Nets changing channels

Webs struggle to ditch outdated practices

Network television knows it has a problem.

The TV landscape is changing faster than the marriage between Rick Rockwell and Darva Conger, yet network execs still operate virtually the same way they did when Lucy and Desi were TV’s hot couple.

Web strategists continue to overload their schedule during sweeps and cast off leftovers afterward. Programmers scramble to compete for talent at the same exact time during pilot season. And big ticket series still close up shop in May, as the networks effectively hang a “Gone Fishin'” sign on their doors until September.

None of this is news to the networks, where some execs have long been banging a hollow drum for change.

“I think we should be more aggressive,” said one network topper. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out why the audience left. They have options. There are other channels out there.”

Leslie Moonves or Garth Ancier talking about the February sweeps? Nope. Try Brandon Tartikoff, speaking to NBC affiliates in 1988 — when the networks lamented their drop to a combined 70 share. (Comparatively, the big four nets now average a 55 share).

More than 10 years later, the rhetoric’s the same — but in a season where “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” already has forced the industry to rethink everything it knew about television, there are signs that real change finally may be coming:

  • The absurdities of the super-intensive pilot season — think Super Tuesday on speed — are being more insistently questioned. Expensive drama pilots already are being scaled back in favor of shorter presentations.

  • Networks are starting to ramp up summer programming, trying to beat cable at its own game with new forms of reality and gameshow skeins.

  • The economic relationship between networks and their affils is being stood on its head, with some stations now paying for the privilege of airing primetime fare.

These hints of change come at a time when the challenges facing execs are far more immediate than ever before. Vertical integration, swiftly shifting economic models, the ever-looming digital revolution and more competition demand a whole new network paradigm.

“We’re like ostriches with our heads in the sand,” said a current network suit who worries that the “whole house of cards is going to come crumbling down” if webs don’t change their ways.

Getting rid of sweeps would be a great starting point.

The thrice-annual ratings measurement period is universally loathed by broadcasters, who bemoan the logic of a system in which a season’s worth of big events is squeezed into three months — resulting in an overabundance of repeats during the rest of the season.

What’s worse, because sweeps force nets to eliminate as many weak spots as possible, new shows that don’t immediately find an aud end up getting pulled every few weeks. The old notion of growing a hit becomes a near-impossibility.

‘Slave to the calendar’

“It’s maddening,” said Fox Entertainment prexy Doug Herzog. “You spend all year trying to launch and plan shows, and then you chuck it all aside to go crazy for 30 days. … We’re a slave to the calendar.”

But until Nielsen finds a way to measure auds without having to go through the pomp and circumstance of sweeps, or the networks revive plans for an alternative ratings system, expect the handwringing over sweeps to continue like clockwork.

A decades-old timetable also dictates another TV anachronism: the pilot process.

Rather than developing programming on a year-round basis, webs and studios concentrate the whole ordeal in a four-month period that starts in January. Goal is to have a new fall sked in place by May, when advertisers still purchase roughly 80% of network airtime.

“We’re bowing to the will of advertisers still,” Regency Television prexy Gail Berman told reporters earlier this year at an industry confab. “We’re responding to where the funds are to make these shows, and those funds come from advertisers, and those advertisers still have upfronts. … As much as we desire to change the system, it hasn’t changed so far.”

The all-at-once method means studios and webs find themselves competing for the same producers, the same thesps — even the same studio space — all at the same time.

“I’m looking at a system that defies description,” said one studio topper.

Annual focus

Stabs at converting to a year-round development cycle have so far been unsuccessful, mainly because agents seem wary of committing clients to projects too far in advance.

“Everybody wants to be in the pack. Nobody wants to step out of the system,” Herzog said.

Tenpercenters also know that the mad frenzy of pilot-casting season works to their advantage.

“(Network and studio bosses) are running around with their heads cut off looking for the same exact people,” said one network topper.

The result is “an agent’s dream,” adds one wag. “Anybody who has any kind of marketability is set.”

The glacial pace of change aside, the networks have been forced (in some cases, kicking and screaming) to make alterations.

Most of those adjustments have been fueled by deregulation and fiscal realities.

“There’s an economic imperative that makes it crucial that they change the way they do business,” said one longtime proponent of change, adding that there’s “nothing like a crisis” to wake the networks up.

Ownership tussle

For example, it didn’t quite happen overnight, but relaxed ownership rules have triggered a mad network rush to own more of their programming. Indeed, ABC, NBC and CBS now regularly expect to take an ownership stake in most of their primetime skeins.

Even with pilot season, where the system as a whole has barely budged in the past 50 years, a few glimmers of change are in the works.

NBC’s insistence that all drama entries be filmed as shorter, less expensive presentations caused a stir — and have led other networks down a similar path.

“You look over and say, ‘That’s a pretty radical switch toward building a new model,’ ” 20th Century Fox TV co-president Dana Walden said.

Also, the networks finally are warming up to airing original programming in the summertime. CBS has the reality strip “Big Brother” and the real-life adventure “Survivor”; Fox has the yet-untitled high school project from R.J. Cutler, and the return of “Time of Your Life” and “The PJs”; and ABC has gamer “Masterminds,” the animated “Clerks” and probably more “Millionaire.”

“If one of us can successfully launch a show in the summer and carry into fall, we can genuinely change the way we do business,” Walden said.

‘Millionaire’ mover

As with so much of the season, the Regis Philbin-hosted gameshow can take credit for finally getting the networks to take action. After all, “Millionaire” was last summer’s biggest hit. As a result, the networks — which surely would have ignored the summer this year had it not been for the gamer’s success — have become accidental reformists.

Programming aside, the winds of change are probably strongest this year in the relationship between networks and affiliates, where the economic leverage has reversed practically overnight.

As long-term affiliation deals start to expire at the major networks, station groups are learning that compensation may soon be a thing of the past — and reverse compensation isn’t too far-fetched. In the process, the networks could finally eliminate a costly expense that has dogged them for years.

NBC is leading the network charge to zero out compensation, even convincing Granite Broadcasting to pay $362 million in order to affiliate with NBC for 10 years in the San Francisco region.

WB CEO Jamie Kellner, who pioneered a unique network-affiliate arrangement when he launched the Frog network, said the major webs were “not going to allow an unfair situation to continue.”

Profit paradigm

After all, he noted, stations normally post a profit between 40% and 50%, while networks see profits closer to 10%, 15% or 20%.

“The networks take all the programming and most of the promotion risk,” Kellner said. “It’s just a model that’s never been fair. It should have been addressed a long time ago.”

But at least the networks are finally doing something. Their decisive action on the affiliate issue could inspire programmers to follow suit with some radical reform of their own.

Herzog, for one, already hears a few rumblings.

“I don’t think the earth has shifted completely,” he said, “but you can feel it moving a little bit.”

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