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.

I wrote recently 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 network's 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 waxed 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 blase public. A study from a Publicist 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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MaryAnn Johanson (email me)

reviews, reviews, reviews! at FlickFilosopher.com