In TV, passion still doesn’t equal profit

Relying on ancillary exposure comes with limitations, potential drawbacks

Back when ABC canceled “My So-Called Life” in the mid-1990s, a lot of critics (this one included) lamented the fact there wasn’t a better way to harness the show’s ardently dedicated but then relatively small fan base.

Today, in a more transactional, pay-to-view landscape, it would appear that problem has been addressed. Yet as this week’s upfront presentations make clear, we still haven’t totally bridged the divide between passion and profit.

Interestingly, some of the network’s scheduling choices would lead casual observers to think otherwise. Why else would NBC renew “Community,” for example, other than the rabid nature of its loyalists?

Fox pushed this idea of intangible benefits in its presentation Monday, with sales chief Toby Byrne referring to “New Girl” as a “perfect example of a modern-day television success” — citing its clout in social media circles, and the amount the show is viewed via platforms other than TV. This sort of gives new meaning to the notion of how to succeed in TV, but not necessarily on it.

Similarly, Fox Entertainment chairman Peter Rice touted Fox’s disproportionate pull among those younger viewers who are “media-savvy” and “engaged” in social media.

Such discussion makes networks appear forward-thinking, which is important as they seek to avoid being tethered with a stodgy old-media label. Even now, though, relying on ancillary exposure and enthusiasm among the Twitterati — amplifying our own little insular media echo chambers — comes with severe limitations, and some potential drawbacks.

For starters, the means of measuring these off-TV metrics remain deficient, most would argue, leaving producers and execs at networks like the CW to insist their programs are way more popular than the reported numbers would indicate. They just can’t prove it, exactly, since much of the evidence remains anecdotal.

In addition, becoming “appointment viewing” can represent a double-edged sword if many viewers keep the date on a recorded-and-delayed basis. Networks insist ads don’t go unnoticed when people watch and skip, which sounds a bit Pollyannaish given the magical advantages of compressing an hour down to roughly 43 minutes.

Granted, some social-media darlings stave off execution for a while — and do appear to be earning renewals at a slightly higher rate than in the past — but it’s not like they’re being cultivated and showcased. More like used as cannon fodder for timeslots most shows would pass on given the choice. Nor have we seen a young-skewing series scheduled on Fridays — Fox’s “Dollhouse” or “Fringe” come to mind — catch enough of a swell from DVR support to make them viable over the long haul.

Frankly, the best thing ratings-starved shows have going for them is diminished expectations, especially on a network like NBC. When NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt referred to the modestly watched “Smash” as “a huge success for us” during a conference call, one tweet snidely parsed the statement on his behalf, placing the emphasis on “for us” to give it a kernel of truth.

While media buyers traditionally absorb many questionable claims at upfront presentations, they’d be wise to approach boasts about the incremental value they garner from social media-friendly programs skeptically.

While that might be true for pay channels — where it’s almost as important for people to buzz about shows, and thus be reminded HBO or Showtime is worth having — ad-supported networks have a more sketchy relationship with series people love, just not in sufficient numbers. A key exception would be basic cable networks who find themselves in carriage disputes, where threats of dropping a Dish or Cablevision from fans being deprived access to “Mad Men” possess clear real-world value.

Some newer players — most recently Netflix — are exploring the possibilities of tapping into the built-in equity of discarded but beloved properties, as opposed to having to invest in launching something brand new. That explains plans or proposals to resurrect admired series like Fox’s “Arrested Development” and CBS’ “Jericho,” which couldn’t escape the TV hangman’s noose.

In TV terms, it’s a bit like using every part of the chicken. Even now, though, with all these fancy gadgets and new options, if a network’s decision boils down to picking a show with mass appeal versus a passion play, guess which one is going to get sacrificed?

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