Watching Fox go through negotiations to ultimately renew “The Simpsons” through a 25th season — while sibling Fox News Channel engages in chest-thumping over its 15th anniversary — represents two sides of an increasingly common modern media scenario.
Faced with a choice between looking ahead or honoring history, tradition is almost invariably dismissed as the title of a song from “Fiddler on the Roof,” with the occasional exception.
Think about ABC execs deciding to jettison the network’s decades-old daytime soaps “All My Children” and “One Life to Live,” opting to pursue cheaper talk alternatives. NBC did much the same by ending “Law & Order” just short of breaking the endurance record for drama series held by “Gunsmoke” — a milestone that meant something to producer Dick Wolf but not so much to the network’s then-management, a half-dozen regimes removed from the program’s inception.
In the midst of Fox’s contract talks with “The Simpsons” cast, a source echoed this point by saying of the entertainment division’s current brass, “What’s ‘The Simpsons’ mean to them? It’s not like they developed it.”
Such scenarios admittedly set up a tough situation for executives. They can’t be shackled by the past — especially given how fast the business is changing — and usually derive less credit from shepherding someone else’s development than launching franchises of their own.
Yet a more subtle aspect of this has to do with the over-arching preference for the new. Because everything in media dictates younger is good — starting with demographic pressure across all ad-supported channels — the corollary is that older, or anything smacking of it, must be bad.
Execs have thus been programmed not to get emotionally invested in history. Besides, few of them have much longevity in their present jobs, making it hard to get agitated about programs that have run decades — or their vocal fans — when tenures in top media posts are so frequently measured in annual increments of two and three.
By contrast, it’s probably not an accident some of the more successful orgs boast greater stability than competitors.
Underlying Fox News’ triumphant end zone dance — which even included making some of its normally press-shy anchors available to (gasp) the mainstream media — is Roger Ailes commemorating his storied run, having transformed his Clinton-era creation into the dominant force in conservative politics. And like many powerful media figures, the Fox News CEO can’t resist a bit of gloating — and appears to possess a vivid memory of anyone who ever slighted or second-guessed him along the way.
As for the broadcast networks, it’s no accident CBS remains a model of efficiency in primetime. Easily the most stable network operation, the company isn’t hidebound by tradition but does possess a strong sense of it.
Moreover, thanks to the conspicuous lack of turnover under CEO Leslie Moonves, the company not only retains a sense of its past but actually has kept a team in place long enough to claim a significant slice of the network’s history as its own. (CBS News helps illustrate this point as well, if only by juxtaposing “60 Minutes'” legendary durability with the repeated fits and starts that have characterized other aspects of the division.)
It would be simplistic to say consistency alone is a hallmark of success, and it’s easy to see the negative consequences of hanging around too long, having witnessed execs and programs fade the way an aging ballplayer loses his fastball or first step. There’s also a specific rationale behind questioning the viability of long-running TV shows, which — thanks to hefty raises generated through earlier renewals — often cost far more to produce than new programs would.
Despite the logic in adapting to changing circumstances, however, it’s almost always short-sighted to be arbitrary or insensitive when severing tiesto habit and history, or allow the lack of a personal stake to result in blithely discarding tradition.