Bill Simmons is doing some of the best current American writing right now – and it’s for ESPN.com. He ostensibly has a sports column, but really it’s free-form cultural commentary with sports as the jumping-off point – he frequently (more or less constantly) uses pop-culture analogies to explain sports happenings, and then will turn right around and use sports analogies to explain pop-culture events. This is high cultural-literacy stuff, so it’s not surprising that he provides one of the more cogent analyses of the current state of play in television content that I’ve seen, anywhere, in a recent Friday mail-bag column:
Q: “Friday Night Lights,” the show — your thoughts? I figure it might be up your alley given your love for the “90210,” “O.C.” and such. I’m hooked and I’m not even into those kind of shows. Guilty pleasure.
–Jon Smith, Seattle
SG: I’m sure you’re right. Here’s the problem: I bailed after one episode because the ratings were so low that I assumed the show was getting canceled. After the Sports Gal’s experiences with “Reunion” and “Love Monkey” last year, I didn’t want to get sucked into a show, get attached to the characters, then have it get yanked after seven episodes. So I bailed. Naturally, NBC decided to stick with the show because it built a small but rabid fan base, and now there’s no way to catch up on old episodes because it would be too logical for them to either rerun them two at a time on Saturday nights or on the USA Network so latecomers could catch up (or people like me who gave up because they thought they show would get axed). Now I have to wait to spend $30 on the Season 1 DVD to come out next summer, which is ridiculous because I never wanted to stop watching the show in the first place.
The larger issue: TV networks spend so many time/money/energy pushing their new shows (look at the “Day Break” commercials over the past few weeks), lack the patience to stick with those same shows once they’re on … and then they wonder why we aren’t watching as much TV anymore. I mean, why would I start watching a serial show like “Kidnapped” or “The Nine” when I know there’s a 90 percent chance it’s going to be gone within four weeks, or even within a year? Would you buy a book in the store if you could only read one chapter a week and knew there was a chance the last 20 chapters would disintegrate within six weeks if there weren’t enough people that bought the book? These stupid TV networks blame DVDs, video games, Internet, iPod downloads and everything else for declining ratings, but the real reason more people aren’t watching them is because nobody trusts free networks to keep their shows on the air. At least with HBO, if they’re launching a season of “The Wire” or “Rome,” I know that I’m getting every episode from that season if I start watching. Like with “Friday Night Lights” — if that was an HBO show, I never would have stopped watching after one episode. Since it was an NBC show, I bailed. What does that tell you? [emphasis added]
That’s exactly right, and it’s also exactly the feelings shared by many, many people (something that Simmons is excellent at doing). The broadcast networks have to know this at some level but, because of entrenched procedures and their ad-supported funding structure – and the fact that they almost all use sports as a loss leader, essentially a guaranteed chunk of audience with which to hawk the rest of their (crappy) products – they’re starting from a deficit they fear will grow larger, while the cable networks have their guaranteed pot of money (from subscriptions) and can budget and build from there.
Something, it would seem, has to give. Will the broadcast networks just stop producing original scripted content? It could happen – in fact, NBC has already announced that they will no longer produce scripted content themselves. NBC News President Steve Capus said upon that announcement, “We’ve been a TV business that dabbles in digital. Now, we’re positioning as a news content-production center going forward that happens to do television.”
That seems to be a pretty broad admission that amounts to – yup, we got beat. So now, only a few years removed from total content dominance (“Seinfeld,” “Frasier,” “Friends,” etc.), NBC is giving up the ghost to focus on its more profitable properties – the evening news and its cable news channels, supplemented by reality TV and gameshows. Except – the evening news continues to hemhorrage viewers, and the number of viewers of CNN, Fox News and MSNBC combined is a fraction of any of the old broadcast networks’ audience. In other words – in its retreat to safe territory, NBC (and the other broadcast networks) might find the territory no longer so safe.
Viewers – rightly – no longer have any particular loyalty to any particular media channel. If it’s not delivering, there’s always another place to look, and the cost of changing is, more or less, zero. The networks, or any other media outlet, are only as good as their latest content, and if they stop even trying to differentiate their content – to take risks and be different – what good are they?