Upfront and PersonalNBC's new advertising model.
Last week, the NBC network issued a press release detailing its television lineup for the 2008-2009 season, which includes such gems as:
KNIGHT RIDER – On the heels of NBC’s hit movie, the iconic 1980s television classic comes roaring back to life as an updated drama series showcasing the new customized KITT (Knight Industries Three Thousand) Ford Mustang. As the sequel resumes, KITT is absolutely the coolest car ever created: its supercomputer capable of hacking almost any system; its weapons systems efficient; and its body—thanks to its creator’s work and nanotechnology—is capable of actually shifting shape and color. It is the ultimate car—and someone will be willing to do anything to obtain it.
THE LISTENER – In this one-hour drama, Toby Logan (Craig Olejnik, “The Runaway”) is a 24-year-old paramedic living with a secret: he can read people’s minds. This telepathic procedural takes viewers into the heart of a tortured hero who struggles to solve crimes with his unique gift. Week-to-week, “The Listener” balances high-stakes drama with irreverent humor and sends Toby on an intellectual and emotional adventure.
Regardless of the quality of NBC’s upcoming programming schedule, the interesting thing about this announcement is that the network is jumping the gun; and in doing so, they are experimenting with overturning the economic model that they and America’s major networks have operated under for years. Whether the experiment will work remains to be seen, but it is another signpost of the major shift in the way the public interacts with its media.
All around the world, traditional television distribution models are rather centralized and monolithic. This is because all the distribution methods — broadcast transmitters, satellite networks, and seas of underground cable — are all quite expensive to maintain and operate; if you want to deliver television, the cost of entry is very high. For many countries, this means that television is usually state-funded and state-run, like in the United Kingdom and China. For the United States and other nations, the means of television media production and distribution tend be controlled by various companies under the aegis of major multinational conglomerates. And like any good arm of a multinational conglomerate, they have the process of making their money down to a science.
The linchpin of the major television networks’ year is the month of May, which is when the Spring sweeps period takes place. During sweeps, the television networks make a concerted effort to increase television viewership. The recorded amount of viewership via Nielsen ratings translates into how much the networks can charge advertising companies for commercial time. In the third week of May, these ad companies meet with the networks at special events known as the upfronts. Half trade convention, half carnival, the networks stake out New York’s most prestigious auditoriums to hawk their wares to a multitude of advertisers and press. The networks promote their upcoming fall lineup with lavish displays and presentations in the hopes of generating buzz, and more importantly, revenue. Because network prime time is so heavily watched, advertisers are willing to purchase ad time in advance; hence, “upfront.” In 2006, the six major networks generated $9 billion in sales from the upfronts.
This way of doing business has served the networks well for years; but this year NBC is foregoing a traditional upfronts presentation and the pilot season that goes with it. (Pilot season is when the networks commission the production of pilots, or test episodes, of a number of new shows; they pick up the ones they like to fill out their schedule, and are announced with much fanfare at the upfronts.) Pilots are costly, and instead of funding a large number of pilots—many of which will never see the light of day—NBC is deciding to commission a smaller number of shows with guaranteed (but shorter) runs. They are embarking on partnerships with other corporations, such as DirecTV, to co-sponsor current and new shows on various distribution platforms to reduce effective costs. And they are changing the standard network schedule of fall/spring seasons with a summer hiatus to show original programming all year round, filling in gaps with a larger number of limited series runs. Although each of the additions and alterations is small by itself, they add up to a sea change for the network.
Why this, and why now? NBC has been continuously fourth-place in ratings and viewership, losing out consistently to ABC, CBS, and FOX; that may have something to do with it. The recent strike by the Writers Guild of America also threw the networks’ schedule into disarray, and finding an excuse to dump the costly pilot season will save NBC money. But the biggest reason, as always seems to be the case with media, is that “The Internet is Changing Everything.”
$9 billion from upfronts may seem like a lot of money, but network ad sales have been on the decline since 2003. Ownership of DVR devices such as TiVo has increased in the same period; advertisers understandably feel they are getting less than their money’s worth as more and more people fast-forward through commercials. Watching television on the internet has become a major concern as well: first through illegal piracy similar to that of music and movies, then later through pay-to-download services like iTunes and network-sponsored portals such as Hulu and Joost. Within days of first broadcast, you can find almost all prime time television programming online.
With ad revenue decreasing, NBC has been forced to cut overall costs while finding no-cost ways to maintain and increase viewership. Watching television on the internet is part of all this. But the question is raised: why is watching television on the internet different from watching it on a television?
The answer lies in the way the medium presents itself to the audience — the more a program imposes on us, the more thought we will give it and the longer our attention spans. The audience has very little control over how a theatrical film is presented; we show up at the theater at the specified time, sit down, and shut up. People have no problem watching a film for two to three hours. Television is different, being a fixture at home and one distraction among many, it must make a more transparent grab for our attentions; programs are generally half an hour to an hour at most. Long-form programming in the guise of the made-for-TV movie has always been unwieldy and has been out of vogue since the 1980s.
And then we come to the internet, where the audience has greater power than in any other medium. Unlike choosing between one of a dozen films at a theater, or one television channel out of hundreds, on the internet the solitary audience members choose one site out of thousands. They have the power to watch what they want whenever they want it. And because of this, their attention span is reduced to that of a gnat’s — it’s really quite difficult to sustain internet content over ten minutes. Internet video is used to fill increasingly smaller and smaller gaps in people’s times, often at work; the CBS television site has a “boss button” to convert the video window to look like an e-mail client. And like everything else on the internet, video must be multitasking-friendly. (While writing this article, this blog is currently one tab out of fifteen open on my web browser.)
Most television programming already comes conveniently segmented into seven or eight-minute chunks because of commercial breaks, so they “plug in” very well into the internet. But the internet’s form and style has impressed itself clearly on video designed specifically for it. High production values and flashy effects are wasted on tiny-screened pixellated internet video, and demanding too much of an audience’s attention is a turn-off. Sketch comedy, with its lack of reliance on production values and propensity to cram a massive amount of content into a short amount of time, is perfect for the internet; comedy shows currently on television such as Human Giant started out as internet videos and continue to maintain an internet presence. Other videos, such as the absurdly popular lonelygirl15 and katemodern, mimic the brevity, immediacy, and unpolished rawness of video blogs. (The 165 collected episodes of katemodern have to date received over seventy million views.)
More traditional media types are trying to get into the game as well, with less success. The Michael Eisner-sponsored Prom Queen is rather schlocky, mimicking the form of internet video without understanding its meaning. Its sequel, Prom Queen: Summer Heat, has proven to be unprofitable.
A more interesting case is that of quarterlife, created by Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, the minds behind thirtysomething, Once and Again, and My So-Called Life. Released on the internet in thirty-six parts target=”_blank”, the show chronicles the interconnected lives of seven people in their mid-twenties; the main character, Dylan (Bitsie Tulloch), posts a video blog which serves as both a storytelling device and a point of friction among her friends. NBC attempted airing the show but canceled it after the first episode received some of the most disastrous ratings in the network’s history.
Was it because the show was bad? No. Is the show perfect or revolutionary? No to that as well. The show is exactly what it tries to be: a piece of quality storytelling from television veterans who are experimenting with a new medium. The concept stumbles in some respects — the show’s actual website attempting to double as a social networking site feels rather forced — but overall it works. The tropes and trappings of video blogging mesh well with Zwick and Herskovitz’s trademark intimate, character-focused storytelling. The show manages to tell a compelling bit of story in eight minutes without feeling rushed or cheating the audience. And this is why it didn’t work on network television: watching each episode as a unit is not the same as seeing six of them strung together for TV. What works as a beautiful slice of life on the internet feels like a haphazard rollercoaster on television, a bizarre melange where all the emotional notes fall on the wrong beats.
And yet this show hints at the abundant possibilities of internet video. The medium is in its infancy, and as storytellers begin to wrestle with what makes it tick, we will undoubtedly see astounding things. (And perhaps eventually a show that doesn’t predominantly revolve around someone talking directly to the camera.)
But NBC changing its business model and the rise of internet television are only the beginnings of the answer to the question: What changes are happening in the way that the Western public is interacting with its media? More on that later…