Probing TV’s prestige premium

TV's best thrive on the passion of small auds

Hard as it is to believe, today marks the 13th anniversary of Brandon Tartikoff’s death. Savvy as NBC’s irrepressible programming guru was, he couldn’t possibly have foreseen how much TV would become a pay-to-view business.

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A few years after leaving NBC, however, Tartikoff articulated maxims for successful programming in a piece for the Los Angeles Times. One of them, “Every show should be somebody’s favorite show,” anticipated the benefits of having series forge a truly passionate connection with some portion of the audience.

In the context of this weekend’s Emmy Awards, there are grounds to cheer what may be called the prestige premium. As Tartikoff suggested, there is value in having a base fervently devoted to your show, even if they represent a relatively tiny group trying to get their voices heard — a bit like Dr. Seuss’ denizens of Whoville.

This wasn’t always the case. For years, critics and sophisticated TV viewers (a term that’s no longer an oxymoron) chafed at the tyranny of Nielsen ratings and lamented the populace’s unrefined tastes. Network television was somewhat unfairly perceived as catering to the “lowest common denominator,” but in its earlier days as a truly mass medium, a guiding principle was “least objectionable programming,” a concept devised in the 1960s by NBC exec Paul Klein.

Klein reinforced the idea of TV as a passive medium; the networks’ only fear involved actively driving audience away. While there’s still a modicum of truth in that — and certainly an appetite for the familiar — sheer inertia is hardly a winning prescription in an era of countless channels, DVRs and remote controls.

Even so, prestige has never guaranteed survival — and at times has done little to help keep anointed series viable.

“Arrested Development” won Emmys and got axed for low ratings. “The Wire” amassed rhapsodic reviews and couldn’t get arrested, even by HBO’s standards. As recently as the 1990s, then-NBC chief Don Ohlmeyer colorfully dismissed the approbation of TV critics as having the same utility as “teats on a bull.”

Today, however, a number of low-rated programs have managed stays of execution predicated largely on their quality. “Friday Night Lights” and now “Damages,” for example, endured thanks to the patronage of DirecTV, which reaches less than a sixth of U.S. homes.

Put to the ultimate test, people will pay for programs they really like. In a release timed to the Emmys, noted that some of TV’s most prestigious series (among them “Dexter,” “Lost” and now “Glee”) rank among the site’s bestselling titles.

This dynamic has allowed some series to achieve Lazarus-like returns on the strength of dedicated fans — most famously, perhaps, “Family Guy,” but more recently “Futurama.”

A program’s value can also manifest itself in more nebulous yet equally significant ways — including the way perceived quality reinforces positive feels about anteing up for pay channels or even basic-cable outlets.

Consider Rainbow Media’s recent dispute with AT&T U-Verse over fees for its networks, which include AMC. It just so happened the prospect of that cable channel suddenly disappearing occurred shortly before the fourth season of “Mad Men.”

While “Mad Men” isn’t a huge hit in terms of overall ratings, fans who are also AT&T subscribers would have doubtless screamed bloody murder had they been deprived access to the show. Rainbow cited the threat to “Mad Men” but also noted in a press release that WE channel viewers might miss “Bridezillas” and “My Fair Wedding.”

Not surprisingly, the media weren’t exactly galvanized by those titles, churning out headlines like “Spat Puts ‘Mad Men’ at Risk” and “AT&T’s U-Verse May Drop AMC Before ‘Mad Men’ Premiere.”

Ohlmeyer was hardly alone in his conviction that critical adulation had an unfortunate correlation with premature death, and at times, that’s still the case.

Yet one reason Tartikoff remains such an indelible character is that he famously embraced the low as well as the high — loving “The A-Team” and “ALF,” in their way, every bit as much as “Cheers” and “Hill Street Blues.” And there’s certainly room for both.

In a bottom-line-oriented business, the bottom line is there are new avenues to support quality — and if that’s as simple as paying for “Damages” or keeping the “Friday Night Lights” on, that’s still something to celebrate.

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