Networks Need More TV Shows That Inspire Rabid Fan Followings

TV Networks Need More Shows That

New fall offerings don’t suggest broadcasters have gotten the memo on amending their marching orders

“We’re in the passion-engagement game,” HBO Entertainment chief Michael Lombardo told TV critics last month, describing the not-ratings-driven nature of the pay service’s mission. And while that might sound like a lofty characterization, it nicely captures what’s become a central ingredient in the media stew — and an area where the broadcast networks are operating at a serious deficit.

Among the central shifts in the TV landscape is the ability to make programs profitable because a small but loyal audience will pay for them via one platform or another. Although the major networks face a delicate balancing act between achieving what still approximates mass appeal and inspiring I’ll-pay-for-it ardor among the passionate few, their new fall offerings don’t suggest they’ve fully gotten the memo on amending their marching orders.

Not that this question of volume vs. engagement is new. In a 1998 article pondering the evolution from broadcasting toward narrowcasting, producer John Wells — who at the time was attracting 30 million people to watch “ER” every Thursday — suggested the key for any TV program looking ahead must be that “people are going to be desperately unhappy if it’s not on the air. … It can be a relatively limited core, but if you’ve identified it, and you can sell it to advertisers, that’s a successful series.”

The main impediment to that mindset, he added, was the networks, because to embrace such a view would be “an admission of failure. … It’s not in anybody’s best business interests to yet pronounce (the model) dead.”

Wells wasn’t alone in reaching this conclusion around that time. A year earlier, the late Brandon Tartikoff wrote an op-ed piece saying, among other things, “Every show should be someone’s favorite show” — indicating “least objectionable programming” was no longer a viable approach.

Frankly, broadcasting as a concept has proved more durable than naysayers imagined. The mass audiences drawn by shows like “NCIS” — despite being lightly regarded by the critical intelligentsia — suggest the sky that appeared to be falling back in the ’90s hasn’t yet crashed.

Such successes have allowed broadcasters to downplay their diminishing role at the Emmys, and dismiss critics as being out of touch. Indeed, former NBC chief Don Ohlmeyer once said TV reviewers have the usefulness of “teats on a bull.”

There’s some truth in that, to the extent scribes watch too much TV to get overly excited by the tried and true. Yet these days, they do provide legitimate surrogates for the most passionate and engaged viewers — precisely the contingent powering HBO, Showtime and now Netflix’s originals by forking over hard-earned cash.

Tellingly, a TV critics panel (including yours truly) at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences on Aug. 20 didn’t exhibit much enthusiasm for this fall’s new batch of network series. If that’s an old song, the collective yawn nevertheless represents a potential shortcoming in terms of where programmers need to be heading.

As the CBS-Time Warner Cable carriage stando has illustrated, the notion of “free TV” no longer really applies to broadcasters. And when networks find themselves compelled to take out full-page ads urging consumers to raise hell with a distributor, they should realize people won’t pick up the phone because of loyalty to a logo, but rather because they don’t want to miss NFL football or “The Big Bang Theory.”

Lord knows, it’s easy to misread and overestimate the influence of the passionate few — what I’ve called in the past “the Comic-Con false positive.” In today’s world where chat rooms provide comfort and company to even the smallest cliques, even a series like Showtime’s “The Borgias” can birth an elaborate “save our show” campaign, despite deserving neither a mass audience nor an especially loyal one.

Unbridled enthusiasm is great for the ego, but its utility doesn’t count for much when it’s just a couple of lonely people in separate rooms wearing “Borgias or Bust” T-shirts.

Admittedly, it’s not entirely fair that broadcasters alone should be expected to straddle these seemingly contradictory roles — to fill the role of big retail chain and, simultaneously, command the same devotion as a high-end specialty store.

Yet in this particular passion play, that’s their cross to bear.

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  1. Contessa46 says:

    Free tv? You have advertisers paying to have their ads on “successful” shows. The problem is with the “suits who are NOT creative people but rather non talent decision makers who select pilots according to what they personally think or some lame focus groups that focus on teens rather then the tv watchers who are the boomers and their adult children from the 38-64 yr olds. There are a host of ACTORS to select from and instead you have no name beginners with limited talent and big muscles or big boobs parading around in spike heels trying desperately to be a star. Try hiring some creative writers, real talent with credentials and for god sakes, film in LA where your talent pool is the largest and pull the goddam reruns of law and order and NCIS. You drive us to seek out the premium channels because you have abandoned your charge!

  2. Rose says:

    What the networks have increasingly failed to do is allow a TV series to grow an audience. Too many shows that have the possibility of establishing a fan base are yanked off the schedule before they can attract one. Networks rely too heavily on Nielson ratings which are outdated in this era of OnDemand and DVR viewing.

    In the past, this fatal flaw has led to cancellations of shows like the beloved Firefly. Talk about a rabid fan base being ignored and shunned by a network.

    Networks need to develop shows that people want to watch consistently. They need to keep those shows on at a specific day and time so that people become accustomed to watching them, they need to be aware of all demographics, not just the 18-27 male audience, and they need to recognize that men and women of all ages will watch a quaility show (NCIS), which may just have some competition this year with Joss (Firefly, Buffy, Avengers) Whedon’s Agents of SHIELD. Whedon “gets” it.

    It’s time for the networks to “get” it before they become superfluous in the current world of digital entertainment.

  3. Rena Moretti says:

    I’m sorry Brian, but you’ve been taken by the PR.

    There is no new magical way to make flops profitable.

    What TV needs is more actual hits like NCIS. Shows that people actually enjoy rather than feel compelled to pretend to like because they want to be thought of as cool by their snob colleagues.

    What we need less of, is all those low-quality shows that the press loves to hype because it makes them feel superior.

  4. EK says:

    Network owners have boutiques within their emporia which enable them to straddle the issue of quality vs. quantity. True, when networks are separated from the corporate whole they are in a life and death struggle with their siblings but the playing field is leveling off slowly and there really isn’t any such thing as free TV anyway unless someone is one of the rare antenna-only people left. The rating system has been broken for some time as pay info lags network numbers by at least 24 hours and then there’s the 3/7 time shifting factor. So big mess. TV on all platforms is character driven and that’s what everyone should be concentrating on: populate shows (scripted) with audience-grabbing characters played by charismatic thesps in accessible stories and you win no matter where you’re seen.

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