Gruber posted on Monday about how the non-traditional TV “networks” are whooping the likes of ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox, at least when it comes to broadcasting high-quality, award-worthy content.
One can reasonably argue that the broadcast networks have always produced mostly garbage, but the real change is that the broadcast networks have completely missed the boat on the megamovie revolution — shows that “take television seriously as a medium”. That’s obviously true for dramas like Game of Thrones and Westworld, but I think it’s true for comedies, too. Consider the elimination of the laugh track.
He’s not wrong, except with the implication that the broadcast networks ever had a chance not to “miss the boat.” I’m not a TV-industry guy, and my understanding of that economic world is limited to having lived in Los Angeles for 30+ years, but it seems to me like the big three/four can’t be expected to compete with “networks” that play by different rules.
The broadcasting paradigm is based on a single foundation: revenue is dependent on ratings. That’s because revenue comes from ad revenue, and broadcasters’ ad rates are dependent on their ratings. The trick of the broadcast network’s economic model is to charge advertisers more for ad time than they spent to generate the ratings required to charge the advertisers those rates.
That model results in decision-makers who are risk-averse. Why take a chance on a new product that has a decent chance of failure — even when it’s a new kind of content, or even a little change like laugh track elimination, that you actually believe in — when you have a sure-thing that’ll be good enough?
Furthermore, the broadcast networks’ revenue model tends to reward popular taste (and its cousin, low-brow proclivity) over critical quality. How many episodes of CSI and its seventeen spinoffs did CBS air? (I’ll tell you: way too many.) Were any of the CSI franchises ever considered by anyone to be high-quality drama worthy of critical acclaim? Nope. But they kicked ass in the ratings for a long time, so they made CBS a huge amount of money.
And that’s why networks only care about Golden Globes and Emmies if winning them generates buzz, higher ratings, and (therefore) higher ad revenue. (And maybe because actors/directors/producers like winning awards, and happy actors/director/producers are theoretically good for networks, at least to a point.)
But that formula isn’t a guarantee. Plenty of critically acclaimed shows have been ratings duds. If NBC or ABC or CBS has a choice between an extra point-and-a-half in a key demographic and ten Golden Globe nominations, they’ll always pick the former. And that’s why they air the content they air, and they’ve conceded the trophies to Netflix, Amazon, and the cable networks that can (or at least hope they can) make money on high-brow.
None of this is news. This was the case back when HBO was raking in award hardware for The Sopranos. At the time, plenty of people let themselves believe that HBO was at an advantage because content creators could depict violence, nipples, and curse words. But their real advantage was always that they could afford to take a risk on serious episodic drama, which had the potential for a massively lucrative pay-off for them in the long term (in the form of subscribers who were hooked). The networks play a short game in which last night’s ratings matter right now. While this isn’t universal, and (I’ve been told by friends in the industry) it often isn’t quite so simple, this paradigm is still at the core of how the broadcast networks operate.
Gruber might be able to relate. He loves to tease the Android makers (and more so ignorant Wall Street folks) who go on and on about market share, and who bash Apple’s low performance in that particular metric. He’s observed all along (before anyone else really noticed) that Apple’s eyes aren’t on how many handsets or laptops they ship, but on how much money they make on the ones they do. (Because you can sell lots of phones if you don’t charge much for them. But that also means you won’t make much money.) So Apple is happy not to race to the bottom of the profit barrel in search of market share, because that market share doesn’t make them enough — or any — money.
Jon, here’s the thing: the networks may have missed the boat on the latest and greatest trends in TV. But their execs don’t care, because their eyes aren’t on Golden Globe statuettes, but on how much money they’re making for their networks. And spending a ton of money to make a show that isn’t a definite weekly ratings winner isn’t a smart play for them.
(For the record: I hate this economic model because I like quality programming. And most of my favorite shows right now are on Netflix or Amazon. I’m just saying that it the network broadcasters “missed the boat,” they did so because they made a conscious decision to stay on dry land. Is that cowardly of them? Sure. Does it result in bland, boring network television? Generally, yes.)
After nine seasons, like other viewers, I felt that the protagonist who had experienced so much hardship in his life deserved better. Yet a part of me also appreciated that what I got to see for really the first time on a television program was a glimpse of what actual life happiness is like. Some TV programs geared toward younger people today demonstrate happiness as the perfect happy ending: the screaming bride gets her perfect wedding cake or the perfect wedding dress, or privileged elites find a way to solve their first world problems. But this was a different kind of finale that reminded us that while life is imperfect, all of us must still find a way to find happiness.