Specs, pics, passion lacking as season ends
The Obama era has inspired a lot of talk about change coming to America, but in fact the TV business has been undergoing major upheavals for a long time — sometimes in jarring fashion, at others in less perceptible ways.
The extent of this shift can be seen in the network upfront scheduling announcements and May rating sweeps — which used to occur in what the musical “Camelot” called “the lusty month of May,” but which now take place in a considerably less exalted mood for the TV biz.
May was always a big deal, but became a bigger one in the 1980s and ’90s, as the spring rating sweep — one of three annual periods in which local TV stations used to negotiate ad rates — began eclipsing the surveys in November and February. Bowing to this reality, it was eventually agreed to extend the official TV season that started in mid-September from mid-April through the May sweep.
Networks loaded up the month with specials, miniseries and movies, combined with series cliffhangers. There was such a crush of high-octane material that everyone (including TV critics!) needed most of June to recover while getting a jump on watching pilots for series the networks had just bought.
Now, May increasingly feels like any old month. Sure, there are series finales, but the big events are largely gone. And there’s certainly no time for breath-catching, inasmuch as May signifies less the official season’s end than the starter’s pistol for summer, replete with cable premieres and a wave of mostly unscripted network series.
Even the upfronts have lost much of their luster. NBC essentially opted out by switching to an “in-front” presentation a few weeks before its rivals, trying to break out of the traditional mold.
Other broadcasters’ presentations remain bunched together, but endless speculation about what they’re picking up — and where they’re putting it — doesn’t possess quite the same “oomph” anymore.
Fifteen years ago, in a four-network universe, there was such a thing as a game-changing scheduling move — NBC shifting “Frasier” opposite “Roseanne,” say, which prompted ABC to shuffle its lineup and throw “Home Improvement” into the breach. When Fox unveiled plans to challenge an aging “The Cosby Show” with upstart “The Simpsons” in 1990, there were literal gasps from the audience.
By contrast, in a 200-channel DVR marketplace, such maneuvering sounds less alarming. Networks still compete with each other, but scheduling is no longer a zero-sum game, where CBS’ gains in one timeslot must come directly at NBC or ABC’s expense. There are simply too many players and variables to strictly rely upon that old math.
Networks also have become more adept at keeping their cards close to the vest, even if the vest isn’t nearly as colorful. And it’s easier, frankly, to restrict the information flow when there are fewer program suppliers and many shows come from affiliated studios — Universal producing for NBC, Disney for ABC, etc. — which keeps the jockeying for coveted timeslots inside the family.
Even agents — paid to care desperately about what gets ordered, hoping to secure their clients steady-paying gigs on new shows — don’t obsess over what goes where as vigorously as they once did. When I called an agent a year ago to gossip, his response was a kind of shrug: The business model is falling apart, he said; why sweat the little stuff, like what ABC puts on after “Dancing With the Stars”?
Television stations, whose local newscasts were the key beneficiaries of past sweeps combat, have lost much of their pluck, too. Once, every station eagerly called to spin the final numbers. Today, many don’t even bother issuing a press release — assuming, of course, there’s a local print reporter covering TV to which they can send one.
Granted, few endeavors are as pointless as pining for the good ol’ days, which (see “Mad Men”) weren’t always so good.
“Change is the law of life,” John F. Kennedy — whose administration is often associated with the aforementioned “Camelot” — once said. “And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”
In the rush to keep pace with a rapidly changing world, however, it’s perhaps too easy to forget that things were ever done differently. And when you’re moving so fast, recalling where this crazy trip started might be the only navigational aid to avoid taking wrong turns.