The State of Broadcast Television

Time really does fly, doesn’t it?

(And we bloggers sure do love our clichés.)

Cliche or not (and I’m not going to go to the trouble of putting the thing over the e in cliche again), it is the truth. First, I’m having a hard time believing that it’s been two and a half months since I’ve last posted. Probably I’ve lost my entire readership (hell, it’s damn near summer, so Mom is probably out in the garden, which halves my fans anyway).

But seriously (or not, if you follow this crap like I do), we’ve reached the end of the 2012-13 television broadcast season. Which means we’re getting new schedules and shows from the big four nets (ABC, CBS, Fox & NBC) as they try and determine how many billions of dollars they’ll soak up in ad revenue next year.

I follow all of this mostly as a source of my own amusement, as it’s hardly possible to take broadcast television seriously anymore. First, the inevitable parsing of the audience continues with each passing year, as the 500 or more nets on cable and the burgeoning business of broadcast over internet continues to siphon away the audience from the slightly-less-big-than-they-used-to-be-four.

In fact (and I’m too lazy to confirm this, but I think it’s right), I read somewhere that for the first time, network television can’t claim the highest rating for a scripted show during this season. No, that honor went to AMC’s The Walking Dead, despite the zombie drama’s down third season (unless The Big Bang Theory caught up at the last second).

I’m a bit late to the party this year; last year’s blogs took place as the nets rolled out their schedules, which all took place this week. I could give some wonderful excuse for this, but frankly I just didn’t get around to it. The benefit, however, is that now I can consider each net’s decisions with all of the information available to me, and I will do so over the next few days.

Big picture stuff: the nets are running scared. NBC is the most vulnerable and could potentially be the first of the big four to close up shop, at least as we know broadcast networks. The Peacock has little trouble coming up with good television in concept, but has had a hard time of late with execution (The Firm being a horrific example of concept gone wrong), marketing (Parenthood, one of the best shows on television anywhere, has yet to find an audience) and placement (my feelings on their schedules over the years are pretty well documented. SPOLER ALERT: They suck).

The blood at NBC and the alphabet soup network (ABC) ran deep this year, as both nets shed tons of hours of development, creativity and sweat in the form of dozens of cancelled television shows. Many of them were just a year or two old, showing how poor the freshman class was last year (out of the seven shows I chose to watch this year, I only stuck with two).

Comedy was particularly lacking from this year’s crop of television shows, where out of a couple of dozen which started in Fall 2012, only TWO will remain on the air when the leaves turn this year and, frankly, both of these are pretty bad. The Neighbors (ABC) looked so bad, I didn’t venture into it. It did seem to find a small audience, but has been banished to Friday nights. The Mindy Project (FOX) did just okay, pulling well from its New Girl lead-in and likely wouldn’t be around if the far superior (but less watched) Ben and Kate had gotten that timeslot in schedule roulette. Sometimes it truly is better to be lucky than good (speaking of cliches).

Trouble isn’t limited to the two C television nets though; Fox is facing a whole heap of the stuff where its bread is buttered – American Idol. The ratings are down and with a dozen cycles under its belt, Idol has grown stale. To that end, the net went and fired all the judges and are preparing something of a reboot. We’ll see if that makes a difference – sounds like rearranging the chairs on the Titanic.

No, the fact of the matter is network television itself is in the state of Idol: stale, and needing a reboot.

One thing that cable television shows us is that, in many cases, a shorter television season is a better one (or, to use another cliche, less is more). The average broadcast program runs around 22 episodes, while a cable counterpart will air 10-12 episodes during the same time period. Broadcast spreads these 22 eps over 8-9 months, while cable airs them right in a row and takes long breaks.

The success of The Walking Dead and its compatriots Homeland (Showtime), Game of Thrones (HBO), Sons of Anarchy (F/X) and a whole slew of others should teach some lessons to the big four.

If I were in charge of one of these television behemoths, I’d flip the whole thing on its ass right off the bat. First and foremost, I’d split the year into three rough pieces, each roughly 17 weeks apiece: August-December, January-May and May-August. Next, I’d instruct my development department to seek the following: (1) serial dramas or dramadies like Lost, 24 and Sports Night which require week to week viewing that will run 14-16 episodes a year, (2) procedural dramas which can draw in repeats and run 24-26 episodes a year, (3) comedies with proven comedy veterans whom you can build a show around (and without a laugh track) for 24 episodes a year, (4) miniseries which only run 8 or 16 episodes apiece and yes…(5) the dreaded game shows, which get 14-16 eps a season.

Side note: programs like American Idol, Survivor, Dancing with the Stars and The Voice are NOT reality shows. There’s nothing REAL about these programs. These are elaborately staged shows where various contestants somehow compete to win some sort of prize. That’s a game show. Lets start calling these things what they are, shall we? I hate these things, I really do, so I’m not going to talk about them. I recognize that a lot of you out there like Idol and all of that crap, so as exec of my network, I’d have them. But I’d need to take a big swig of Glenfiddich before putting my name on the dotted line. I truly believe the prevalence of these programs is making our society dumber by the day.

With my serial dramas, they would get a slot in one of my three seasons. They run continuously, then they end for the year and come back when that slot comes around the next year. With these, you can afford to take a few chances as the story takes precedence. So sign up lesser-known actors who fit the roles (rather than a big name for marketing purposes) to keep the rights fees and expenses low. Commit to airing a full season no matter what happens in the ratings, much like HBO and Showtime do. Halfway though, a determination can be made regarding whether to draw the Season Finale towards an ultimate conclusion, or begin to set up next year.

The procedurals I’d give a staggered start to, promoting them during the launch of the serialized shows as necessary. Sprinkle the 24 episodes over two of my three seasons (roughy September to May), but not in the stupid way the nets do right now. Currently, they feel the need to take all new episodes off at once and air repeats for weeks on end. In my view, making 24 episodes fit over two 17 week seasons looks like this: start them 3 weeks behind the serials (making it 31 weeks), take everything off at Christmas and New Year’s (29) and end them two weeks earlier than the serials in May (27). That gives you only three weeks off for each program. Between Presidential Addresses, news shows and various specials, the schedule will take care of itself. Absolutely no need for a show to ever be off for more than a week at a time.

Ditto the sit-com which, despite the bad rap the genre gets, can be pretty damned good at times (Californication, technically a sit-com, is one of my favorite shows). But, for the love of God, do we really need the insultingly stupid laugh track? I know when to laugh; if your show ain’t funny, hearing a bunch of canned morons laughing ain’t gonna fix that. But I do understand the necessity for some programs: try watching Friends without a laugh track. So here’s my solution: bring back the live studio audience. At least it’s real and, if the audience don’t laugh, then the joke just ain’t funny (so cut it from the show!).

But rather than develop these shows in a vacuum, I am much more convinced that finding a somewhat fresh (to the format) but proven comedic talent and developing a show around that person is a better way to go. You’ll see two pretty terrific-looking examples this coming year with Robin Williams (CBS) and Michael J. Fox (NBC), both making their return to the airwaves. Standing examples include New Girl (Fox), 30 Rock (NBC), Park and Recreation (NBC) and Two and a Half Men (when it was good – i.e. when Charlie Sheen was on it, CBS).

Finally, the mini-series or, as the nets are now re-branding them, “The Limited Series Event”.

Side Note: The word “event” brings me back to the genius that is (was) the late George Carlin. Carlin had this bit about weather, where he heard some guy talk about a storm as a “rain event”. His response: “Rain event? Holy shit, I hope I can get tickets to that!”. Another of my favorite quotes of Carlin’s was “Think of how dumb the average person is. Then realize half of them are stupider than that.” That’s what I think of when I see Idol promos.

The mini-series is long overdue for a return to the airwaves. Right now in visual story-telling, we have feature films at an average length of about two hours and television shows, which can clock in over a hundred hours.

Seems like there should be a middle ground, shouldn’t there? Does to me.

Did you know that the first season of Prison Break was supposed to be a “limited series event”? Though I dig a good conspiracy theory show, Break was never close to the same quality after that first season. If you haven’t watched it, do yourself a favor and pick it up today. Taken in and of itself, Season 1 of Prison Break was one of the best written, developed and plotted programs in television history (ridiculous when you thought about it later, sure, but really really good).

24 is making the move to the mini-series format in Summer 2014, coming back from the dead. While it was played out as an every-week program, there’s no reason why Jack Bauer can’t show up every couple of years and run off a dozen or so episodes of television. Keeps the character alive and the writing will likely be better as they have more time to work with him.

This is just one character; consider the possibilities (Firefly episodes, anyone?) Plus, some of the best television in history is “limited series”. Consider: John Adams, Band of Brothers, Lonesome Dove and Roots.

My thoughts, as always, for your consideration. See you soon.