When looking at television today it is easy to see that it has become a relic of an outdated generation. Television is still catering towards the same business model of our grandparent’s generation from over 50 years ago. It still thinks that those that have the power of the remote have control over ratings. But really it is anyone who has internet access that is controlling what content succeeds and which content fails. Consumers are not locked into watching television live anymore. They can watch at their leisure either through DVRs or by choosing to watch shows through on-demand or as television shows are available online.
So it makes us wonder in what other areas television is failing to keep up with the modern world we live in today. Technological advances aside, there are a number of key factors, which include:
The explosion of popularity of such social media platforms as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Get Glue and Tumbler has taken Hollywood by surprise and it is scrambling to keep up with the ever-evolving world of social media. In theory, as well as in practice, social media is a perfect tool for Hollywood. It allows those that make, produce and market television to connect directly with its audience. They also can now obtain real-time reactions from fans and consumers and get feedback on their products instantaneously. Gone are the days of phone and U.S. Mail surveys. One only has to log-on the nearest social media site and the information is right at one’s fingertips.
Social media has also made it extremely easy and cost-effective for studios and networks to market and promote their own content. It has eliminated large chucks of the Hollywood PR machine as managers, publicists and promoters are deemed less necessary simply because anyone can set up a social media account and reach out to their audience in seconds. New movies can have a Facebook page and upload a movie trailer on YouTube and with one tweet notify the entire world that it is coming out. So fast and so cheap compared to the old days of sending out a movie trailer teaser-reel to run in theaters across the country.
In addition to directly connecting talent and studios with their audience, social media has also made it possible to create strictly online content (webseries and webisodes) to reach consumers at a dramatically reduced cost. Never before has it been so easy or affordable to create a television series – virtually anyone can do it. Independent filmmakers and showmakers can take their work directly to their audience for a fraction of the cost and with relative ease. It has lead to an abundance of independent creative work that would normally never have had a chance of finding an audience.
So fatal flaw number one for television is its failure to embrace social media fast enough. Soon everyone will not be talking about the latest “television” show, but rather the latest “web” show.
Just as synchronicity tied to the old television broadcast model is the outdated Nielsen ratings system. For the past decade, viewers and critics have been saying that the overnight Nielsen ratings are failing to account for a large portion of the viewing audience. In fact, the Nielsen accounting of viewership is so dismal that most businesses would have abandoned its business model long ago simply because it would have meant losing millions of dollars. That Hollywood has tolerated this archaic and flawed system of viewership calculations is a testament to blind faith in an old business model. It’s like Hollywood is tenaciously holding on to it saying, “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” – but all the while failing to recognize that it is broken.
The Nielsen data provided is failing to account for millions (yes, millions of viewers) who find alternative ways to watch television. If millions of consumers are not counted, how many dollars of revenue is then lost? Millions is a conservative estimate. That loss of viewership data and subsequent advertising revenue not only means less dollars in the studio and networks’ pockets, it means the difference between which shows are cancelled and which survive. Cancelled shows not only deprive loyal fans, but also cost jobs for the 300 plus staff (producers, writers, actors and others) who work on a show.
Faulty data cannot be tolerated and Hollywood needs to find a more reliable way to ascertain its true audience. Embracing social media and the readily available data it provides is one way to offset the Nielsen data flaws. Should not every viewer with a smartphone, laptop computer, television or DVR have the option of having their viewing habits counted? Given how tenaciously viewers lobby to keep their shows on the air and the outcry heard when shows are prematurely canceled due to a network’s reliance on Nielsen numbers, surely, most if not all viewers would like to have a “one viewer, one vote” option available through today’s technological devices.
Hollywood’s failure to abandon a flawed ratings system is its Achilles heel. So long as it is tied to Nielsen data, it is aiming to fail.
Culling the Deadweight
Another new trend in Hollywood is its inability to let shows die when their time has long since expired. Typical television show contracts are for 5-7 years. Why? Because that is generally how long a television audience will follow a television show without becoming fatigued with its premise and cast. However, that period has become even shorter with the increasing inability for viewers to commit to television shows like the generations before them. Long gone are the days that shows could run as long as 15-20 years. These days viewers are checking out by the 3rd or 4th season, if not sooner. It is as viewers have become wise enough to tell when storylines and characters are being recycled and they crave something fresher to watch each night on television. (This is not to say that all television shows over 4 years old have reached their expiration date, for if a show is still securing a healthy number of its original viewers, then it is meeting its audience expectations and deserves to push forward as long as its audience sticks with it.)
It is but an illusion to imagine that today’s modern audience will keep tuning in for a television show that seems to have stalled lost its creative edge or which has nothing new to offer. Television by its nature is meant to be cyclical. It is supposed to have a built in obsolesce date – an end-date by which viewers can expect that everything will be resolved. This is especially true of serialized television shows. All stories must end eventually and showrunners and writers need to plan carefully for their show’s end and know when it is. (However, there is a built-in exception for procedural style television shows , which are self-contained to solving their issue or mystery within each episode. Those kinds of shows tend to cycle in an out their characters — just look at ER, LAW & ORDER or even CSI to see how the principal characters come and go with relative ease.)
But in the serialized storytelling world, viewers have become leery of investing in TV shows that may be cancelled without allowing an opportunity to find out “who did it” or whether a favorite couple gets together. Having a planned end-date allows viewers to feel comfortable knowing exactly when a show is going to end and that it will have an ending. LOST and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA are two good examples of TV shows that announced years ahead of time their end-dates and it allowed viewers to feel confident that the investment of their time in those shows would be rewarded.
So the third major area in which television has failed is not culling out shows that have out-lived their shelf-life.
Ever since the debut of DVRs and other methods of time-shifted viewing, the old model of “primetime” television between the hours of 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. weeknights has become more and more constrictive and chafing to viewers. Thus, uUtilizing all the modern tools available, viewers are refusing to be limited to watching television during any predetermined timeslots and are instead watching pre-recorded shows whenever they want. For example, if they are getting home late, they can start watching a show at their leisure, or they can hold onto a recorded show and watch it another day when they have more spare time.
It used to be that advertising rates were solely determined by the number of eyeballs watching a show on a certain night at a specified time as advertising commercial slots tend to be sold based on an estimated number of viewers for specific timeslots. But really is that required anymore? Does it matter if viewers are watching shows at 8:00 p.m. or starting them later in the evening? Is a “live” viewer who has not recorded a TV show more guaranteed to buy a product than a viewer who watches a show another time? Advertisers would have us believe that only captive “live” viewers will buy their products. But there is not much data to really support that. Captive viewers can be just as repulsed and turned-off by the repetitive advertisements as any other viewer seeking to avoid the onslaught of promotional plugs to buy products.
Studies have shown that even viewers who fastforward through commercials are still receiving a subliminal message about a product. And in some cases, people who record television shows actually watch commercial breaks to take a break during a show or to watch the latest movie trailer or to find out what is being advertised – whether it is a commercial promoting new episodes of other shows on the same network or getting more information about a product they may be interested in purchasing.
But even if less viewers are watching an advertisement, it just means that advertisers have to get more creative in how to promote their products. Product placement or integrating advertising into a television show is one such good example of thinking outside the box and finding another way to reach an interested audience. It is time to stop treating viewers as experimental lab rats forced to watch commercials and to start treating viewers as a product partner, and to create more advertisements that engage rather than sending the audience screaming for their remotes.
It also means understanding that viewers are demanding flexibility as to when they watch television shows. Viewers want to have more control over what they watch on television and when they watch it. By working with viewers to make that easier for them, advertisers will find a more receptive audience. I know it is much easier to watch on sponsored advertiser’s commercial before an on-demand airing offered through my cable provider or through an online site than it is to be forced to watch 6-7 commercials during a primetime viewing commercial break. In fact, I feel grateful for the sponsor who has eliminated my grief in watching television shows bloated with 20-30 commercials during a 42 minute program. (However, if an advertiser shows the same exact advertisement every 10-15 minutes during on online viewing or on-demand show it feels kind of I should add whatever they are advertising to a “never buy” list as a way of retaliating against their abusive advertising tactics. Once is always enough to get my attention.)
Accordingly, primetime viewing should be seen as obsolete and it is time that television programmers recognized that viewers will watch shows outside the 8 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. timeframe.
Quantity Over Quality
Television is a beast. Not because terrorizes, but because it constantly demands more and more content. It used to be that there were just a handful of broadcast networks vying for viewer’s attention. But today, there are literally hundreds of networks all seeking to carve out a niche of television viewers. It’s not all about the Big 5 (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW) anymore; now there’s HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, Starz, Syfy, FX, AMC, PBS, MTV, A&E, TBS, TNT, Lifetime, USA Network, BBC America, Hallmark, IFC, and hundreds more of television broadcast channels to choose from. Many if not most are looking for original content, whether it is scripted shows or variations of reality shows. They are scrambling to compete for the limited number of television viewers during any given timeslot. During peak hours (when viewers are not at work or asleep), there is an even more ferocious tug-of-war for viewers.
But in the fight for viewers, we are seeing more and more of a decline of product. There is less emphasis on the quality of show and more emphasis on simply getting more shows.
This is a huge loss in the creative world because reality TV is so cheap to produce that more and more networks are seeking reality shows to fill their available broadcast timeslots. The encroachment into primetime began over a decade ago and, as of today, reality TV holds one-half majority of primetime slots. That’s right. 50% of what is available during the primetime viewing hours is reality television. That is how popular and economical it is comparatively. Alas, scripted television has been in decline ever since Gen Z (anyone born after 1996) became old enough to be counted.
Along with advent of iPods, iPads, iPhones, YouTube, Xbox and social media, because this insatiable demand for voyeurism, reality TV (whether storyboarded or not) feeds the addiction of Gen Z for contained reality. They clamor for the competition shows like THE VOICE, AMERICAN IDOL, X FACTOR, THE BACHELOR, SURVIVOR, THE AMAZING RACE, along with the salacious fare of JERSEY SHORE, TEEN MOM, and DANCE MOMS. They even tune in for the more obscure reality shows like HARDCORE PAWN, TOP GEAR, and STORAGE WARS. Anything from singing and dancing to dating to cooking to sports to slice-of-life drama, if it feels real, the younger viewers are tuning in. It is as if in place of going out and experiencing life for themselves, the younger generation of today is content to simply watch others live it.
Regardless of the appeal, reality TV is a fixture in television today. The demand for more and more content which can be generated quickly and cheaply has pressured networks to find faster sources of content – and scripted shows are simply too expensive and time-consuming to produce. But, in the demand for more, the standard of quality has dropped considerably ‘causing connoisseur of television to lament that the “golden era” of television is gone.
This is a massive flaw in television today that it has sacrificed quality for mass quantity of literally anything to fill timeslots. If television was not dependent on timeslots, then perhaps we could strive for quality product once again? Yet another reason to abolish timeslot-dependent programming.
Dominance of Cable Television
Interestingly, as broadcast networks began fleeing from scripted television it left a vacancy in the television landscape; one which cable television broadcasters were only too happy to fill. In fact, the rich offerings of cable television have never been so alluring and for those seeking superior television products, they have enthusiastically embraced the rise of cable television dominance.
It used to be that the major networks had the shows that everyone was talking about: 24, LOST, THE WEST WING, HOMICIDE, THE X-FILES, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS. But in recent years, cable networks seem to be the ones offering the critically-lauded shows that get the most buzz: SONS OF ANARCHY, THE WALKING DEAD, MAD MEN, BREAKING BAD, DEXTER, HOMELAND, GAME OF THRONES, JUSTIFIED, SHERLOCK, LUTHER, THE NEWSROOM, BOARDWALK EMPIRE, DOWNTON ABBEY. The cable trend began in the hey-days of cable over a decade ago with: THE WIRE, OZ, SIX FEET UNDER, THE SOPRANOS, DEADWOOD, THE SHIELD and ROME. With television producers and writers seeking alternative networks willing to push the creative-bar, there became an interest in creating shows for desirable niche audiences – viewers with money and a refined palette of television tastes.
Since broadcast networks tend to cater towards the masses, it left niche-programming as a lucrative and viable option for cable. It was a huge loss. It has made it increasingly difficult for broadcast networks to even try to launch and sustain competitive dramas like THE GOOD WIFE and LAST RESORT, simply because the audience they are seeking to market to has happily moved its attention to cable channels. The television elite are not even willing to consider that broadcast networks can offer shows to their refined taste believing that anything the broadcast networks have to offer has been watered-down for sensors or lacks the no-holds-barred storytelling with which they have become accustomed.
By not catering to niche audiences and failing to compete with cable TV, broadcast television has forgotten who is its primary audience. Does it want to cater to the masses or Gen Z, which are content with cheap reality TV fare? Or does it want to woo back the millions of viewers who have abandoned primetime broadcast networks for critically-lauded fare?
One last galvanizing area of reproach is the increasing trend of “bait and switch” on broadcast television. Networks seeking to lure viewers have been allowing big name showrunners to “rubber stamp” shows in hope that the name recognition will draw and secure an audience. How many times have we tuned into to what we thought would be a J.J. Abrams show only to find that there was someone else actually running the show? When J.J. Abrams ran ALIAS, it felt like a J.J. Abrams’ show. It was taut, exciting, gripping, intense and surprising. It was a thrill-ride week to week. It was also the name of J.J. Abrams that helped successfully launch LOST and to this day, millions still call it a J.J. Abrams show – despite the fact that virtually all the day-to-day showrunning was done by Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. In recent years, J.J. Abrams has lent his name to UNDERCOVERS, ALCATRAZ, PERSON OF INTEREST, FRINGE and REVOLUTION. Yet as fans of these shows can readily attest, while these shows may have J.J. Abrams’ name on them, they were in fact ran by a multitude of other showrunners: Jonathan Nolan and Greg Plageman for PERSON OF INTEREST; J.H. Wyman and Jeff Pinkner for FRINGE; Eric Kripke for REVOLUTION; Josh Reims and Bryan Burk for UNDERCOVERS; and Steven Lillien, Jennifer Johnson and Daniel Pyne for ALCATRAZ.
When viewers tune in for a show that has been tied to a specific showrunner’s name, they have expectations that the show will live up to that name. It the show they see on the screen feels like it was produced by someone else, it creates confusion and a sense of betrayal. With viewers becoming increasingly savvy to how television works, they are not as willing to be hoodwinked by the old practice of “rubber-stamping” anymore. Instead they will turn their backs on shows that do not provide what viewers were promised. Fortunately, in a few cases, the product delivered exceeded expectations and the name-stamping practice was deemed inconsequential. But, in other cases, it is detrimental, as that same name becomes the albatross sinking the show in failure for failing to meet an audience’s heightened expectations.
It is time to start employing truth in advertising. It will help shows succeed on their own merits and regain some of the television audience’s trust, which has become increasingly skeptical of new shows with big names attached. It is time to stop the “rubber stamping.”
Television is an amorphic creation. It is boundless, limitless and ever expanding. It is a wondrous world where creativity blossoms. It is time to shirk off the shackles constraining television from adapting to the new world of digital media. Television needs to embrace and integrate social media; it needs to find a better way of calculating its true viewership; it needs to have built-in obsolescence dates for serialized shows; it needs to toss out the primetime programming grid; it needs to emphasize quality over quantity; it needs to stay competitive for niche audiences; and it needs to discontinue the practice of “rubber stamping” big producer names on TV shows.
These sound like simple and easy changes, but most will be extremely difficult for television to adapt to and conquer. But imagine if it does. Wouldn’t that be television to be excited about once again?