overthinking the idiot box

January 30, 2006

Dudes in suits, ratings games, scheduling dances — all of the real drama happens...

Behind the Screens
TV in 2005: The Business of the Biz

by Michael Adams

Originally setting out to write a column on the best and worst TV decisions of 2005, I soon realized that almost everything that I wanted to include on the list had both an upside and a downside. Kinda hard to categorize things as best and worst when they don't necessarily fall under either heading. What follows is an exploration of some of the year's biggest TV happenings„good, bad, and a lot of in-between.

Pretty Soon They'll Even Be Able to Account for Bathroom Breaks
Do you change the channel when those creepy Burger King commercials come on? Well, now the networks have the opportunity to find out which ads keep viewers attention and which make them reach for the remote. In November, Nielsen began releasing minute-by-minute ratings, allowing the networks to see what happens during commercial breaks. DVR technology, which gives viewers the option of skipping commercials entirely, has advertisers concerned that their products are not being seen by as many consumers. Minute-by-minute ratings could prove invaluable to an industry that lives and dies based on money collected from advertisers. It could also make a huge impact on just who the networks sell ad time to. If research shows that more viewers stick around when, for example, the Aflac duck is on the screen, then salespeople will likely sell more space to that company, consequently denying exposure to another company. It's too early to tell exactly what effect this will have on the TV environment. For the time being, the most we can hope for is that we might be treated to more entertaining commercials.

Fox Makes a Smart Executive Hire
At the end of March, Gail Berman announced her resignation as Fox's entertainment chief and was quickly succeeded by FX head Peter Liguori. Lo and behold, for the first time in years, Fox actually launched a fall lineup that didn't completely die on the vine. Berman never knew what to do with the network's baseball-mandated October break, often choosing to premiere many of its new shows in the midst of November sweeps, after the competition had already gained a foothold with viewers. This year, Liguori opted to debut much of the network's schedule just prior to the official start of the season, giving new shows like Prison Break and Bones a few weeks to find an audience before going on their MLB hiatus. As a result, the network has a more consistent Sunday comedy block this year, and has turned House into a hit independent of American Idol. But Liguori's road is not obstacle free: Friday remains a particular problem area, and the network has not been able to find a decent companion for the fading The O.C. And of course it was Liguori who made perhaps the biggest television faux pas of the year...

Maybe He Isn't So Smart After All
The fate of our beloved Arrested Development continues to hang oh-so-delicately in the balance. To paraphrase one of the show's trademark party banners: You're killing us, Peter! Liguori made the incomprehensible decision to move the fragile comedy to Monday night, essentially killing the show the moment the announcement was made back in May. And now Fox refuses to cancel it, knowing that potential suitors Showtime (very likely) and ABC (an odd fit next to According to Jim) must wait until the ax officially drops to make any offers to resuscitate the show. The good news here is that AD will likely live on; the bad news is that Fox, which despite relative support of the show during its first two seasons, refuses to let the show leave its airwaves with a modicum of dignity. How about letting the final episodes play out on Sunday night where it might have a chance to win back a few of those viewers who didn't follow it to Monday? Liguori started his reign at Fox by declaring his love for this offbeat, atypical sitcom, only to exile the show with little aplomb. Kudos, however, to the show's staff, who, in the face of such turmoil, have continued to produce the kind of comedy that can keep a person laughing for days.

They Shoot Bad Programmers, Don't They?
How do you put your network in a position to rise out of a perpetual battle for fifth place? If you're WB entertainment president David Janollari, you announce a fall lineup that has changes on every single night of the week. Consistency be damned, Janollari seems to have made the network's schedule while wearing a blindfold. A Don Johnson legal drama paired with family-friendly 7th Heaven? Charmed sandwiched between Reba: Beginnings and Blue Collar TV? Another season of the abysmally-rated What I Like About You? Just a month into the season, a full 25% of the network's schedule had been replaced by reruns, mostly encores of shows that ran earlier in the week, a lazy way to avoid losing money by programming original episodes against the competition's ratings juggernauts. And while Smallville and Everwood have managed to put the network on viewers' Thursday radar for the first time in years, wouldn't it make more sense to pair Everwood with Gilmore Girls and send Supernatural off to Thursday for a sci-fi twofer? What makes the situation all the more dire is the fact that the only way to fix this problem is to shake things up all over again, because The WB's current schedule clearly isn't going to win them any ratings contests.

Just Be Glad These Shows Don't Cost You Any Money
Run of the House
. My Guide to Becoming a Rock Star. Living with Fran. The Help. Brutally Normal. Katie Joplin. Off Centre. Men, Women & Dogs. The list of failed (and unfunny) WB comedies goes on and on. The network's 11-year history has produced sitcom after sitcom, with the only real success coming from Reba, a show now surrounded by such mediocrity that it seems viewers are beginning to forget it's still on. In December, The WB took a step toward improving its comic fortunes, firing its two top comedy development executives, Tracey Pakosta and Tai Rabinowitz. A network insider told Mediaweek.com, "We haven't exactly set the house on fire with our comedies, so maybe we should let someone else give it a try." This is an inarguable truth and it would appear that fresh blood couldn't possibly make things any worse. But leave it to The WB to try to do just that. Instead of focusing solely on comedy, the network has now combined its comedy and alternative programming departments, a move that Janollari told Mediaweek.com "will create more opportunity to find big, funny hit shows, whether they're scripted or not." Janollari is referring specifically to the success that The WB saw last summer with Beauty and the Geek, an enjoyable novelty that has already spawned a sequel. But do viewers want more of this sort of hybrid in lieu of a traditional sitcom? The proliferation of (and subsequent backlash against) reality shows suggests that viewers are largely tired of the format, leading one to believe that The WB's comedy woes may continue for some time to come.

The Seventh Sign of the Apocalypse: An Honest TV Exec
"This season may not see a turnaround for us." Those words were uttered by NBC entertainment president Kevin Reilly when he spoke with The Hollywood Reporter at the Television Critics Association press tour in July. On one hand, it's refreshing to hear an exec admit that his network has ground to make up and that the growth process is a slow one rather than an overnight about-face. On the other hand, why would an exec fresh off his first full development season at NBC put such a negative spin on a monster of his own creation. Reilly had understandably high hopes for My Name is Earl, saying that the Jason Lee sitcom, along with Surface and E-Ring, would get the bulk of the promotion leading into their premieres. It's no wonder that the network's other new offerings, Three Wishes and Inconceivable, were both gone by year's end. Reilly's candor is appreciated, but such a bold statement would seem unnecessary if execs focused more of their attention toward putting on the best programming possible.

Are You Ready For Some...Cars Going Around in Circles?
With ratings dropping each season, ABC wiselydecided to get out ofthe football business. Not only does Monday Night Football bring in fewer viewers than it did ten years ago (when it was easily capable of being the number one show on TV), but the broadcast has been saddled with one-sided games and a schedule that is set in stone well before any kind of playoff picture emerges. Instead of paying the $1.1 billion per year that sister network ESPN eventually spent to claim the Monday NFL franchise for itself, ABC opted to pay $270 million a year to share NASCAR races with its Disney-owned corporate sports partner beginning in 2007. While NASCAR's Sunday afternoon races do not draw as big a TV audience as NFL games do, ABC's decision is financially sound, and not only because the NFL has caused the network to lose a reported $150 million a year. First, the network no longer has to sit on its hands while the other networks claim viewers with entertainment programming on Monday night during the first half of the season, leaving ABC to scavenge for leftovers once football ends. Second, under the current contract with NBC/TNT, NASCAR has seen its ratings swell by 74 percent since 2000, an upward trend that is helped by the increasing popularity of the "Chase for the Cup," NASCAR's version of the playoffs. ABC's willingness to drop TV's most-watched sports franchise in favor of one of its fastest-growing is both a scary and smart business decision, one that will likely pay off in the near future.

And finally, some smaller decisions worth mentioning:

Strictly Ballroom? Strictly $$$
Throwing Alias to the Thursday dogs was no way to treat the veteran spy drama (pairing it with insta-loser Night Stalker didn't help matters, either), but ABC's announcement that summer sensation Dancing with the Stars will reside on the night with new sitcom Crumbs is a great way to show the competition that the network is no longer content with abdication. Huge movie ad dollars are at stake on Thursdays and ABC is now in a terrific position to get its piece of the pie. More good news for ABC: The Dancing results show should attract more viewers to a beleaguered Friday night.

But Wait, There's More
Increasingly, the networks are starting to follow the cable programming model, running long stretches of original episodes with minimal preemptions. ABC aired NYPD Blue and Alias rerun-free last season, and Fox now runs 24 on consecutive weeks from January through May. Fox's Prison Break and The WB's Everwood had hiatuses worked into their seasons to avoid low-rated repeats. All of this is designed to help a show build momentum and hook its audience for an entire season, a smart move that gave 24 its best ratings in its fourth year on the air.

Crime Does Pay
Whoever said CBS was putting too many crime dramas on its schedule severely underestimated America's fascination with the genre. The week of December 12-18, 2005, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, NCIS, CSI: NY, Without a Trace, Criminal Minds, and Cold Case took the top six spots in the Nielsen ratings, with CSI: Miami, Numb3rs, and Close to Home also finishing in the top 20. I'm not sure what's more surprising„the fact that all of these shows are successful or that the writers are able to come up with stories that don't mirror each other on a weekly basis.

With so many channels and so many deals being brokered, it can be difficult to keep up with the ever-evolving TV landscape. It's like a super-sized chess board on which we all have our own square. Playing the game is fun for everyone, but eventually there has to be a loser. Sometimes the networks have the upper hand, sometimes viewers do. The good news is that we can rest assured knowing that, year in and year out, there will always be a game to play.

Email the author.

Return to Season 2, Episode 8.