA's) would have nothing of quality or substance to watch from 6 pm to midnight.

To test this statement, take a look at what is offered in your "competitive" market on the "independent" stations. Then check out what's on the affiliated stations outside the network content show times. The Fox affiliates receive only two hours of network prime-time programming a night. Allowing for up to two hours for news related shows, that leaves two hours a night they use to offer what? Do you see 10 hours of smart, syndicated new programming? Local programming produced by groups comparable to local regional theater efforts?

In my area, the nightly lineup on the Fox affiliate looks like this:

6:00 pm News
6:30 pm Friends
7:00 pm Friends
7:30 pm Sienfeld
8:00 to 10:00 Network Programming
10:00 pm News
11:00 pm Seinfeld
11:30 pm Frasier

So, of course, what Congress did is give these folks the exclusive use of three more digital channels without reducing any of the guarantees and protections in place. What protections you may ask? There are many, but let me describe one of them.

Most viewers do not get their programming from the two main cable competitors, DirecTV and Dish Network. If they did get their service from satellites, sooner or later a logical question might cross their collective minds: "Why are the satellite TV companies expending huge sums of money to provide the bandwidth to carry local stations? Wouldn't it be better to provide for viewers to be offered an East and West feed for each of the networks like they do HBO and Showtime?"

At one time, one could get network stations from the East, from Denver, and from the West on satellite. But that came to a halt. Why? The answer is, of course, the broadcast TV lobby persuaded Congress that it was in the public interest to prevent any competition between affiliates of the same network. So Americans can no longer receive differing views of news from other regions of this huge nation.

The satellite TV situation is only one [i]symptom[/i] of the problem. The problem is that local broadcast stations are a 1950's structure created around limitations in technology at the time. They are as much as anachronism today as 1930's radio was when TV was allowed to replace it. It is now time to say goodbye to protected broadcast television stations.

"Wait a minute," you say. "Perhaps the stations in more rural areas and those owned by other than major media companies don't produce local content. But what about those in the major cities?"

There are 210 designated market areas. NBC owns outright seven stations, one of which is for sale, and is a 76% owner in two more. ABC owns 10 stations. CBS owns 14, Fox 18. They all own stations in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia. The original "Big Three" also own stations in San Francisco. NBC, the bellweather network, also owns a station in Dallas-Fort Worth as do CBS and Fox.

That's it. Six DMA's are worth the effort - New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Dallas-Fort Worth. And what an effort those locals put into providing local programming for their viewers.

On a typical week night between 5 pm and midnight on New York"s WNBC in addition to news and network programming, you get "Extra" and "Access Hollywood". WCBS gives you "Insider" and "Entertainment Tonight". WABC brings you "Jeopardy" and "Wheel of Fortune". WNYW Fox brings you "The Simpsons", "Seinfeld", and "TMZ" - [i]twice[/i]. These have to be potentially the most profitable stations in the country. Not one regularly schedules 30 minutes of locally produced programming on a typical week night between 5 pm and midnight other than news. This is the home of great theater. There is no shortage of proven talent. Why did these four stations receive three more channels each from the public in the digital switch? And why does the government protect to the point of giving them gifts?

And now the networks are adding insult to the injury of poor prime time programming. For instance, while expanding its TV series streaming presence on the web in direct competition with its affiliates (jointly with Fox in the case of HULU), NBC is cutting its losses by requiring its affiliate local stations to share their revenue by paying for network programming.

In summary, NBC owns the NBC broadcast stations in the largest local markets, they are competing with the affiliate local stations on the web, they are introducing new fees charged to non-owned affiliates, and they have the federal government protecting and expanding their monopolistic interest in this broadcast structure designed around 1950's technology.

If that isn't enough, for their affiliate broadcast station the networks are dumbing down programming to the cheapest and most easily controlled common denominator while experimenting on their various cable channels.

Steven Bochco's new show "Raising the Bar" will be on a cable channel, TNT. In case you've forgotten who Bochco is, here are examples of his credits:

Hill Street Blues (1981-87):
Creator (with Michael Kozoll)
Executive Producer
Writer (54 of 146 episodes)

Doogie Howser, M.D. (1989-93):
Creator (with David E. Kelley)
Executive Producer
Writer (51 of 97 episodes)

NYPD Blue (1993-2005):
Creator (with David Milch)
Executive Producer
Writer (260 of 261 episodes)

In addition, in this period he was creating, producing and/or writing numerous other series. In my opinion no one in the broadcast television industry has done more in the past 30 years to keep it a meaningful source of creative writing, acting, directing and production. Only David E. Kelley, who for example has writing credits in 112 of the 112 episodes of his "Ally McBeal", is a comparable contributor to the scripted TV industry.

This coming season these two have adapted to the slow death of broadcast TV in different ways. As noted earlier, Bochco has shifted to the cable channel environment. Kelley has attempted to continue live with the broadcast networks' desire for assured success without risk by adapting a successful British show, "Life on Mars", for ABC.

So it comes down to this. A record number of Emmy nominations this year went to shows appearing on cable channels. The protected broadcast channels in prime time are showing lower risk adapted scripted shows with concepts that are a proven success with audiences in other countries. Or they are giving us low cost "reality" and game shows.

Yes, in the hours around prime time, they are giving us news. But if you have been following related news, they are rapidly reducing local news budgets.

The time has come for Congress to make some bold moves to unprotect broadcast TV stations altogether. It is time for the broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, The CW, PBS, and MyNetwork, to offer the satellite and cable companies an East and West feed like HBO, Showtime, etc.

And it is time for the newly quadrupled broadcast TV station industry to find its way into the 21st Century through creative thinking without government help.