Content March 2009

The Future Is Cheese

Why the networks are surrendering prime time to Jay Leno and the Lord of the Dance
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Dee Conway/Lebrecht Music and Arts

Around the same time NBC announced that Jay Leno, instead of decamping to do late-night comedy for ABC, would remain at NBC and move to a 10p.m., Monday-through-Friday slot, the creator of the network’s fading hit series Heroes took a public swan dive into hard concrete.

Speaking at a screenwriter expo in Los Angeles, Tim Kring struggled to defend his sci-fi-tinged show, which has endured two seasons of faltering ratings. Heroes is presented in a serialized format, meaning that stories “arc” over the course of an entire season rather than conclude at the end of each episode, as in a sitcom, or a police procedural such as CSI or Law & Order. The serialized format is “a very flawed way of telling stories on network television right now,” a blogger quoted Kring as saying, “because of the advent of the DVR and online streaming. The engine that drove [serialized TV] was, you had to be in front of the TV [when it aired]. Now you can watch it when you want, where you want, how you want to watch it, and almost all of those ways are superior to watching it on-air.”

Then, in a fit of pique for which he is still apologizing, he said: “So on-air is [relegated] to the saps and the dipshits who can’t figure out how to watch it in a superior way.”

Kring later claimed that his quote had been “slightly mangled,” but the damage was done. He was blasted by fans and critics (“Try, you know, not sucking,” Time’s television blogger, James Poniewozik, bloggishly advised him), and certainly there was something gloriously self-destructive about a 50-something show creator, at the apex of his career after decades of slogging through hack work, publicly attacking the very people who are keeping him in business. But his profane evisceration of his own viewers is of a piece with NBC’s decision to sully the sanctum sanctorum of prime time with a talk show: both are signs of an old television order dying and a new one starting to come into focus.

The mere fact that moving a talk-show host from 11:30 to 10p.m.—a banal decision, on the face of it—has occasioned so much breathless coverage is more a sign of how change-resistant network television has traditionally been. But whether the Leno decision stemmed from desperation (by most gauges, NBC is now the fourth-ranked broadcast network), PR bravado (this is show business, after all), or just an unsentimental recognition of the need to make lemonade out of lemons, it will be only the first of many such moves. Amid an economic downturn that’s calling into question most old-school business strategies, the underpinnings of much of the mainstream television business are coming unstuck—and the first casualty may be the profusion of triple-decker, lavishly produced, scripted television that we’ve all taken for granted.

The problem is a relatively simple one: networks no longer make as much money on television shows as they used to. This makes the economics of scripted television—which is much more expensive to produce than reality or variety shows—far trickier and riskier than ever before. A show like Heroes can be an eight- or nine-figure gamble for its backers (usually a combination of a network and a studio), and the return is far from certain. As the television advertising market—the multibillion-dollar behemoth that makes possible all those excellent explosions and location shoots in Fiji—softens, the makers of TV shows are scrambling to find this money elsewhere. Content owners have traditionally found it in foreign syndication, DVD sales, and merchandising, among other revenue streams. But these markets are either plateauing or softening. This accounts for the rise of “integrated marketing” (all those name-brand products you see showing up in the middle of shows), and the rush to place programming on sites like hulu.com (a partnership between the parent companies of NBC and Fox) or to sell it through, say, iTunes. But neither Hulu nor iTunes offers—yet—a real business model.

This is the “sell side” problem. On the “buy side,” the problem is what I’d call cultural attention-deficit disorder, which afflicts the consumer bombarded with choices: more TV networks (the Emmy Award–winning show Mad Men is broadcast on AMC, a channel previously known only for showing movies), more video games, more Web sites, and more ways to consume shows than ever before (VOD, DVD, PPV, etc., etc.). And all of this is compounded by the loss of the social effect: the fewer people who consume any given piece of media, the fewer people there are to tell you how awesome The Life & Times of Tim is and how you simply have to watch it. Amid the chaos, it’s difficult for a media consumer to care enough about any one thing to stick with it—and for a network trying to build allegiance to a brand, convincing anyone that what you’re showing matters becomes almost impossible. (In the current television season, for example, only one new network show, CBS’s The Mentalist—a procedural, as it happens—became a bona fide hit, despite the tens of millions all the networks spent on promotion.)

This explains both Leno’s prime-time leap and Tim Kring’s swan dive. The only thing network television can uniquely offer us non-digitally-optimized saps and dipshits is the promise of immediacy. Leno’s content—like that of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the breakout stars of the past few years—is news-driven, hypertimely, and ultimately disposable, insofar as it loses almost all its value within 24 hours. American Idol and Dancing With the Stars, consistently the most popular television series over the past two seasons, can capture and hold a brief cultural moment because they’re broadcast, judged, and voted on live. Heroes, on the other hand, is an inferior experience when consumed in real time, with commercials, Mondays at 9 p.m. In his Howard Beale moment, Kring had things basically correct: his show requires many hours of commitment to understand and fully enjoy, and it’s much, much easier to watch the whole thing in a marathon on a rainy Saturday morning—most likely on DVD, via your remarkably cheap Netflix subscription.

Jay Leno’s big move is just one obvious response to this reality. NBC got strong ratings, for instance, by running politically themed Saturday Night Live prime-time specials on Thursdays during election season, and it’s almost inevitable that SNL, or a live or topical show that shares its DNA, will appear regularly in prime time in the near future. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Today show, or some version thereof, started appearing in the 8 p.m. slot before long. And of course, there’s always room for more of my fave, reality TV. One of NBC’s ratings successes this winter was the premiere of a live competition show called Superstars of Dance, starring the ultimate in cheesetastic celebrity: the “Lord of the Dance” himself, Michael Flatley. (Ratings for subsequent installments dropped, perhaps proving that not all cheese ages well.) None of this should be shocking to anyone who has watched TV elsewhere in the world. Italian prime-time TV is filled with vapid variety shows featuring improbably hot chicks cavorting with goatish older men. British prime time is a parade of reality competitions and variety shows of the Donny & Marie type, all produced on the cheap and instantly disposable.

Watch a melodramatic and "cheesetastic" performance from Superstars of Dance

As network television takes up a lower-brow position in the cultural pecking order, the higher-quality, more expensive shows will become increasingly independent of the networks that broadcast them. Eventually, networks will stop being brands and start becoming, at least in part, mere “distribution platforms,” a first stop for cultural products on their long journey through other digital media, subscription services, and mobile devices—more like movie-theater chains, in other words, than like movie studios of yore. Just as a premiere in a movie house now largely serves as a way to market the DVD, or sell products, so too is the TV “premiere” just a billboard for the show’s future life.

This is already happening, in fits and starts. The CW network essentially subcontracted its Sunday night last year to a private-equity-backed company called Media Rights Capital (the experiment was subsequently scrapped), and NBC announced but has yet to follow through on a similar deal with a production company, possibly for its historically low-rated Saturday nights. We’re not far off from a time, much like at the dawn of television, when, say, Procter & Gamble may lease a night on a major network and be free to do whatever it wants with it.

In the short term, this will probably mean fewer traditional (and expensive) television shows in the mold of Heroes. The digital revolution has been a great leveler. Blogs work better than newspapers. Small bands with passionate audiences do better relative to their predecessors than does mass-market pap. Cult movies find and sustain audiences. Niche rules over mainstream.

The exceptions (Twilight, Pixar movies, American Idol, Britney, 24, anything Oprah likes) are huge and will remain so, since people clearly will always like to congregate around shared cultural experiences.

But niche networks like HBO and Showtime may loom even larger than they do now: they’re supported by cable subscription fees, and they’ve smartly anticipated the move away from real-time viewing and made video-on-demand part of their broader scheme. This has allowed those networks not only to continue to produce top-flight scripted shows, but also to promote them with a fervor redolent of the old days of Must-See TV. Surely the current economic meltdown is hurting pay-cable’s revenues, but the business is still awfully juicy. And as the networks increasingly become the domain of the Lord of the Dance, viewers will (I think, and hope) happily continue to pay for quality.

Those who don’t will get what they don’t pay for: not a cultural wasteland, exactly, but the television equivalent of AM talk radio, which survived the emergence of higher-quality FM radio in the 1970s by reverting to its core strength—cheap, live talk. And the world will tune in, because cheese has its own rewards. When no one’s looking, I might even laugh at Jay Leno’s monologues.

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Michael Hirschorn is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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