While many are looking ahead to the new TV season, the television biz is also awash in a powerful wave of nostalgia.
Attend industry gatherings, and the conversation frequently turns to how much easier — and implicitly, better — things used to be, when cash flowed more freely and TV’s business model didn’t seem to perpetually be one technological innovation away from sudden irrelevance.
As “Nurse Jackie” exec producer Linda Wallem said at a recent Variety-sponsored panel, when she started in the biz, “there was so much money it was kind of crazy.”
Similarly, at an Aug. 31 memorial service for producer David L. Wolper, former Warner Bros. topper Bob Daly spoke about a 1990 party for the studio that he’d asked Wolper to oversee. Daly fondly remembered telling the “Roots” producer, “There is no budget. You spend what you want.”
It’s difficult to imagine a media CEO uttering that sentence now, under almost any circumstances.
Rather, there’s a strong sense of being nickel-and-dimed, mostly because that’s how revenue trickles in. Everyone appears to be looking over their collective shoulders, waiting for the Angel of Death to come knocking in the form of some new killer (literally) app.
Magid Advisors prez Mike Vorhaus spoke of the change that’s transforming the TV business, telling the Los Angeles Times there’s no reason to panic because the traditional model “will probably decay slowly” — as if that’s the good news.
Certainly, the world has changed from the days when syndication booty enabled the King brothers to fly in marquee acts to the NATPE convention in order to entertain station execs.
Yet despite the loss of that buccaneering spirit, there’s a need for perspective regarding certain aspects of this nostalgia, which can easily overlook the benefitsassociated with the evolving TV landscape.
Admittedly, a rosy “glass half-full” view doesn’t come naturally. But you don’t have to study terribly hard to find an upside associated with the proliferation of channels, lowered rating expectations or alternative revenue streams, which have created more opportunities, albeit with lesser returns than the kind that allowed for “money is no object” parties.
Not so long ago, for example, paltry ratings would have spelled lights out for “Friday Night Lights” after one season; the BBC’s “Torchwood” would have struggled to reach America; and “Family Guy” and “Futurama” would have be distant memories.
Happily, thanks to creative dealmaking by NBC and DirecTV, “Lights” will stay on into a fifth year; the brilliant sci-fi construct “Torchwood” returns with dual revenue from Starz and the BBC; and Fox’s animated comedies rose from the grave thanks to DVD sales and cable reruns, going back into original production.
The pre-cable era obviously made life easier for the Big Three networks and the Aaron Spellings of the world. But that narrow gateway closed doors to fresh talent and challenging concepts; it’s hard to imagine anything close to “Breaking Bad” or “Dexter” getting a greenlight during “Must-See TV’s” heyday.
Finally, the pay TV model creates an avenue for programmers to spend lavishly in Wolper-like fashion — without having to justify every penny in stark relation to ratings.
As Tom Hanks stated during his Emmy acceptance speech for HBO’s $200 million World War II epic “The Pacific,” “There is no economic model that says you should put on a 10-part miniseries and make cash on it.” Yet HBO can gamble on such a project — or a glittering exercise like “Boardwalk Empire,” for that matter, without sanitizing the sex and violence of its bootlegging era.
Nostalgia can be wonderful, especially in a business prone to such short memories. And there’s no denying the entertainment industry used to be simpler, and more fun.
Nevertheless, one recurring theme of another recent Emmy winner, AMC’s “Mad Men,” explores how we tend to obscure the past’s rough edges.
By the way, that three-time dramatic champ about the not-always-so-good ol’ days? It’s another one of those programs that probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day back in the good ol’ days.