In my post Failure of the Media Part One I discussed how demographic changes, mostly the lack of young Whites, made the youth-oriented Indie 103.1 FM a failure, compared to the older, stodgier, but more profitable AM talk radio, oriented towards an older, White male audience. In my post, Failure of the Media Part Two, I covered the sad, lingering death of the LA Times, intent on becoming the print version of NPR without the massive government subsidies. Now, I'll cover the sad decline of broadcast TV networks, with a special emphasis on the near total decline of NBC.
In all three cases, key decision makers have deluded themselves about demographic reality, and basic economics.
If Indie 103.1 failed because it was not 1983 any more, and there were not enough (White) youth, and the LA Times slowly sinks underwater because the attempt to become a print version of KCRW was doomed to be a money loser from the start, broadcast TV networks, and NBC in particular, fall from grace is far more puzzling.
Because once upon a time, the Brandon Tartikoff strategy actually worked for NBC. When Tartikoff was running it. Boiled down to it's essentials, it meant giving shows without much audience appeal that were well written, acted, and produced, several years to find an audience, and allowing some lower-rated shows (Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, the first few years of Seinfeld) to stay on the schedule as long as they drew high advertising rates based on wealthy yuppie audiences. For the time, the early 1980's, this was new. But a critical component of Tartikoff's strategy was shows with broad, popular appeal. Tartikoff was instrumental in launching shows like Miami Vice, the Cosby Show, Knight Rider, and Family Ties. Not to mention the A-Team.
Now, NBC's schedule is among the lowest rated of the broadcast networks, excluding the teen-girl oriented CW. Even it's head, Ben Silverman, has given up on the idea of becoming the number one rated network. Moves such as canceling the acclaimed "Life" and moving the similarly acclaimed "Chuck" to a thirteen episode run in the Spring of 2010 were something Tartikoff would not have done. Nor would the emphasis on cheap, disposable reality shows that make money on low ratings be part of the old Tartikoff strategy. Instead, NBC is loading up on cheap, female-appealing reality shows, and running a Jay Leno hour-long talk show at 10 pm every weeknight. Only Fox still programs new shows on Saturdays, "Cops" and "America's Most Wanted." NBC abandoned Saturdays in the late 1990's after the failure of the XFL stunt (a weird cross between football and Wrestling created by WWE head Vince McMahon). CBS and ABC had stopped running new shows several years earlier.
NBC is not alone, of course, in having problems with profitability. Ratings leader CBS has shown reduced operating revenue, compared with years before, prior to the recession. Fox, ABC, and the CW are also hurting. ABC canceled the series "Samantha Who?" with star Christina Applegate, due to an inability to reduce costs. According to Deadline Hollywood Daily, half a million per episode had to be cut from the budget to get the show renewed. It's possible that CBS made a similar decision in canceling the excellent "Eleventh Hour" which got good ratings.
The reason for the move to cut costs is clear: the networks, pretty much all of them, don't believe they can get enough viewers. Probably most of the networks don't want to do the things required to gain viewers. Since it would be too uncomfortable for network executives dealing with producers. NBC's Silverman, after all, was a reality show producer himself before becoming head of NBC programming, and will surely return to that once he leaves NBC, as is true for most programming heads. [Former "Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Hill Street Blues" producer Grant Tinker became Tartikoff's boss at NBC.] Programming heads don't like to pressure producers outside their comfort zones, knowing the places can and will be reversed some day soon. Today's programming heads and producers are relatively happy creating content that is "edgy and hip" and aimed almost exclusively at women 18-34, the female youth demographic, so desired by advertisers. It was a strategy that worked reasonably well, during boom times, but is out of touch, and dangerously so, with economic reality today.
It's useful to compare today's America, and state of television, with that of the America in the 1960's. It's true that in the 1960's, there were only three broadcast networks, as opposed to five today (Fox and CW did not exist then). But there are about 100 million more people today in the US than there were during the 1960's. In 1970, the population of the US was about 203 million. Today, America has about 306 million. This increase of about 103 million people amounts to about roughly a 50% increase from 1970 levels. The Beverly Hillbillies drew about 60 million viewers during it's peak years. Today, with 50% more people, the highest rated show on broadcast TV is "American Idol" with about 25-30 million viewers. By contrast, HBO which is available to almost every household in the US, has only a third of households subscribing, which amounts to about 8-9 million viewers for the Sopranos, and 11.9 million viewers for the finale. Only the Superbowl, with ratings of around 100 million viewers or so has accomplished keeping near pace with population increases. One would imagine, that all things being equal, shows that were popular would be posting viewers in the 90 million range (about a 50% increase from the 60 million that the Beverly Hillbillies drew). This is not so. Even during the 1980's, before Fox and the CW, and widespread cable TV, the A-Team only drew 20 million viewers at it's height. [Fox first broadcast in October, 1986]
Even during the early 1980's, viewership had declined, despite the lack of alternatives (no Fox, no CW, no UPN nor WB networks, no cable inroads). A cable show like HBO's True Blood generates only 1.4 million viewers per showing. Broadcast network executives and producers argue that viewer erosion is a function of audience fragmentation, but clearly viewers were not watching TV, by the droves (nearly 50% less compared to the late 1960's) in the 1980's, comparing say Beverly Hillbillies (60 million viewers) to the A-Team (20 million viewers). This without cable, Fox, CW, UPN/WB, and so on. Even with cable competition, the numbers don't add up, i.e. there's just not enough total viewers of stuff like True Blood to account for the "missing" viewers. Moreover, cable networks like HBO, Showtime, USA, Sci-Fi, and others run their schedules in the Summer months, precisely to avoid competition with the broadcast networks, who have re-runs or unwatchable reality shows during that time.
The missing viewers, are of course, men. The Long Tail Blog has old data from the 2004-5 controversy over the "missing" male viewers reported by Nielsen. [Changes in methodology in 2004 had a 10% decline in male viewership 18-34, which was "adjusted" back to previous viewership levels in 2005.] Nevertheless, TV is a mostly gay-female ghetto. Sitcoms can have up to 80% of their viewers female, as a quick look at shows like "Friends" or "How I Met Your Mother" would confirm.
Look for example at ABC's 2008 Fall Schedule:
Number of shows (Primetime): 16.
Number female skewing: 16.
NBC's Fall Schedule has:
Number of shows (Primetime): 18 (I'm not counting the Saturday edition of Dateline NBC).
Number of female skewing: 13 (note, the five shows that are male skewing include the two Sunday Night Football shows, the pre-game and the Sunday Night Football.)
CBS's Fall 2008 Schedule is here:
Number of shows: 22.
Number of female skewing: 21 (I'm including only NUB3RS as not female skewing, and even that might be pushing it, if you added NCIS, Without A Trace, and the Unit, you would get to 18 as female skewing. My standard for not female skewing is a "male" show like the A-Team, i.e. few female roles, not much concern for relationships, other things women viewers like to see).
Fox's Fall 2008 Schedule is here:
Number of shows: 17 (I'm counting the Saturday shows of Cops and America's Most Wanted).
Number of female skewing shows: 15.
CW's Schedule for Fall 2008 is here.
Number of shows: 10.
Number of female skewing shows: 8 (I'm counting Smallville and Supernatural as at least not female skewing shows, they are weird hold-overs from the WB days).
This gives us the following graphs:
[Click Image to enlarge]
As you can see, NBC had the most shows that were "Men Friendly" in the sense of not being female skewing (such as say, ABC's "Desperate Housewives") with five, two of those related to Sunday Night Football (the pre-game show and the game broadcast, respectively). Moreover, even shows such as "Heroes," and "Chuck," and "My Own Worst Enemy" had substantial female-friendly elements (soap-opera style relationship stuff, and so on). NBC, moreover, did not do very well with it's line-up of shows. "My Own Worst Enemy" was canceled fairly quickly, and "Life," "Chuck," and "Knight Rider" failed to catch on (though "Chuck" was renewed).
[Click Image to enlarge]
The percentages were overall, fairly dismal. Men make up approximately 50% of the population, but only NBC cracked 25% of their shows being "Male Friendly" and that was a function of the Sunday Football broadcasts. One could argue about how to classify such CBS shows as "Without A Trace," or the various CSI-en, or "Eleventh Hour," but even adding them to the male-friendly mix would not approach 50% for the network, let alone total.
What's wrong with the television networks is the lack of men. Men are the missing viewers. Even counting cable systems, we have the following female-oriented cable networks: Lifetime, Lifetime Movie Network, WE, Oxygen, Bravo, Out, HGTV, Food Network, TLC, A&E, HBO, Showtime, Fine Living, Travel Channel, and Tru. That's a total of 15. Male oriented cable networks include: History Channel, ESPN, NFL Network, National Geographic, Discovery, USA, and Spike. That's a total of 7 networks. As we can see regarding broadcast networks, ALL the current broadcast networks are oriented overwhelmingly towards women.
This emphasis on female viewers has done two things. First, it has made entertainment dull, predictable, and PC-driven. Pushing the message that say, criminals (like the ones always breaking into the house "protected" by the Brinks Home security system in the series of commercials) are mostly mid thirties White guys who look middle class:
Or the endless supply of middle aged, White guys who probably resemble the ex-husbands of the script writers (Law and Order-en family of shows is notorious for this). Instead of the depressing reality of violent crime committed by Blacks and Hispanics. The White female audience demands PC and Multiculturalism, not just because those populations are totemized as some "Magical Negro" (ala Spike's Lee's famous essay decrying the dehumanizing effects of movies such as "Legend of Bagger Vance" where Black characters have magical powers ... that they use to spiritually enlighten White protagonists). But also because women find most "beta" males tedious, as workplace competitors, and bearers of unwanted sexual attention. Thus TV gives women the wrong ideas about who are the risky ones (hint: it's not the boring mid-thirties White guys) for crime and violence, and in asserting the PC dogma, boring and predictable.
Television, after all, has advantages over movies. Longer running times allows complex story lines (about 15 and a half hours for a 22 episode season, compared to 2 hours for most movies). Television is usually dominated by writer-producers, allowing creative continuity. Lacking big budgets for Michael Bay type special effects, television relies more on character than explosions and CGI. Being free or mostly free, television can reach far more people per year than all but the biggest of movies. The actors, too, can often be more skilled, selected for the ability to make the audience like and care about the lead over years, rather than tabloid celebrity. Particularly in a recession, television should be attractive, given the ability to reach far more people with less marketing costs than a big budget movie.
If Television producers and writers were forced out of their female-pandering comfort zone, to create more male-oriented dramas and sitcoms, or at least "male-friendly" in that shows did not have many elements that turn off male viewers (primarily female views of men: "beta losers" and bad-boy winners, along with soap opera emphasis on "doomed love" relationships with bad-boy characters) the creative output would be higher, on average, because those crutches would be gone. More mature, complex, and intelligent characters would be created, with an emphasis on fun. You would also see a net improvement in the kinds of social information given. Far less "evil White guy" villains, and more accuracy in social information.
This relentless focus on female audiences to the point where some networks have no male-friendly shows on them at all (ABC) is of course driven by advertisers, who have traditionally felt that women consumers make most household purchases. As marriage is delayed, or never happens at all, and more and more women are single mothers, and divorce rates remain high, this assumption is seriously flawed. A relic more of the 1960's than today. The food magazine Cook's Illustrated ten years ago had only 17% male readership, today it is over 50%, according to the Wall Street Journal (print edition only). Anyone shopping at the Supermarket will find Dads with kids in tow, doing the shopping and decision making. The female-only strategy, which has been a long-time in coming (as seen in the huge drop-off in ratings from the 1960's to 1980's, long before cable and the internet and video games), was sustainable in good times, but clearly not in bad times. Advertising revenue is down, substantially down, from good times. The female viewership, not the male viewership, is fragmented and hotly competed over. Much hyped CW series "Gossip Girl" for example, can get 1.9 million viewers for new episodes. Meanwhile men have sports, some shows on USA and Sci-Fi network, and the History Channel. That's about it.
Attempts to be "edgy" with hip-female oriented shows such as the remake of Battlestar Galactica have not been ratings winners, for reasons original series star Dirk Benedict explained. [Read the link, it's hilarious.] Two to 1.7 million viewers is "Gossip Girl" territory. Lower even than the Dollhouse finale. [Clearly Dollhouse was renewed because execs want to be on-set for Eliza Dushku's scenes in skimpy costumes, even if the audience could care less.]
NBC's strategy of pursuing the lowest cost possible schedule, and damn the ratings, is doomed to failure. Silverman, coming from a reality producer's perspective, can't understand the fixed costs of a broadcast network, and the coming danger to Television. Broadcast networks, after all, are simply a way for content to be delivered, at the same time, to affiliate stations. The TV networks are merely the outgrowth of the original radio networks, which sought to provide national news, sports, and entertainment through the network model. Just as the LA Times started to decline long before the internet, so too has television viewership. But now the challenge in particular for NBC is worse. It's not just the recession and advertising market being down considerably. Or the brutal competition for female viewers among all the cable and broadcast networks.
The internet allows content creators to deliver serial shows either streaming on-demand, for free, or pay-per-download (the Itunes model), or indeed both. Amazon and Itunes both will gladly sign agreements for content providers, for downloads. The cost to the content producer is relatively low. Even setting up a website like Hulu (or piggybacking on that existing site, and those like it) is not that expensive, far less than say the marketing budget for the film "Sideways," and the former is a cost that can be expensed against many shows.
The future is unlikely to be in broadcast television. There was, for a while, a brief shining opportunity to put content on broadcast television (as a promotional opportunity), on the web as advertiser supported free streaming video, and pay-per-download Itunes/Amazon content, all supported by the vertically integrated mega-media corporations. But predictably, executives looked to their next jobs with content producers, and assumed the years ahead will look like the years behind. That's a dangerous assumption, in all likelihood.
Television is likely to become even more a gay-female ghetto, ala ABC, with almost no men watching it (it's clear in retrospect that execs could not wait to dump ABC's one male-skewing show, "Monday Night Football"), while challenges to the broadcast network arise from places filled with lean and hungry content creators craving access to all those under-served male consumers. Just as American TV is filled with actors from the UK and Australia, it could well be that Hollywood's TV (and movie) complex is replaced by creators from Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, eager to take a risk and make entertainment appealing to men as well as women. The technology exists, today, to provide that challenge.