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!