Industry strong despite, because of innovation

CBS prexy notes less entertainment in fall TV skeds

The sweeping technological changes that were supposed to make traditional forms of television obsolete may actually end up saving the medium.

Read complete
coverage of
Variety/Schroders Big Picture conference.

While not in universal agreement over specifics, most execs at a panel of network, cable and satellite TV industry toppers who gathered for Tuesday’s 10th annual Variety/Schroders Big Picture media conference seemed upbeat about the future of mass-audience programming.

The positive assessment is a big change from five years ago, when many industryites were sounding the death knell for traditional forms of media, particularly network television.

Peter Chernin, prexy and chief operating officer of News Corp. and chairman/CEO of the Fox Group, led the broadcasters’ cheering section.

“Networks deserve a lot of credit,” Chernin said. “The world has changed so much in the last 20 years, but in the midst of all that fragmentation, the networks remain the dominant source of programming.”

As a result, webs are seeing huge spikes in revenue and even profitability.

Schroders managing director David Londoner forecast a record year for the webs, predicting the Big Three will earn an unprecedented $1 billion combined.

Ironically enough, a huge chunk of the added coin is coming from the rush of e-dollars flooding the advertising marketplace as Internet startups seek to establish brand identities.

NBC prexy and CEO Robert Wright noted that during an average primetime hour, roughly 100 million people are watching some sort of broadcast or cable television — more than 20 times the 4.6 million people logged onto the Web in the same frame.

Hi-def dilemma

The challenge for TV execs now is to figure out which tech applications have long-term viability and how quickly the new bells and whistles should be rolled out. At the top of the list: high-definition TV, a format dissed by several panelists.

“I don’t see much dissatisfaction on the part of the American public with the quality of their TV picture,” Chernin said, arguing that consumers have no desire to shell out $4,000 for new HD sets.

DirecTV topper Eddy Hartenstein agreed, saying that for the average viewer, “the difference between standard digital and high-definition digital is a little difficult to see.”

CBS Television prexy and CEO Leslie Moonves, whose web by far offers the most HD programming, was slightly more upbeat about the format.

“We feel we have to be prepared,” Moonves said, adding that the Eye is actually “making a profit” on its HD broadcasts, which are being funded by HD setmakers.

Less entertainment

On other topics:

  • Moonves, who hasn’t been shy about his distaste for the current trend toward nonscripted reality programming, said the genre is being fed in part by the networks’ inability to control costs for entertainment programming. He singled out talent costs as a particular irritation, saying reps for stars are “putting guns to our heads” in demanding overly rich deals.

    Between NBC’s just-announced XFL football league deal, ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and other game/reality skeins, “You’re looking at a fall sked with eight to 10 fewer hours of entertainment programming,” Moonves said.

  • Competition from satellite provider DirecTV has only made the cable industry stronger, Comcast Corp. prexy Brian Roberts said. “Every single year since DirecTV launched, we’ve shown growth. This is a business that can survive with competition,” he said.

  • Deregulation of broadcast television will lead to more choice for consumers and add even more fuel to a rapidly growing biz, Wright said, adding. “It will make the competition even more fierce.”

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