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the film criticism aspect of cyber | by maryann johanson

network blues, and what TV will look like in 2012

What is television going to look like in a couple of years? Oh, I’m not talking about the switchover to from analog to digital broadcast that’s scheduled to happen in February 2009, which will make the picture and sound we all see sharper and way cooler. I’m talking about the content we watch on those sharper, cooler broadcasts.

Yesterday I wrote about the cancellation of Jericho and what it indicates about the disarray that the TV networks are in at the moment. And suddenly — like how when you buy a red car every other car seems to be red — I started noticing everywhere all sorts of media and mainstream news coverage of the networks’ blues. Two pieces in The New York Times this week hit on some of the issues. On Thursday, it was all about trying to figure out how to measure ratings in a DVR world, and today, it’s all about finding new ways to hold eyeballs on commercials.
TV is free because advertisers pay the bill, so fair enough. But will that always be the case? Will the networks always cater to advertisers first? We could go to a pay-per-view paradigm — I might pay a couple of bucks to download commercial-free episodes of shows I really liked, and I bet plenty of other folks would too. Networks could offer packages: “Get the entire 2012 season of Jericho Rising, commercial free, for only $14.95!” Or you could download for free episodes with embedded ads that can’t be fast-forwarded through. The two versions could be slightly different: in the free one, Skeet Ulrich waxes lyrical about his new Chevy pickup; in the PPV version, he waxes lyrical about his new truck, no brand names mentioned. (I’ll leave it to the actors’ and writers’ guilds to work out what extra compensation talent gets for shilling.)

TV’s gonna look more like the Internet, too, before you know it. Wanna find a dealership near you selling Skeet’s Chevy? Just click on the truck while you’re watching and get a little popup box with the info and Mapquest directions. Click around a little more, and you’ll discover that Skeet’s jeans are on sale at the Gap this week, his shirt is from Eddie Bauer, and when he’s in New York, Skeet always stays at the W Times Square. The PPV version could be completely free of these clickable ads, or perhaps paid viewers would get a little discount off their purchase.

Of course, we could also go back to the 1950s TV paradigm, and download for free Citibank Presents Jericho Rising.

But whatever TV looks like in five years won’t matter if this trend continues:

During a week when broadcast networks are touting their coming prime-time fare, new research shows they risk over-exuberance–thanks to an increasingly blasé public. A study from a Publicis arm suggests that Americans’ enjoyment of current prime-time programming is waning, with 38% reporting they are less satisfied than in past years.

Further evidence that ratings-challenged prime-time offerings aren’t creating the buzz of yesteryear: Almost 75% report that programming is either less compelling or no more compelling than years past. Only 9% said they are enjoying it “a lot more.”

Why could this be? CBS and Jericho are an excellent example of why the most passionate TV fans are disillusioned: because the networks are shortsighted enough to discount the viewers entirely. Yes, of course the networks are in business to make money, but running a successful business means thinking long-term, not short. Maybe too many viewers were watching Jericho on DVR and fast-forwarding through the commercials. But a rabid following brings eyeballs to the official Web site… and Jericho has a particularly active official site with lots of fan activity. CBS is to be commended to getting that part of the new paradigm right: it knows, to a certain degree, how to harness fan passion. But that income — both actual, from ads on the site, metaphoric, from the fannish goodwill engendered — has to be factored into the equation of a show’s “success.” CBS really screwed up here: it’s throwing away what is going to be an even more valuable asset in the very near future than it already is: fan passion. One fan who watches a show and TiVos it and organizes viewing parties and spends time on the official site is going to be far more important, in the long run, than twenty who just watch a show as a pre-bedtime distraction.

Can a concrete dollar value be put on that, a this-quarter return be calculated on that? No. But perhaps the bottom line shouldn’t be quite so blindered as that.

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  • D.

    All fans should check out http://www.jericholives.com. An effort to save the show is starting there.

  • Corbin

    Love your vision of what pay-per-view could look like and count me in for that 2012 DVD set – whatever Skeet’s pushing, I’m buying. Jericho was a very entertaining show – Jake, Stanley & Mimi were welcome visitors into my home – I was one of the weekly faithful that tuned in to CBS primetime and utilized the innertube options. Can’t believe CBS would toss Jericho out with the bath water – if they’ve got to mess with it, why not just morph it into CSI: Jericho /Nuclear Forensics and let everyone win………..

  • Jean

    Want to cancel a show – it’s fine just as long as you don’t do that with a cliffhanger. That’s just wrong! CBS knew it was going to cancel Jericho then why didn’t it just give it a proper final?

  • I, for one, am not going to pay for TV shows in advance of seeing them, so the PPV model wouldn’t work for me. Using integral ads (product placement) would seem like the best way to go, since there is really no way to skip over them without missing the show.

    A technological change, like programming DVRs to prevent you from fast-forwarding through commercials, is also a possibility… I don’t record shows on DVR just so I can skip the commercials, I record shows on DVR so I can watch them when I want to. FFing through commercials is just a bonus.

    Named sponsorship and unobtrusive top-corner ads (like they use in televised soccer matches) might also be options that I could support.

    WRT Jericho, they wouldn’t do a proper series finale unless they were 100% sure that the show was done, so that’s understandable. But I think CBS really dropped the ball on this decision.

  • MaryAnn

    I, for one, am not going to pay for TV shows in advance of seeing them

    Do you ever pay for movies, books, magazines, or music in advance of experiencing them? :->

  • You’re dead on about passionate fans. I said the same thing when Fox canceled Arrested Development. And you’d think they at least would have learned this lesson to a degree after canceling and then having to renew Family Guy.

    Passionate fans are not equal to dispassionate ones. They’re fast-forwarding through the commercials on Tivo? So what. As you pointed out, they’re visiting the site, organizing viewing parties, telling their friends to watch, etc. And ya know what? They’re also going to be the ones buying the DVDs.

    Which, mind you, is a brand new phenomenon that has generated tons of revenue for the networks, so they can really spare me their crying about people skipping commercials and getting shows off of BitTorrent and the like. They’re hardly on the brink of collapse, and DVRs aren’t going to go away. Quit whining and adapt.

    Look at the potential positives of DVRs! Now they can watch your show even if it’s on opposite American Idol or Monday Night Football. They can catch every episode even if you put it on Friday nights, or stick it on at 3 am. You’re not shackled to 3 hours of primetime 4-5 nights a week anymore. Any time of day can be primetime! You just have to open your god damn dinosaur eyes to the possibilities.

  • MaryAnn: Yes, I do. But I’ve always had to pay for them, so this is nothing new. TV shows have always been free (except when I lived in England and had to pay a TV license fee each year to fund the BBC).

    And books, magazines, and music are physical objects (I buy CDs, not digital downloads… unless there is no other choice, I don’t buy bits, I buy containers of bits), so I can enjoy them over and over again at no additional cost. Not to mention, I can usually flip through them (or listen to them a bit) before plunking down any money, so the risk is much lower.

  • Eric

    Granted I haven’t looked at the details, but the switch to digital broadcasting doesn’t guarantee a much higher quality picture. Unless its forced upon them in legislation, the stations could utilize all that extra broadcast bandwidth to send out 3 separate parts of their station, say one that runs cheap movies, and another that has news more often, all with only slightly better picture.

    I’m just saying we don’t know exactly how they’ll handle it (or if you do, you might link me something in a comment), and it may not be to our liking.

  • Phil Urich

    Did you ever watch Smith? Also on CBS, also cancelled for some of the deeper reasons that I’m sure CBS cancelled Jericho; hell, they only actually aired three episodes! Both the acting and writing was superb (Ray Liotta stealing many scenes) and, if Jericho is the anti-24, then Smith was the anti-CSI:Miami. I believe that episodes 1-7 are available online at CBS’s site (or 720p hi-def rips exist in the land of piracy for the first three episodes) and they’re definitely worth a look.

    And here I thought that, after cancelling Smith, CBS had gotten their woulda-been-classic show cancelling out of the way, amazing that they managed to go and add another to the prestigious list.

  • MaryAnn

    They’re also going to be the ones buying the DVDs. Which, mind you, is a brand new phenomenon that has generated tons of revenue for the networks, so they can really spare me their crying about people skipping commercials

    Ah, but I think I’m correct in saying that DVD revenues go to the production company that produces a show, not to the networks that air a show (I believe the networks license the right to air a show and don’t necessarily participate in other, nonbroadcast-related profits). In many ways the direction that TV is going in is similar to how record companies are being cut out of the profit stream of music: who needs a network or a record label to distribute your product anymore when you can approach potential fans directly?

    And books, magazines, and music are physical objects (I buy CDs, not digital downloads… unless there is no other choice, I don’t buy bits, I buy containers of bits)

    Ah, but that’s all going to change too, for lots of reasons: it’s easier on consumers, it’s easier on producers, it’s easier on the environment to buy and sell bits, not containers for bits. Why should we wait two days for a DVD from Netflix when we can download a hi-res, HD-quality movie in a few minutes, or stream it over the the Net? Why should we buy a dead-trees book when we can download the text to our iPaperbacks, and store it along with the hundreds of other novels we keep on its postage-stamp-sized 100GB hard drive? Very soon we all will be paying for bits and bits alone, and shaking our heads in disbelief that we ever paid for clumsy containers for bits.

    Unless its forced upon them in legislation, the stations could utilize all that extra broadcast bandwidth to send out 3 separate parts of their station

    Yes, that’s true, and considering how the public airwaves have been misused, it’s all too likely. But I’m trying to be optimistic here. :->

    Did you ever watch Smith?

    Nope, sorry, never saw it.

  • David C

    The problem with buying bits as opposed to containers of bits is that media companies don’t want to *let* us buy bits. When I buy a DVD, it’s *mine*, but the big media companies seem to think of “buying” something electronically as “You grant us a perpetual license to nickel and dime you to death with DRM shenanigans.”

    That’s all kind of a side issue, though, and will eventually sort itself out on the side of “making money by giving people what they want,” as most such things do.

    The real issue that the broadcast networks are afraid to address is one I’ve talked about for years: they’re still trying to run their industry on a business model that essentially hasn’t changed since 1957. I’m not sure exactly *how* I’d deal with the 21st century if I was a broadcast executive, but that’s not my job. Pay me a network executive’s salary, and I’ll get to work on that.

    It doesn’t look like an easy job, but I’m pretty sure I know what *not* to do, and that’s trying to ride the ailing dinosaur of a 1950’s business model until it actually collapses. I think the whole reality show craze is an attempt to dodge the real issues, because live programming (i.e. sports and fake sports-like activities) are the only things the old business models still *do* work reasonably well on. When all you’ve got is a hammer, turn all your programming into nails….

  • T6

    I have a TiVo, and I fastforward through commercials.

    But wait! I have a secret to pass on…this isn’t new. Before TiVo, I would program my VCR to record a show and then fast forward through commercials. And if I watched it live? When the commercials came on I’d go to the bathroom, or turn off the volume and process with my freinds, or go back to grading papers.

    There isn’t much evidence that TV commercials are even effective and nobody wants to even talk about that.

    On the otherhand…I think sponsorship works….well at least in a way. For example, I love Battlestar Galatactica. I don’t know anybody who advertises during that show. I do know that Carnation Condensed Milk was the sponsor of the Burns and Allen show, and I know that Ford Focus and Coke sponsor American Idol. Yet, I’ve never bought Carnation, and I have no plans to buy a Ford Focus. I like Coke and that has nothing to do with the commercials…though I don’t drink Coke much anymore. But at least I remember their products…though it isn’ influencing my buying habits.

    I’m really not convinced that commercials can make us buy anything we didn’t/wouldn’t want to buy in the first place…and so I feel like the whole system is based on some false assumptions…and those assumptions are bearing fruit and they want to blame TiVo.

  • MaryAnn

    When the commercials came on I’d go to the bathroom, or turn off the volume and process with my freinds, or go back to grading papers.

    Yes! When I watch shows live I don’t watch the commercials. They might impinge upon my subconscious as I do other stuff waiting for a show to return, but probably less so than fast-forwarding through them does: I’m actually watching the TV when I fast-forward so that I’ll know when to stop.

    That’s part of the reality that TV networks are having to face, and they’re not enjoying it. :->

  • Phil Urich

    “That’s part of the reality that TV networks are having to face, and they’re not enjoying it. :->”

    Ahh, but the problem is, they aren’t willing to take it so they’re taking it out on us.

    And you really should watch Smith ;) Alright, that’s the last I’ll rant about that; but it is worth noting that I had left Jericho behind, back in those early first episodes, yet now the fury over its cancellation, especially your passionate comments on the matter, have invigorated me to pick it back up and give it another gander. Even if it’s too bad that good shows all seem to follow the Firefly paradigm now, well hey, being good while it lasts is better than never having been good at all.

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