The Changing TV Business

If there was ever a TVmageddon in the works, this is it. What was, is no longer. What will be, unfolds. What is destroyed will be rebuilt.  Nothing is permanent. Everything is fluid.

What does this mean for TV writers?

Decades ago, in a time far far away, there were three or four terrestrial networks in America. The process was straightforward. Seasons were well defined, starting in September and ran for around 6 months. Summer time was the time for reruns because networks couldn’t sell sufficient advertising because viewers were outdoors.

Producers pitched potential TV series at the same time of year, around May. In turn, networks decided which projects would go to pilot and potentially a full season. Producers would scramble for the same pool of writers to get pilots written (sometimes with the second or third writers of choice) within a narrow time frame and scripts were turned into the networks towards the end of the year.

The TV pilots that would be shot were decided early in the following year. Then producers would scramble for the same talent during a filming frenzy called pilot season. Then networks would decide which pilots would go to series with their advertisers and series would be filmed for the fall TV season.

Mind you, writers had to avoid creative burnout and come up with 26 episodes for the the year before their hard earned hiatus. This was how it was done and it was never questioned or deviated much from this formula.

The arrival of cable and online TV caused fissures in this model.  The rug was snatched from under our feet and TV networks had no option but to create a new model for the TV business. This included not only redefining traditional terrestrial broadcasters, but also cater to cable and online distribution models.

The TV world hasn’t fully figured their new business model yet. It’s still a work in progress and will always be that way. That’s how the marketplace works. Currently it’s a mix of subscription and payoff demand.

The bad news is that the mega bucks for a few hands have dried up, but there are more buyers than ever looking to exploit the lucrative nature of TV. Terms such as time slot and prime time will become redundant. TV channels have multiplied exponentially. Programming will become increasingly targeted and niche as will its associated advertising.

A few years ago there were around 60 TV buyers no longer looking for cheap reality TV, but rather quality prestige projects.

Cable TV networks commission projects year round and they aren’t rigid in their 26 episode requirement. If a project should be a mini-series, so be it. This is the revival of event programming.

Summer is no longer a time for repeats and low rent programming. CBS decided to launch “The Dome” in July 2013, to an astonishing 13 million viewers. Granted it was a Stephen King project, but not too shabby nonetheless.

Sundance channel decided on a 7 episode season for their acclaimed series “Rectify”. AMC decided on a split season their final season of Breaking Bad’s 16 episodes over two years. They also aired five “mini-sodes” of ancillary material to further engage its audience. Passive viewing is  fading away in favor of an interactive experience.

“The Walking Dead” consistently attracts 10-15 million viewers; a figure terrestrial broadcasters would envy.

This has caused a schism in the network TV business. FOX has conveniently injected boldness, originality, quirkiness and quality into its FX cable brand. Offbeat gems like “Wilfred” (I’m an Aussie so I have to plug it) sits alongside the ghoulish “American Horror Story” and the smart, but flailing in ratings, “The Americans”.

The larger terrestrials are desperately trying to reinvent themselves. Necessity is the mother of invention. They are larger ships and take longer to change course. Part of the issue is ratings. Terrestrials must cater to broader tastes and can’t be too edgy by definition.

If ABC, NBC or CBS captured audiences of under 10 million viewers, executive heads would roll. When Showtime scores 3 million viewers with “Ray Donovan” executives pop open the champagne. It’s called matching the product to the market.

NBC is an open brand network reinventing itself. It can boast “The Office”, “30 Rock” and the poorly rating (by terrestrial TV standards) “Hannibal”. Kudos for trying to be bold.

AMC threw a spanner in the works with over 8 million viewers at its peak for “The Walking Dead” or HBO courting over 5 million ‘Game Of Thrones” fans causing a quantum jump in what constitutes an achievable rating. HBO ended “Girls” with around 750000 viewers and was still considered a critical and commercial success.

The quality bar for TV has been raised so high that audiences are returning in droves. Hopefully, this trend will permeate into the cinema world.

This is the beauty of free markets. When the product is good at the right price point, the audience will come. Evolve or perish.

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