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Tim Brooks: Televisions numbers man

5/14/2000 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Ask Tim Brooks anything about TV and you're in for an education. Senior vice president of research at Lifetime, he has been analyzing shows for almost 30 years, first at NBC, later at USA and Sci Fi, and now at cable's quintessential women's network. Brooks, a co-author of the Complete Directory to Prime Time and Cable TV shows: 1946-Present, talked with Broadcasting & Cable's Deborah D. McAdams about what's hot and what's not in television, why it works that way, and what the future holds.

In your book, there are so many shows that lasted for maybe three or four episodes, like C. Everett Koop, M.D. and Someone Like Me.

The funny thing is that for every show in there, there is somebody who remembers it well. There may be only one person, but we will hear from them. They are so happy that somebody remembers I Married Dora or some obscure show. That's the wonderful thing about television. Even short-run shows have such wide distribution that people remember them forever.

You've been in program testing and research for three decades. Can you predict program trends?

If I could accurately predict the trends, I'd be Rupert Murdoch's boss. Creativity can't be predicted. But there are certain trends and patterns that do recur over time. That lightning in the bottle is truly rare, but it's not as unpredictable as you might think.

What are those lightning-in-the-bottle elements?

The one thing that runs through everything that I have ever seen, with rare exceptions, is that people want to watch people they can relate to or like at some level. With television, you live with the characters. You're literally inviting them into your living room. So it's a very personal medium, and shows that are based on a gimmick or special effects, or worst of all, a show that's based on an interesting but dislikable character, never work.

There are 5,000, 6,000 shows in my book. I can't name one successful show that had a dislikable lead. Even Archie Bunker was not dislikable. He was a teddy bear underneath it all. Ralph Kramden, at the end of the show, would say, "Baby you're the greatest."

If TV viewers don't like the person on some level, if they don't want them in their living room, that show will fail. At least that's one continuing theme that I've seen over the years.

You once told an anecdote about how audience research changed Family Ties.

I was at NBC when the show was developed around the premise of a husband and wife who were children of the '60s, and their '80s kids who had such a different mentality.

Viewers weren't drawn to that particularly. What they were drawn to is that one of the two kids really popped for them, the Alex Keaton character played by Michael J. FOX. He was originally a supporting member of the ensemble, and he became clearly the star of the show. Here was this youthful, fresh-faced young guy who had the picture of Reagan hanging over his bed. It was a parody on the materialistic '80s.

So the writers changed the show accordingly?

Exactly. They redirected the show.

Was that show tested before it went to air?

Yes.

And it tested fine until it reached the air?

That's right. It was an OK test, but it wasn't a breakthrough by any means. It was sufficient to get on the air. Many shows that test moderately or even poorly in some cases get on the air. Family Ties didn't start particularly strong in the ratings either. NBC was having a very hard time with the ratings in those days and the show wasn't doing anything to move them.

So Family Ties didn't catch on for several episodes. Do networks give shows that kind of opportunity today?

In the early '90s, it looked like they had finally learned their lesson and were starting to give shows a little more time. In my opinion, shows need more time now than they did 10 or 20 years ago.

Why?

There are multitudes of examples of shows that easily could have been killed off because of ratings that later became enormous hits, sometimes peaking in their third, fourth, sixth, eighth season. I think Law & Order is still growing, and The X-Files practically rose from the dead. It was a number 105 show in its first season and made it to the top 10 in its third or fourth.

Does cable stick with shows longer than broadcast?

Cable networks pretty much stick with things because they have to; it's just the economics of it. They pay a lot of money for shows and they have to get their money back no matter what. But failure on a cable network is not as dramatic as on a broadcast network be cause you're looking for a 1 rating or a 2 rating rather than an 8 or a 9 or a 10.

The whole broadcast model, the trap that they're in, is that to get those very high CPMs they have to get the big audience all at once. They can't accumulate it over time like a cable network. That's going directly against the tide of how viewers watch television today.

Is fragmentation the culprit?

Absolutely. And the fact that the networks that constitute those fragments are getting smarter, better funded and able to produce shows that are on the same level in terms of quality and production as broadcasters. To the viewer, there is no difference. An Any Day Now could run equally on ABC or NBC as on Lifetime. Same kind of show, same kind of stars. That wasn't true 10 years ago.

Does broadcast ratings erosion drive program turnover?

Yes. Broadcast erosion is a 20-year trend now, and as with any trend, it levels off now and then. In the early '90s, there was a great deal of cheering about the fact that the erosion had finally stopped. That was in 1993. The next year when they went down again, then leveled off in '95. Then in '96 it started again and instead of leveling off, it accelerated. In '98 and '99 they were almost in freefall and nobody knew what to make of it.

This year, erosion has leveled off again. Why?

A combination of two things: Millionaire and dramas. Networks really played the single urban sitcom like Seinfeld to death. This year, several dramas like West Wing and Once and Again did well, and those are hours instead of half-hours, so they take up a lot of the schedule. There are probably six or eight that'll be coming back next year, which is some indication of success.

Does the pendulum swing between comedy and drama?

Yes. There are clear shifts back and forth over the history of TV. What typically happens is that a show of a certain type becomes popular and everyone rushes to clone it, like westerns in the '50s when Gunsmoke was on.

Now the networks are cloning Millionaire. Is it justifiable for networks to jump on a bandwagon?

Well, it was, for NBC with Twenty One and FOX with Greed. They did very well jumping on the bandwagon, but I think that trend is going to burn itself out pretty quickly.

What's the worst thing you've ever seen that made it to television?

The worst is pretty strong, but I've got to tell you, I didn't like Action at all. I know the critics raved about it, but it seemed to me exploitive and smarmy and full of itself. I don't want to pick on just that show. There are other shows, too, that seem to be almost selfishly creative, like "I'm so much smarter than you, I'm going to show you." Fortunately, the audience doesn't tend to like that either.

How accurate are Nielsen ratings?

Overall, they do quite well, and believe me, I know where all the bodies are buried. It is, in fact, one of the most carefully constructed and executed measurement systems or measurement reporting tools in the entire world, in academia, in commerce.

That's partially because the real emphasis is on making sure the sample is representative, because all research fails with a bad sample. So the most important thing is to make sure that the sample truly represents the American population.

They spend a great deal of effort doing that. There are Nielsen employees who literally walk down the street with a clipboard and a map updating city records to make sure that every housing unit has been accounted for so they don't miss people. They recreate the work that the zoning commission is supposed to do, just to make sure that they have the best possible sample to draw from so that everybody has got an equal chance.

Then once they pick somebody at random, they try very hard to get those people to cooperate. They are very friendly to them and they are very accommodating to their needs rather than just going to people who want to participate in everything.

Of the five biggest cable networks, Lifetime was the only one that didn't drop in prime time in the first quarter. What's happening with TBS, TNT, USA and Nickelodeon?

At least three of those are broad-based entertainment networks without strong identification for who they are. USA can be all kinds of things. So can TBS or TNT. And those are the networks that suffer the most when broadcasters have a relatively good season.

The networks that do best during periods when broadcast networks do well are the ones with a very defined audience. People know exactly what to find there and presumably like what they find. Lifetime has developed a very strong identification of what it is. We hardly have to advertise specific movie titles because viewers come to us expecting to find a certain point of view and they are rarely disappointed. USA might have an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie or Field of Dreams, so they have to sell it every time.

Does this herald the imminent demise of general entertainment cable networks?

They've been written off many times over the years, so they must have been very strong. I think what they have to do, though, is become somewhat less general, and there is some evidence that they are doing that. For a long time, TNT made no bones about the fact that it was really a male network of John Wayne westerns and Clint Eastwood shoot-'em-ups and that kind of stuff.

USA has also become very male-oriented in the last couple of years. Part of it is wrestling, but their movies and series are produced with a male sensitivity. So they've become somewhat less broad than they used to be, and I think that's the road to the future for the broadbased entertainment networks.

Does Lifetime lead in women because it's the only game in town? What happens if and when Oxygen becomes a contender?

That's a good point because most of the big niches in cable have been cloned by now. There's the battle of the news networks and the battle of the kids networks. If anything, our bigger competitors are going in the opposite direction toward male viewers. So we have the field fairly clear in terms of a pure women's environment, and I don't think that will last. Whether it's Oxygen or somebody else, that's too big and too valuable a piece of real estate in the consumers' map to leave to one player.

Our job in the next few years is to make sure that we are so strong with that audience-that we bond so well with them and they trust us so much-that it can withstand competition from others because there will be competition from others.

What programming trends do you anticipate for the future?

As I mentioned earlier, I think the proliferation of dramas is the harbinger of several years at least of dramas. And while they will always be around, I think we are seeing a period where sitcoms are going to be the secondary format in prime time. The only thing that restrains dramas, really, from being all over the place is that they are so expensive to make, and the networks are so bottom-line obsessed.

You are going to see the ascendancy of dramas. And dramas well done perpetuate themselves. You could have a popularity curve for West Wing that lasts for five or six years, easily.

I think the news magazines fortunately are going to recede. They were the cheap, easy play of the mid-'90s, but there are far too many of them. Some are morphing into something resembling dramas themselves.

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