Saturday, May 06, 2006

For want of a Mega-Show...

Heard Bill Carter on Fresh Air the other day. He's the author of Desperate Networks: Movers and Shakers Who Changed The Face of Primetime TV and he had some interesting things to say about TV networks.

His main insight was that networks are starving for great shows. Not good shows—great shows. They are thirsting to find the shows will make their network a superstar. ABC was lucky enough to have two such shows at once—Lost and Desperate Housewives—and those two shows transformed the network from a flailing starfish to a white shark almost overnight. Fox has American Idol which apparently "obliterates" the other channels when it hits the air. If a network misses an opportunity to get the "next big show", heads roll. Desperate Housewives was actually pitched to NBC before ABC and the people who turned it down no longer work with NBC.

The problem with modern TV networks is that their search for the mega-show leaves no more room for the experimental quirky shows which find niche audiences. It took the original Star Trek three seasons to get cancelled. Now it only takes three episodes. How can anything truly original and creative ever come out of this business model? The clever stuff usually has to grow on you over time. If it takes an average of seven years for new magazines to go into the black, wouldn't you think it would take at least a season or two before a show can be deemed successful or not?

Regis Philbin's idea to save ABC from near-death in 1999 worked astonishingly well when he hosted Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Trying to desperately cash in on that success, ABC then flooded the airwaves with that show for four nights a week. When Millionaire's popularity finally waned, the network was left with a gaping hole it could not fill. ABC would have done better to choose one night to broadcast the show and train its viewers to tune in for that night only to watch Millionaire. Too much of a good thing...

The way to win in this game is not to play by the same rules. If you want to make TV shows, don't make them for the major networks. Pick a network that doesn't have a lot to risk (i.e. no money to lose) and give them something really exceptional. And make sure that your show gets a prime viewing time... and a consistent viewing time. More shows have been killed by switching their broadcast times. And if your show doesn't meet any network's criteria, play outside the box... literally. Stream your TV show online as if it were a network show. And why not? Netflix is heading that way already, and their speciality is DVDs mailed to your home.

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