Networks throw rules out window
By Joanne Ostrow
Denver Post Media Critic
LOS ANGELES - Look closely and see the fear in their eyes. At the start of 2004, television executives are desperate.
"The old rules no longer apply," according to NBC's top executive, Jeff Zucker.
"There aren't any rules anymore," according to ABC Entertainment president Susan Lyne.
Declining audiences, the temptations of video games and other technologies and an impatient advertising community have prompted a wave of experimentation.
"The old economic model has lasted too long," Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman said. "We need to change the business."
There's a hint of panic in the air. Anxious programmers will attempt a number of alterations:
NBC will launch its fall season in August. Fox won't even mention fall, preferring to "redefine the traditional broadcast calendar with year-round programming."
ABC will try limited-run series on the British model. ("The D.A." is pitched as "four weeks, four murders"). Stephen King's "Kingdom Hospital" is 13 weeks, beginning March 3. And ABC will adopt shared time slots on the HBO model, mimicking the way "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under" appear in rotation.
The WB will air 22 episodes of the drama "One Tree Hill" twice a week nonstop without reruns, giving viewers an extra shot at finding the show.
"Why not?" the WB executives ask.
"We've had our heads in the sand for too long," said ABC's Lyne.
Desperate times call for progressive programming tricks. While monkeying with the schedules doesn't resolve anything for viewers fed up with "reality" TV or appalled by the dumbing-down of the medium generally, it's a sign of the networks grasping for answers in the face of monumental change.
The uncertainty is giving the business a frontier feel.
NBC and Fox will pursue a 52-week-a-year season, avoiding a rerun lull. ABC may experiment with fewer commercials at higher prices, giving sponsors the chance to buy time at a premium on the most popular shows. Program length may become elastic, too.
"This is an exciting time to be in TV but you have to have strong nerves," said ABC's Lyne. The frontier beckons, but programmers don't know what they'll find there.
One thing NBC's Zucker does not expect to find there is sweeps. The traditional ratings measurement system is outmoded and will be phased out, he believes, as new People Meter technology is introduced. NBC also expects to say goodbye to knee-jerk coverage of political party nominating conventions. This year for the first time, NBC will launch its fall season following the summer Olympics, knocking the Republicans out of prime-time into the wee hours.
The executives disagree on whether viewers can navigate their erratic program schedules. NBC thinks chaos is now the norm.
"We promoted 'Average Joe' for just two weeks on the air," Zucker said, "and then it came on, and everybody had found it. We promoted 'The Apprentice' for four weeks, two of those over the holidays, and people found it. We moved 'Third Watch' over to Friday night with very little promotion and people found it.
"We have to understand television is changing, and it's changing right now," Zucker said. "There's generations of viewers who have now grown up on MTV... and 100 cable channel choices, and all they do is surf around. They're sophisticated enough now to be able to find the hot new website and to find the hot new show and the hot new channel."
By contrast, Fox's Berman acknowledged the difficulty for viewers when TV is unpredictable. "The goal is to try to create a more stable schedule," she said.
One stunning development executives find themselves chasing is the effect of DVDs. Surprisingly robust revenues from TV-themed DVDs are changing the way television is made. A hit DVD could even revive a canceled series.
Estimated sales of TV series on DVD exceeded $1 billion in 2003, according to industry reports. Fox's animated "Family Guy" tops the list; HBO's "The Sopranos" has earned enough from DVD sales to recoup the entire cost of the early seasons. Serial dramas such as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "24" are much bigger sellers in DVD than procedural dramas like "Law & Order."
"The Family Guy" is the best example of the changing business model, Berman said. The Cartoon Network picked up the series when Fox dumped it. Then, "the huge success of the DVD made us pay attention to the show again," Berman said. Additional episodes likely will be produced, and the series may once again be a viable candidate for Fox.
Joanne Ostrow is in Southern California for the winter Television Critics Association meeting to preview new programming.