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More of the Same on TV: Broadcasters Think Inside the Box

Net execs take a ‘What me worry?’ approach despite media’s changing landscape

Not long ago, a producer privately insisted that the major networks were fast approaching a state of panic. Their audience is steadily dwindling, with new technologies encroaching on the ad sales model, shaking their business to its very foundations.

Look at their programming choices, though, as well as a recent wave of TV station deals, and broadcasters seem less crazed than simply Mad — echoing the motto of Mad magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman: “What, me worry?”

Having consumed roughly two dozen network pilots slotted for the fall, one overarching attribute appears to be how much the current crop of shows resembles the last one, and the one before that. Yes, networks are doing some experimenting with limited series, but in terms of the actual content, very little suggests a burning desire to shake up old formulas or depart from what they’ve collectively been doing.

Indeed, after a period when networks were lampooned for spinning off “Law & Order” and “CSI” until they risked exhausting special units and metropolitan locales, the coming season will include not just an “Ironside” reboot, but brand extensions of ABC’s “Once Upon a Time,” NBC’s “Chicago Fire” and CW’s “The Vampire Diaries.”

That’s right, even the youngest-skewing broadcaster, CW, appears satisfied to rely on established templates and dole out more of same. Granted, “Reign” might be set in the 16th century, but it’s Mary, Queen of Scots as filtered through the prism of “Gossip Girl.” And speaking of newer genres, when was the last time a reality show felt truly edgy and innovative, as opposed to being described as a DNA recombination of two or three programs that already exist?

The same adherence to the traditional television business can be seen in a flurry of mergers and acquisitions involving station groups, topped off by Gannett’s pending $2.2 billion agreement to buy Belo Corp. At a time when broadcasters are supposed to be fretting about the Web transforming them into buggy-whip salesmen, companies are doubling down on stations, albeit in part by seeking economies of scale to operate them more efficiently.

So what’s going on here? Are broadcasters determined to do their best impressions of the newspaper industry, whistling past graveyards and ignoring all the signs pointing toward the impending apocalypse — including DVR penetration, cable cord-cutting, and the younger demographic consuming programming when and how it wants — until it’s too late? Or is it as simple as corner-office myopia, with execs knowing the train’s coming but hoping the collision won’t happen while they’re still in the driver’s seat?

The folks currently running these media enterprises aren’t stupid (for the most part, anyway), which suggests they’ve assessed the risk and decided the times call for adaptation, yes, but not radical change just yet.

In this, they would appear to share a philosophy with “Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results,” a book recently excerpted in the Wall Street Journal. Written by two professors of marketing (one a former Johnson & Johnson executive), the authors make a case for thinking inside the box — or more specifically, that people are more likely to find innovative and creative solutions “when they constrain their options rather than broaden them.”

While this might wind up filed alongside a lot of other counterintuitive tomes aimed at the MBA market, the basic argument dovetails with the way broadcasters are behaving and speaking in regard to content and distribution. During CBS’ upfront ad sales presentation, for example, CEO Leslie Moonves reassured the crowd that for all the conspicuous changes the business is undergoing in terms of new programming platforms, “We are the center of the universe. This is where the shows start.”

The reference brought to mind a scene from “Annie Hall” — the one in which Woody Allen’s character, as a young boy, worries about the universe expanding. “It won’t be expanding for billions of years yet,” the doctor reassures him. “And we’ve got to try and enjoy ourselves while we’re here.” Yes, the TV business is expanding. But when you’re busy trying to find another “The Big Bang Theory,” who has time to worry about the next Big Bang?

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