Monday, September 7, 2009

The Leno gamble - what's really at risk

This week's TIME magazine has Jay Leno on the cover and describes "Jay Leno is the Future of Television" in its headline. The portion of the article that is not directly about Jay Leno is devoted to the same discussion offered here in November of 2007 in the series of posts headed The Screen Writers Guild strike, technology, and the future of scripted television.

Near the end of the article is the following paragraph:

Maybe the fact that NBC is, essentially, doing what cable channels do (that is, reducing costs and targeting its scripted shows) is a harbinger of the day when it, or another big network, will literally become a cable channel, trading the system of local affiliates for the freedom and licensing fees of cable.

That is the backhanded recognition of what NBC is putting at risk. As I wrote in April NBCU has no intention of serving the interest of NBC affiliates. The Washington Post's TV columnist Lisa de Moraes observed this week quite correctly:

NBC is now playing a different game, with new rules. That game is called Programming to Margins. NBC suits think they can win by slashing costs to rack up points with shareholders and thus declare a new form of victory in which you can win even if you haven't had a bona fide hit in years.

NBC suits know Leno's new comedy show won't attract as many viewers as the scripted dramas the other networks have scheduled at 10 p.m. weekdays: "CSI: Miami," "Private Practice," "The Mentalist," etc. They concede that this means advertisers will not pay as much for ad time on Leno's show as they will for ad time in those scripted series. The execs believe they have guaranteed their own success if only because Leno's show will cost so much less to produce. Leno recently bragged to a gathering of reporters that he can make a whole week's worth of "The Jay Leno Show" for the price of one episode of "CSI: Miami."

GE management which includes NBC management has created lowered expectations, particularly among shareholders. If the profit line on the NBCU division known as NBC rises for two quarters because of the decision about Leno, GE management has succeeded. That doesn't mean that the Leno Show has succeeded as entertainment.

Over the next three years, the network broadcast TV station properties will shift to meet the ratings as the NBC-owned New York station already has by reducing news and creating locally marketable local oriented programming. If anything, they are focusing on creating a record of delivering live-eyes on ads.

NBC owns broadcast stations in the following eight (out of 210) DMA's (designated market area) representing 25% of the nation's "TV homes":

1. New York City
2. Los Angeles
3. Chicago
4. Philadelphia
5. Dallas/Fort Worth
6. San Francisco/Oakland/San Jose
9. Washington, D.C./Hagerstown, MD
16. Miami/Ft. Lauderdale

But those large-population DMA stations aren't affiliates, they're owned - they have the resources of NBCU and GE plus large numbers of viewers within the DMA. In the remaining 202 DMA's representing 75% of "TV homes" somebody else owns the NBC affiliate stations. Consider the situation of the affiliates in the following DMA's:

107. Ft. Wayne
108. Reno
109. Youngstown
110. Tyler-Longview
111. Springfield-Holyoke
112. Boise
113. Sioux Falls(Mitchell)
114. Lansing

In these much smaller population DMA's, even if they captured the entire 5 pm - 6 pm viewers available, the affiliate cannot deliver anything resembling the number of eyes the NBC property in New York City can guarantee to advertisers as a minimum for that time slot where they've put new locally created programming. Nor are there the number of local businesses from which to solicit ads. So those affiliates aren't going to have the flexibility to deal effectively with the loss of advertising income from their 10 pm network show and from their 11:00 pm news show and maybe even from their 11:35 pm NBC late night show.

Five years from now these small DMA affiliate stations may be sorry they kept their NBC affiliation instead of embracing the NBC "Programming to Margins" business model as their own.

That model suggests that the smaller DMA stations may want to drop their expensive NBC affiliation in favor of a syndicated and local programming schedule costing 20% of their network affiliation, which would allow them to retain 100% of whatever advertising revenue they can generate.

Losing up to 50% of the "TV homes" is the long term risk NBC is taking by changing it's model from that maintained by CBS and ABC to a new model. It is not even that model of 10-11 pm local programming used by Fox which benefits the affiliates.

And if NBC longs to become a cable channel as TIME speculates, what will it do with its owned local stations? Those stations derive much of their current value from NBC programming. Without it, the value of these assets would plunge.

In the short term, NBC's Leno move may work for NBC within the GE corporate style. But it may not work for the affiliate stations. And realistically, if it doesn't work for the affiliates, it won't work for the NBC-owned stations. Sure NBC could become a cable channel but that won't help with the loss of asset value and the loss of goodwill in the broadcast industry.

Unlike the manufacturing properties owned by GE, maximizing quarterly profit margins within a 24-month or less window can't guarantee retaining the value of NBC over the five-year period. Sometimes accepting less profit for four years is a better five-year long-term strategy. It most certainly would have been for GE's banking properties and it's there that GE needs to look for helpful management cues for NBC, not in its aircraft engine division.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Broadcast station retransmission fees - Congress needs to step in

Nowadays, network executives are as likely to be plotting to extract “retransmission consent” fees from cable operators as they are to be gathering around their magnetic scheduling boards and shifting shows from slot to slot. - from "Don't Touch That Dial", a 2006 book review by Tad Friend in the New Yorker

The time has come for Congress to deal with the absurdity of the retransmission fee issue for broadcast network TV.

The problem is simple. Local broadcast TV stations owners want a significant source of non-advertising revenue as their commitment to producing local programming, including local news, ceases. The national broadcast network executives, whose programming is carried on those stations, also appear to want a significant source of non-advertising revenue. Both have determined that the source will be "retransmission fees."

When Congress originally established licensing for local TV stations it was to benefit the public. Now that the stations have gone digital as required by Congress, each one of those stations has been given at no extra licensing competition cost the potential to broadcast two to four discrete signals known as subchannels. Those licenses are for broadcasting signals that are free to anyone who has a tuner within the stations Designated Marketing Area (DMA) in return for the right to broadcast owned content exclusively, including national network content for those affiliated with such networks.

The problem is that "free" has been interpreted as meaning, "well, not really free for most of the people watching the station." You see, most of us watch TV via cable or satellite and the stations and the networks have already started seeking significant per-customer fees from the cable and satellite carriers. Ultimately, that fee is passed on to the viewer.

Now I have no problem with ABC, CBS, Fox, MyNetworkTV, NBC, PBS, and The CW charging carriers for their program as does TNT or The Discovery Channel. Just so long as the "must carry" rule requiring cable and satellite carriers to carry local channels is eliminated and the national broadcast networks provide a direct signal for all their programming to the carriers like TNT and The Discovery Channel do - no middleman such as a local station.

For satellite carriers particularly, the cost of bandwidth to carry all those broadcast network stations is very expensive. If they could provide broadcast network programming to all their customers, perhaps with an East and West feed like many of the cable channels, without paying fees to local stations then the issue of whether local stations constitute a local public service could finally be acknowledged honestly. Two in each DMA could be carried for the local emergency broadcast system, two for redundancy. And the ones that have the most to offer viewers would likely be carried because of viewer demand. The rest could go bankrupt if they can't attract off-the-air viewers which they should. Just how many stations offering reruns of "Friends" do people really need?

Why bring this up now? It appears from a MediaPost article by Wayne Friedman on Friday that the networks are starting to sniff around retransmission fees again stating:

If you were to ask broadcast executives where the big new stream of revenue will come from in the coming years, you might guess wrong.

Digital ad revenue? Subscription fees from new online services? Video on demand? One senior broadcast TV executive told me plainly: "It is retransmission fees, pure and simple."

Since the networks don't provide the signal, exactly what are they looking for? Why should we TV signal carrier customers pay the networks and also pay the local stations whose signal we should be getting for free?

There is an inherent anti-public-interest attitude in all this. It's time for Congress to explain to the networks that they can depend on "off the air" federally licensed local stations or they can depend on cable/satellite carriers for revenue. But only one fee source is going to be allowed.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

NBCU solidifies its TV structure - Silverman out, finally

As I noted in April in March at the Media Summit conference Zucker said: "We are, first and foremost, a cable network company." Today it was announced that Zucker put NBC under the control of of his cable operations boss.

You can read this from many sources but The Hollywood Reporter broke it up into two articles. First we have from Ben Silverman out at NBC Universal:
After a rocky two-year tenure, Ben Silverman stepped down Monday as co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios to launch a company with Internet mogul Barry Diller.

NBC Universal is consolidating all of its TV entertainment operations under company veteran Jeff Gaspin, who has been named chairman of the combined new division, NBC Universal Television Entertainment. The move gives Gaspin oversight of NBC and UMS, with Marc Graboff -- who ran the units with Silverman -- now reporting to him.
"A rocky two-year tenure" is a generous description of what's happened to NBC in the past two years.

From Jeff Gaspin is a change of pace: New NBC Uni TV chief brings buttoned-down efficiency:
With the surprise selection of Jeff Gaspin to add oversight of NBC Universal's broadcast business to the cable division, CEO Jeff Zucker is elevating an executive who might be the antithesis of outgoing programming chief Ben Silverman.

If Silverman is the brash showman with little to show off, the buttoned-down Gaspin prefers to let the revenue generated by NBC Uni's booming cable business speak for itself. In the second quarter recently reported by General Electric, Gaspin's cable division defied the downward trend dragging down NBC Uni by posting a 7% year-over-year increase in operating profit compared with 2008, to $595 million.
"Surprise selection?" Only in Hollywood would someone think that making money in an economic downturn is a surprising criteria to use to pick someone to replace a loser. While President/CEO of NBC Universal Jeff Zucker has supported Silverman's cost cutting, profit-centered moves such as vertical integration, from MediaPost here's his comment about putting Gaspin in charge:
"Jeff Gaspin is an extraordinary media professional who has had an incredible record of success in his 25 years in the business. He's a strong creative executive who also has the business acumen necessary to succeed in today's media environment. This new structure helps us align all of our television entertainment assets under one veteran executive at a time when continued innovation is essential."
The big question is: "Can Gaspin bail out NBC?" Will he continue the network's slow march to become become only or mostly news, sports, and televaudeville as I predicted in November 2007? Or will he ultimately solidify the two-hour prime-time model that is the standard on cable, leaving the 10:00 pm slot to "Leno" or if that doesn't work to the locals?

It's been my opinion for some time now that Zucker's NBCU is the future of TV meaning:
  • A variety of cable channels under one roof as NBCU cable channels include, among others, Bravo, Universal HD, Chiller, CNBC, MSNBC, Syfy (formerly SciFi), Telemundo, Sleuth, and USA. NBCU is 25% owner of the A&E television networks which includes, among others, the cable channels A&E, History Channel, and the Biography Channel.
  • A strong web presence in the form of Hulu and each channel's own web site.
  • A broadcast network structure that places a greater burden on the local broadcast station in the hinterlands to find programming while the NBC owned large market broadcast stations produce and sell to local advertisers local-interest programming.
Regarding the competition, it appears that CBS will focus on retaining its top position in the broadcast network business with the most viewers.

News Corp with Fox focused on the two hour primetime will now compete with NBC and The CW for that "18-49 demo" which is a declining audience. And News Corp was a co-founder of Hulu and has a prime time cable presence with FX. It's as if these two competitors are focused on the same model.

Disney with ABC, still in the three hour primetime model, will compete with CBS for total viewers though one has to wonder if they are dividing their audience into some kind of family model - Disney Channel viewers (kids, mostly), ABC Family (pre-teens and teens, mostly which competes with The CW), and ABC (family oriented adults). Disney does have a strong online presence.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

"Torchwood: Children of Earth" - a modern morality tale

"That's what Torchwood does, you see: it ruins your life," Gwen Cooper emphatically states towards the end of "Torchwood: Children of Earth" and indeed the story line is that disturbing. In fact, it should be regarded as a politically charged, not very subtle anti-establishment piece. But first, a momentary side discussion.

"We've got great reaction from viewers on our HD service," channel publicity VP Amy Mulcair said on the second day of the highly promoted HD introduction week. "Everyone's very keen to see it and we're very keen for them to see it. And we're glad to say there are a number of deals that will be announced imminently."

"Imminently" isn't in time for the much ballyhooed launch featuring "Torchwood: Children of Earth" which, along with the other scifi programming this week, was not carried in HD on a single cable or satellite system.

But not having "Torchwood: Children of Earth" in HD did not keep the miniseries from being one of the best shows offered by any channel this Summer. Picking up from its moderately successful second season which ended with the death of two of the five principal characters, it was the number one show for five nights running in the UK with the first episode of the third series was watched by 5.9 million viewers and the last by 5.8 million - the average audience for series two ranged between 2.5 and 4.2 million. It will be interesting to see if BBCA pulled in over 3 million.

Fans of the series at once are crushed by the death of the popular character Ianto and the dark turn taken by the primary "Dr. Who" type character Captain Jack Harkness in, as noted above, an unusually dark story line.

For me the crux of the story relates to the belief by an alien species that humans are, in fact and with a great deal of irony, "inhuman" meaning "lacking qualities of sympathy, pity, warmth, compassion, or the like; cruel; brutal" particularly in regard to our own species. The aliens, called 456, want 10% of the Earth's children. When an objection is raised by Captain Jack the 456 response is “but you’re letting children die every day; why would you mind this?” They offer statistics we all know but don't care about. Over 25,000 children die every day around the world. That is equivalent to:
  • 1 child dying every 3.5 seconds
  • 17-18 children dying every minute
  • Over 9 million children dying every year
  • Some 70 million children dying between 2000 and 2007
Our children (the alien assumes "our" because we are a single species) die of hunger, easily preventable diseases and illnesses, and other poverty related causes. In spite of the scale of this ongoing catastrophe, humanity does nothing to solve a problem that could be solved.

Given this inhuman nature of our species, an alien species that appears to be able to kill us all, merely wants 10% of our children. We are presented a meeting of elected and appointed officials discussing criteria for selecting children based on their desirability, which concluded as such a meeting would that most would be chosen from the poor all for the good of society as a whole.

This shouldn't be too disturbing because the Nazi's in fact did hold the Wannsee Conference to establish criteria for the processes of the "final solution" and in fact most of the foot soldiers in most armies around the world who are sent to kill and die for the good of their nation are mostly the poor.

It would seem so logical to an alien observing humanity over time that we could select 10% of our children to give to aliens for the good of the remainder of humanity. Day in and day out as a species the richest societies buy iPods while far more than 10% of human young die from preventable causes.

In Britain the one frequent fan criticism of the show is that somehow the writers were trying to write a Shakespearean tragedy. Personally, I thought it was more akin to the tragedies of the ancient Greek myths. But regardless, it was a story of that level.

Yes, like all such TV scifi presentations to a degree you have to suspend disbelief (what, unlike everything else on TV???). And yes, you can always find something that has been done before with similarities, even as far back an ancient Greek myths.

But like those myths, it was a modern morality tale with it's flawed hero. Well done!

Friday, May 29, 2009

"Mental" on Fox - Tight Writing, Good Storyline, Good Cast. What's Not to Like?

I was surprised, no shocked, that I liked this show because almost every critic (with few exceptions) gave a big thumbs down. Based on those reviews, I expected it to be "House lite". As far as I'm concerned, nothing could be further from the truth.

Yes, it's on Fox. So is "Dollhouse" and it even has "house" in its name, but it's not "House." Yes, the star of "Mental" is a Brit. But he doesn't hide his accent. Maybe that should have been the first clue to considering the show on its own merits.

Here's the plot summary of the pilot:

Dr. Jack Gallagher (Chris Vance, "Prison Break" 2007-8 season), Psychiatrist, spends his first day as Director of Psychiatric Services at Los Angeles' Wharton Memorial Hospital trying to win over his colleagues and his boss Nora Skoff (Annabella Sciorra).

Because he's a psychiatrist he's a doctor, but like House? Marcus Welby, MD was a doctor. He wasn't like House. And neither is the principle character in "Mental".

Dr. Jack Gallagher first appears in the show in the Hospital Lobby where everyone else is waiting for some cops to take down a patient in a psychotic break with schizophrenia, played by Silas Weir Mitchell who plays psychotic so well, and who has taken off his clothes to prove he's a human to everyone else who he sees as non-human reptilians. After observing for a few seconds, Gallagher strips and tells him he's human too.

So he's relating sympathetically to patients. He's trying to win over his colleagues. That's definitely not Gregory House, M.D.

It is about psychiatry and psychotic patients (not neurotic people). It's tightly written and has some potentially interesting characters. It should be a stimulating show. If the first episode is any indication it will provide a serious look at mental illness and treatment options. It's not House but it could be just as interesting. It's weekly subjects likely will have more in common with the "ER" episodes with the Sally Field character who is bipolar.

It's a Summer show so it probably won't be canceled after the third episode. If it might appeal to you, give it shot.

Friday, May 1, 2009 - Now Home of the Big 3

In the original six part series posted here November 12, 2007, the importance of the birth of parented by NBCU and Fox was described. Also noted in that series was the following:

Disney (ABC) CEO Bob Iger was called upon to defend the company's narrow online video distribution at a recent corporate event. After doing a song and dance defense, he described it as an interesting debate, explaining that the original idea of amassing most of the video on was to promote the shows, use the site to upsell and "it also became a pretty good platform for advertisers."

He added: "We're going to take a pretty expansive view. .. We're going to be on more places than iTunes, and AOL."

This week we've learned that Disney/ABC has become a partner in I'm hoping this current HULU business model of free access with advertising support works out. But no one should be under no illusion that the free access model is the long term plan.

(For discussion purposes below, my use of the ubiquitous "they" means the large media, cable, and media+cable conglomerates. And I don't mean to imply a "conspiracy against the viewing public" but more a "joint effort to find a corporate economic model in which the existing few can thrive.")

The current HULU system isn't the model under discussion as the long term plan in the media, cable and advertising industry trade press. Apparently the cable companies want access to current programming on media company sites restricted to cable and satellite TV subscribers with some sort of "restricted membership access" model.

They would prefer an IPTV model using Tru2way enabled boxes. The ideal in their mind would be to allow access to "current program" streaming based on your package, so if your cable/satellite package doesn't give you access to the FX channel you can't stream an FX program shown in the past two years.

But they appear to have decided to settle for:
  1. access restricted to "cable channel" subscribers through any cable or satellite system; and
  2. allowing a PPV internet streaming system while offering "a better way" using set top boxes that recognize the viewer's programming package.
The media companies are sympathetic to the cable companies because at this point the advertising revenue doesn't support the basic on line operation of a site like, much less provide a revenue stream to help pay for the programming and generate a profit.

They envision some type of PPV revenue model for "current TV" and "newer movie" content based on streaming activities, such as 29¢ per episode stream or $1.59 per movie stream with limited advertising, perhaps offering an ad free alternative for an extra $1 per stream or annual subscription.

Content is being aggregated through the media-company-jointly-owned for three of the four major TV broadcast networks, their sister cable channels, and their sister media production and distribution companies (which represents a huge chunk of the media industry). CBS bought and is restructuring it to accomplish the same purpose as Hulu where, I would guess, we'll see CBS and Viacom content offered, ultimately maybe with Time-Warner and/or Sony.

I have to credit both NBCU (GE) and Fox (News Corp) for moving rapidly to creat an effective web site and experimenting with different outlet approaches. They're in a position to adapt to the economic needs of the cable/telcom-TV/ISP giants, while cleverly threading their way through the regulatory minefield. They haven't tripped and probably will avoid tripping any FCC/SEC/Justice Department mines by licensing content to Apple (which already has a fee structure), the new Google-owned YouTube media site, and Amazon's streaming system as well as the cable-owned web sites like Fancast.

In 2011 as the economic model becomes clearer, they'll make concessions to labor on residuals from internet content revenues. They don't want a protracted labor dispute which could raise antitrust issues.

The ultimate goal is to end up with as few originating sources for PPV video streaming as possible for media-conglomerate-owned content. Then, they'll launch a major attack on the video file-sharing pirates. Beginning in 2012, BitTorrent users may find themselves in a seriously troubling environment.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

It's not whether the show is 1st or 4th....

On a forum recently a member raised a question related to the suspense of what shows will not be picked up for another season:

So considering the 4 major OTA networks (ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC)... someone has to be in 1st place, and someone has to be in 4th place no matter how good or bad the show!

So I guess I wonder... when a network sees a show #4 in the ratings for a night... what are they hoping for? Would they rather sink the slot by putting Dog-Walkers Idol and put no money into it? Or try to make it better by upgrading the quality of the show?

The issue isn't rankings, it's ratings. The Live+SD (Same Day) Nielsen ratings mean everything because they determine the money flow and it's all about money.

Based on the Nielsens, last Monday at 8 pm there were 47 million Live+ SD viewers watching broadcast TV while last Friday there were only 21 million. On any night, the 10 pm slot delivers half the total of 8 pm viewers.

What is a network to do in...say... a Monday night 8 pm slot? If the top 4 networks were within a couple of million total viewers and 1.0 in the demos, it wouldn't matter who is 1st and who is 4th. But "Dancing with the Stars had 17 million viewers while "Chuck" had 6 million. Let's take a closer look at the Monday facts.

"Terminator: The Sara Conner Chronicles" on Fox could never compete with ABC's "Dancing with the Stars", but "House" is delivering for its advertisers Live+SD viewers in the 18-49 demo (4.3), even though "Dancing" (3.8) has higher total viewers 17 million to 11 million.

The CBS comedy lineup at that time delivers at a relatively low cost a consistent audience, both total (9.3 million) and demo (3.4), while "Chuck" at a relatively high cost can't deliver the audience numbers with its 5.95 million and 2.2. Those "Chuck" numbers are not meaningfully higher to advertisers then The CW's "Gossip Girl" which is a low rent production on a low rent network with a relatively narrow target audience which it delivers to advertisers.

There is a huge industry out there devoted to advertising. Ultimately, they decide where the ad dollars go, not the networks. The advertisers want to feel they are getting some return from their investment. The networks have to deliver to the advertisers an audience based on the Nielsen Live+SD ratings. Subsequent DVR viewings don't count in the ad world.

For me the time slot of the show is irrelevant. I'm a 100% DVR viewer, mostly not same day and many not even in the same season. I'm of zero value to advertisers and therefore zero value to the shows I watch. Of course, my wife and I are not in the demo and aren't a Nielsen household and make no impact anyway.

Some execs at NBC love "Chuck". There are 6 million consistent viewers who love "Chuck". But the broadcast TV advertisers want 10 million viewers before they would pay what it takes to offset the costs of delivering an episode of "Chuck." GE, NBCU's parent company, isn't interested in the personal tastes of the NBC execs or the 6 million viewers. They're interested in net profit.

Then you get to the cost of the shows. Some shows carry star costs, such as "Brothers & Sisters" in which a number of stars probably get well over $100,000 per episode. But shows like "Chuck" or "Terminator: The Sara Conner Chronicles" don't have many highly paid actors, though the top stars are likely to be getting $80,000 and up per episode. Both of those shows have heavy action production costs, special effects, etc. which increase the total cost per episode, costs that don't exist in "Brothers & Sisters" which is pretty much shot like a soap opera. All these shows cost enough that the networks have to place them where they can get top advertising revenue. An episode of your favorite broadcast network show costs $500,000 (cheap game and reality shows) to $3 million (high end scripted drama).

NBCU executives two years ago looked into their crystal ball and said this financial model won't work by 2010 even taking into account DVD sales, on line viewing, syndication, foreign sales, etc. They've shifted the focus to cable channels.

A ceiling appears to have been set on per-episode production costs of $750,000 for the best drama for cable, with a desired average of under $500,000. USA can market 13 episodes of four to six of these in any one year and make money.

In some cases like "Monk" and "Law & Order:Criminal Intent", the show earns money for NBCU on both USA and NBC so the production costs could run a little higher. I believe that the goal at NBC is cutting by half the average cost for an hour of prime time broadcast TV by 2010.

Fox has taken a different "bean counter" mentality - deliver the audience or you're out. Each year they go with a certain number of higher budget scripted shows with the proviso that a show that can't make a target per minute net revenue is a quickly replaced show. In some cases, a big advertiser might make a commitment through product placement and commercials that keeps a show on. But most advertisers will bail on a show with lower ratings and, as a result, Fox focuses on those ratings.

There is an alternative - a premium cable channel offering three hours of scripted series shows a night - which I proposed in a previous blog post. HBO is offering a smattering of shows. And DirecTV appears to be doing the same on its Channel 101. But nothing as ambitious as my proposal has been seen in "the biz" journals.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The New Sprummer Scripted TV Season

It has become apparent that the broadcast networks have designed a two part season that begins in earnest September/October and ends April/May with a mid-year mini-shift that occurs January/February. This is the Fall/Winter Season and appears to be about 9 months long and which I now name Fallter, pun intended.

The cable networks appear to have designed a season that begins April/May and ends September/October with a mid-season mini-shift that occurs somewhere in the middle. This is the Spring/Summer Season and appears to be about 6 months long and is what I now name Sprummer.

Obviously the two seasons overlap as we don't have a 15 month year. And the cable networks tend to show half of the seasons episodes of a show beginning in the Sprummer airing the second half beginning around the first of the calendar year during Fallter, when the broadcast networks are fumbling to get replacements for their faltering shows.

So we have a new Sprummer Season already under way. Based on available information the cable channels, with little help from the broadcast networks, will give us a solid scripted show lineup. While the following list is not complete, and certainly many shows are far from potential Emmy winners, it is pretty impressive given what Summer TV offerings used to be like:

Day Series Title Premier


AMC Breaking Bad Currently Airing
AMC Mad Men Not Scheduled
HBO No.1 Ladies Detective Agency Currently Airing
HBO In Treatment Currently Airing
HBO True Blood June 14
Lifetime Army Wives June 07
Lifetime Drop Dead Diva July 12
NBC Merlin June 21
USA Law & Order: Criminal Intent Currently Airing
USA In Plain Sight Currently Airing


ABC Family Secret Life American Teenager June 22
ABC Family Make It or Break It June 22
Showtime Weeds June 08
Showtime Nurse Jackie June 08
TNT The Closer June 08
TNT Raising the Bar June 08


ABC Family 10 Things I Hate July 07
ABC Family Ruby & the Rockets July 21
ABC Family Lincoln Heights August 04
FX Rescue Me Currently Airing
Syfy Warehouse 13 July 07
TBS My Boys Currently Airing
TNT Saving Grace June 16
TNT HawthoRNe June 16


ABC The Goode Family May 27
ABC Surviving Suburbia (from hiatus) May 27
ABC The Unusuals (from hiatus) May 27
NBC The Philanthropist June 24
TNT Leverage July 15
TNT Dark Blue July 15


NBC The Listener June 04
USA Burn Notice June 04
USA Royal Pains June 04


BBCA Hotel Babylon Not Scheduled
Fox Mental May 22
Syfy Eureka July 10
USA Monk Not Scheduled
USA Psych Not Scheduled


BBCA Primeval May 16
BBCA Robin Hood Not Scheduled
BBCA Torchwood Not Scheduled

Friday, April 24, 2009

"1948 All Over Again" Revisited

On November 12, 2007, a six part series on the future of scripted TV and the home entertainment industry was posted here which contained the following:

Neither television industry executives, nor the writers, nor any of us viewers know where scripted episodic drama and comedy programming will end up within five years. We need to think in terms of media, source of funding, format or survival.

Since then significant changes in the industry provide some directional arrows pointing to how the future might look. And some of these arrows are clearly pointing to a revolution in home entertainment.

It is clear that this revolution does resemble the period from 1948 to 1958 when television displaced radio and movie theaters as the source of entertainment and news for Americans, and audio recording tape gained a foothold on home reproduction of music sources and serving as a portent of the impact of the DVR.

The difference is that the 50 years that have passed did result in an acceleration in the effects of technology on American life. This requires business to adapt rapidly to changes in how Americans live which occur much more rapidly.

Consider for a moment the iPod. Introduced in October 2001, it and/or the iPhone (and similar devices) are embedded in 21st Century world-wide culture as a means of communications, listening to music, and viewing photos and video, as well as a means of creating photos and video.

Yawn. So what else isn't new?

Somewhere in all this technological change, the owner of one of our most venerable broadcast television networks - NBC - has essentially declared the old model of broadcast television dead. As noted here earlier this month, top management of GE and its subsidiary NBC Universal (NBCU) have embraced the company's niche cable channels.

This fall NBC will reduce the number of week day hours of prime time available for scripted programming from three to two by assigning the 10 p.m. time slot to a Jay Leno televaudeville show, aligning its programming model more with Fox and The CW then ABC and CBS.

And at an April 8 Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications symposium exploring the pioneering work of executive producer and network television executive Fred Silverman, Silverman himself speculated that the networks will eventually give the 8 p.m. slot back to the affiliates to fill with local and syndicated programming tailored to the region they serve or, in he case of he less imaginative, reruns. (He also speculated on the end of network-provided daytime soap operas.)

GE through NBCU has also embraced the web for presenting professional TV productions and movies, most significantly its system developed in partnership with News Corp's Fox. (It is a system, not just a web site, as others can feed its content through their own web sites including most notably Comcast's Fancast site which is part of Comcast Interactive Media.)

According to a recent Business Week article, many expect Disney/ABC to take an equity stake in Hulu. In the meantime, in 2008 CBS Interactive bought the parent company of announcing in December that the site would add and emphasize an HD video gallery with full episode streams.

Now the media conglomerates are negotiating with the cable and satellite companies to create a model that allows access to on-line conglomerate produced video only if you are a subscriber to a cable/satellite package that contributes to the revenue stream supporting the cost of producing that video.

And the cable companies this year will be introducing "tru2way" enabled set-top boxes allowing subscribers to easily play games, browse the web, and chat, as well as stream on the bandwidth assigned to TV newer shows that aren't even on line.

Meanwhile, San Francisco Chronicle TV columnist Tim Goodman recently advocated "the Netflix solution", meaning that in these hard economic times folks should drop the premium channels at $150± a year each and selectively rent or buy series show box sets. And Goodman even suggests viewers may want to drop cable altogether.

What's a fan of scripted TV to do as these changes begin to snowball? The upcoming Summer Season will be discussed in the next post.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Proposal: A Scripted TV Premium Cable Network

The struggle to sell scripted TV series has become more difficult in the current economy for obvious reasons. And it appears that it is easier to recover the production and delivery cost of an hour of news, sports, and televaudeville (any show other than news and sports that doesn't depend upon professional actors performing scripted scenes for its entertainment content).

From my perspective, this situation is creating an artistic loss. For instance, the allocation by NBC of a Jay Leno televaudeville show in the week day 10 pm slot represents the the loss of financial support for five 26-episode scripted programs per year.

This situation in broadcast TV is only going to get worse, not better. So I would like to offer a solution. We need to create a "scripted TV series" cable premium network. For discussion purposes, I'll call it the "ScriptTV" network.

Over two 26-week seasons per year ScriptTV would during the time period of 5 pm - 2 am Eastern Time run three hours of new one hour or 30-minute scripted episodes of TV shows without advertising. The cycle would look like this:

The economic model for ScriptTV would look something like this:
  • The remaining 15 hours per day would be filled with syndicated reruns of older TV series supported by 360 seconds of advertising per hour of show.
  • The ScriptTV channel would be priced to subscribers by cable and satellite systems at $12-$15 per month; subscribers also would have access to its web site to stream episodes of shows aired in the past 52 weeks.
  • The ScriptTV channel would pay up to 80% of the production costs for each show and receive up to an 80% ownership interest in the show along with the first showing rights worldwide; each show's season would be offered as an exclusive for one year to broadcast and non-premium cable networks to be shown after the season run on ScriptTV; after any network exclusive expires, the show would be offered as a syndicated show and be sold on DVD.
In order to secure subscribers, ScriptTV would adopt the following policies:
  • Of its three hours of nightly original scripted programming, ScriptTV would seek to offer on average one hour per night of family-oriented programming and two-hours of "grownup" oriented programming.
  • Each show's producers/creators would be contracted to create a 26-week story arc with plans for a full-resolution series end; however, ScriptTV would have the option to pick up an additional full season before the airing of the 20th episode which might require alteration plans for the season's last two or three shows.
  • ScriptTV would not cancel any show in mid-season.
  • ScriptTV would regularly poll its subscribers regarding its programming.
HBO has 38 million subscribers. This business model would not need more than 2 million subscribers to succeed.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

NBC's Degenerative Disease

"Yes, that ad supported NBC channel you watch now may degenerate into only news, sports, and televaudeville." - The Lost Scripts, November 12, 2007
When I wrote the statement above, it was clear to me that Jeff Zucker, President & CEO of NBC Universal, had plans. They were a bit fuzzy at the time, but the hints were there. Much has come into focus since then. But then in March at the Media Summit conference Zucker said: "We are, first and foremost, a cable network company." GE's CEO Jeff Immelt discussed the situation in the GE 2008 Annual Report:
NBC UNIVERSAL earned about $3 billion last year. It’s likely to be down in 2009, as we expect the network environment to be particularly tough. But cable, more than 60% of our earnings, is going to continue to be a source of strength, building on its ratings success in 2008. Our movie business has already invested in new films for next year, which will also support DVD sales. Our strengths are good content, a strong cable focus, and international distribution. Jeff Zucker and his team have done a great job in repositioning NBC Universal to win in the rapidly changing media landscape.
If basically you are a broadcast network viewer, you should be aware that GE's CEO essentially dismissed its broadcast TV subsidiary NBC and embraced cable. NBCU cable channels include, among others, Bravo, Universal HD, Chiller, CNBC, MSNBC, Syfy (formerly SciFi), Telemundo, Sleuth, and USA. NBCU is 25% owner of the A&E television networks which includes, among others, the cable channels A&E, History Channel, and the Biography Channel.

You need to be aware that NBCU owns a strong, competitive general programming cable network - USA. It's had great success with scripted shows. Recent original scripted shows have included: The 4400, Burn Notice, The Dead Zone, In Plain Sight, Monk, Psych, The Starter Wife. Some of these shows, indicated in red, were/are produced wholly or in part by an NBCU subsidiary.

NBCU's apparent business model is "balanced vertical integration" meaning it has some control over it's products from the raw materials to delivery to the customer.1 (Technically, cable and satellite TV companies "retail" the USA and Syfy channels to the public. But, in fact, those channels directly sell the product to advertisers and to the cable companies. They then fund their own marketing to attract and retain viewers.)

So will the broadcast arm of NBCU - NBC - really become only or mostly news, sports, and televaudeville as I predicted in November 2007?

Consider what NBC is doing. They have dedicated the 10:00 pm slot to a new Jay Leno show. Co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios Ben Silverman says it will be far more of a comedy show than The Tonight Show. Mike Pilot, president of ad sales for NBC has indicated that the new show will offer more opportunities for live commercials.

Having abandoned the traditional "upfront" ad sales system, NBC will hold an “in front,” apparently on May 4, when it will simply announce its fall prime time lineup two weeks before the other networks’ upfronts. According to reports, NBC will hold a comedy showcase on May 19, in the middle of upfront week and on the same day of ABC’s upfront presentation. The event will feature Jay Leno with comedy performers from NBC, including Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon. It will be invitation only for advertisers and executives from NBC affiliated stations.

Theoretically, NBC has 14 hours of Sunday through Friday prime time left to fill this fall (17 hours if you count Saturday, but who does?). After it became apparent that under Ben Silverman tenure as head of programming the network's ratings crashed, in January 2009 Zucker brought in Angela Bromstad to be NBC's chief programmer of dramas and comedies. She is the one who moved Kings to Sunday and bought to make room for Southland. According to a Los Angeles Times article about Bromstad returning:
Kings which costs about $3 million an episode to produce, had been championed by Bromstad's predecessors. But Bromstad had doubts that a drama about a modern-day king who struggles with moral dilemmas and family conflicts would work on network television.

...Also on Bromstad's to-do list is the task of regaining the trust of Hollywood agents and producers who have been alienated by NBC's puzzling proclamations, such as when Silverman said he was "managing for margins," not chasing shows that would generate big ratings.
Returning to my 2007 premise, with Leno NBC has reallocated one-third of it's week day prime time (5 hours) to "televaudeville." And when a show like Kings tanks in the ratings, NBC hauls in Dateline, a news show, to fill the void. In fact, Dateline covers 4 hours of prime-time programming this week.

The only thing standing in the way of NBC stations becoming all news, sports, and televaudeville is Angela Bromstad. Bromstad has a tough job. GE's NBCU star net profit producing TV subsidiaries are the cable channels, not NBC. And GE likes net profit.

Which brings me to the remaining consideration, the local broadcast station. NBCU owns 10 local broadcast stations serving 26.6% of the "TV Homes" in the United States. Those stations serve the metropolitan areas of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas-Ft. Worth, San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, Washington DC, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, San Diego, and Hartford-New Haven. The more money these stations make, the more money NBCU makes.

It is likely that four issues will enter into the consideration for future programming decisions. First, how will programming proposals affect NBC's profit. Second, how will programming proposals affect the profit from those 10 broadcast stations. Third, how will programming proposals affect the public reputation of GE. Fourth, and last, how will programming proposals affect the welfare of the broadcast stations owned by others.

For instance, the preferences of viewers in Cedar Rapids and Dubuque, Iowa, representating 0.3% of TV Homes served by Quincy Newspapers-owned KWWL aren't likely to be considered in programming decisions.

And, in fact, the loyalty to the Quincy Newspaper folks will be very limited as even though they own six NBC affiliates in small markets, in those same markets they also own broadcast rights to at least one other network such as Fox and The CW. And in Wisconsin, they own five ABC affiliates.

Not in anyone's wildest dreams would the GE corporate structure cater to the Quincy Newspaper owners opinions instead of the NBC employee managed stations serving the New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas-Ft. Worth, San Francisco Bay Area, Washington, DC, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, San Diego, and Hartford/New Haven metropolitan areas.

Thus when the owner of the Boston NBC affiliate who owns the The CW affiliate in the same market and broadcast the new "This TV" network on a digital subchannel and who owns the Fox affiliate in Miami tried to rebel against the Leno commitment, NBC had virtually no qualms about threatening to pull its programming.

All future programming decisions are going to be determined mostly by what will earn the NBC owned stations in the large urban areas the most money consistent with what will earn NBC and it's production arms the most profit. Expensive scripted programming run at 10:00 pm returns poor profits for NBC and its owned stations. A Leno televaudeville show will be relatively cheap to produce, attract sufficient national advertising revenue direct to NBC, and attract high priced local advertising to the NBC-owned stations serving 26.6% of the "TV Homes" in the United States.

In raw numbers, the NBC stations will broadcast 4 fewer hours of scripted programming a week which represents a 40%+ drop over a year. In terms of the five principle national networks, it represents a 10%+ drop. Whether Leno will affect the ratings for ABC and CBS programming in those slots remains to be seen.

But if, as I suspect, it does produce greater profits for GE, that ad supported NBC channel you watch now may degenerate into only news, sports, and televaudeville. Those of us who prefer scripted programming will be forced to have more DVR's recording cable channel programming.

    1Consider the USA show In Plain Sight. It's production company is Universal Media Studios. It's season one DVD is from Universal Studios Home Entertainment. Then we come to, NBCU's major web presence shared with News Corp. The new season of In Plain Sight starts next Sunday. If you need to catch up a bit, you can watch the last five episodes of season one at Hulu or the USA web site.
     Vertical integration isn't always the case. USA's popular show
Burn Notice is produced by Fox Television Studios, a News Corp. subsidiary. In fact, if you poke around the web a bit you'll discover that some cross-pollination occurs between NBCU and News Corp. For instance, one of the production companies for the Fox Network's hit show House is an NBCU subsidiary. And you can watch the last five episodes on line at Hulu, the News Corp and NBCU owned web site.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

NBCU and the new Sifee Channel

For a moment, pretend you're a bit of a science nerd. How would you go about sounding out a word that begins with "sy"? Hmm. Well, "system" or "symbiotic" or "synchronous" comes immediately to mind.

Then let's consider sounding out words that end with "fy". This is actually a bit harder, but if we check a rhyming dictionary "iffy" or "jiffy" or "spiffy" immediately come up.

So how will we pronounce the word "syfy"? That's right, "sif-ee", which is the new name the genius team at the SciFi Channel chose to be the new name of their channel.

SciFi is, of course, shortmouth for science fiction. From Wikipedia:
Science fiction (abbreviated SF or sci-fi with varying punctuation and capitalization) is a broad genre of fiction that often involves speculations based on current or future science or technology.....

Science fiction differs from fantasy in that, within the context of the story, its imaginary elements are largely possible within scientifically established or scientifically postulated laws of nature (though some elements in a story might still be pure imaginative speculation)....

If you're a fan of science fiction and of the SciFi Channel, you know that the programmers and other powers-that-be at that NBCU operation do not limit the programming to science fiction. They include a broad range of fantasy, occult, and related material. They even offer wrestling. Yep, that's right, wrestling.

So perhaps a less genre-restrictive name might be appropriate. But this is what they came up with:

Apparently they want to be known as the Sifee Channel.

NBCU also owns the Chiller Channel which is a a horror-genre cable channel. It also owns Sleuth, the cable channel dedicated to programming in the mystery/crime genre. It also owns USA, the cable channel that is the home to the World Wrestling Federation's flagship cable TV show WWE Raw. But USA is also the home for the popular crime/mystery dramas Monk, Psych, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, In Plain Sight and Burn Notice, as well as two fairly popular science fiction shows The 4400 and The Dead Zone. Which raises the question: "What's NBCU doing with it's cable brands and where does he Sifee Channel fit in?"

Consider the explantions that came with the new Sifee name announcement:
"We love being sci fi, and we're still embracing that," said network president Dave Howe on Friday. "But we're more than just space and aliens and the future -- the three things most people think of when they think of 'sci fi.' "

"We're going to have upwards of 50 Sci Fi Channels in various territories and yet you cannot trademark 'Sci Fi' anywhere in the world," Howe said. "A new logo design would not solve that particular challenge. We needed a brand name that was own-able, portable and extendable."

"The channel has been around for 16 years, and the world has changed in 16 years," Howe said. "Everybody had to watch as a linear channel, you didn't have downloading and you didn't have international channels around the globe."
That all made sense, more or less. But then we got this:
"Our core audience will use it an opportunity to question our motives -- they always do," Howe said. "But what we're embracing is the total sci-fi landscape -- fantasy, paranormal, action-adventure, mystery ... it's imagination-based entertainment."

So the Sifee Channel is going to offer "action-adventure" and "mystery" programming, along with wrestling. Now I'm truly confused.

This is all occurring in the context of the NBC broadcast network being #4 (or even #5) in ratings.

Yet, irony of ironies, market analysts are now giving glowing reviews to G.E. for not selling NBCU. From the NY Times:
Just last year, it seemed a good idea to many on Wall Street that General Electric spin off, or otherwise dispose of, NBC Universal.

Today, if G.E. were not in the media business, it would be in deeper trouble than it already is. Essentially, it would be more dependent on its troublemaking finance unit, GE Capital.
I guess that's true, if viewer opinions and ratings really don't matter or bode ill for NBCU. But I just can't figure out the management strategy for the cable channels, particularly for the Sifee Channel. It looks to me like someone needs to get organized.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Battlestar Galactica- The Best of American TV

Battlestar Galactica is the best completed series ever shown on American TV. And Friday night's 131 minute finale was befitting.

In the simplest sense, I liked the Mash ending and this one because both demonstrated "life went on" which is always a boring thought. The 1950's I actually lived through, in the case of Mash. In the case of Battlestar Galactica, pre-150,000 B.C. now seems almost plausible.

The whole series is an allegorical tale heavily into mythology (and/or religion depending on your point of view) within the framework of a highly technological society.

The "reality" created by the ending was on "our" Earth in the approximate year 150,000 B.C. Given the limits of what we know in genetics, it offered that mankind has a common ancestor who was "half-machine" and "half-evolved human". It offered an evolving concept of hope, that each time "we" do it over again, there's a chance we'll get it right this time. And it reminded us that we are here again because the passion for vengeance is the "evil" that limits possibilities, even for machines we create "in our image" which is what we are doing now, both for domestic chores and for war.

Series creator Ron Moore did use plot devices to wrap things up. Some fams are disappointed that he didn't explain everything. But he promised only that all would be revealed. There is a certain paradoxical situation that so many expected an explanation when the offer was to reveal - revelation is not explanation. In the context of an allegorical tale full of religion, it seems so perfect. We have a tale biblical in scope (old testament), with moral lessons explained in an illusive manner, something akin to parable using metaphors.

And he did it all within the confines of the early 21st Century American TV medium using the combination of two late 20th Century TV constructs - "action adventure" and "soap opera".

Using the TV medium, no team has as been as successful accomplishing this as the Battlestar Galactica team. And no broadcast network would have let them offer such things as humans worshiping "gods" while machines believe in the "one true god" or even the regular use of the invented euphemistic "frak" term. So I have to recognize level of support by NBCU's SciFi Channel.

My greatest fear is that we'll never see this kind of TV again. ABC's Lost might end up joining Battlestar Galactica as quality allegorical TV science fiction if the creators can thread their way through the complexities of theories of time. And I'm recording NBC's Kings because it has this type of potential but it's so limited by the constraints of being on NBC. If NBC pick's it up for a second season, we'll watch it as a season shifted show.