Once upon a time, only a mere handful of people watched Seinfeld. Tough as it may be to recall nearly two decades and countless viewers later, the top network executives are doing their best to remember. As they cross their fingers and head into the start of the strangest of seasons, they are each in their own way recommitting to doing a little sitting on their hands.
“We've all looked at finding hits with the blockbuster mentality, but that's not how TV began,” NBC co-chairman Ben Silverman told B&C. “Seinfeld, The Office, Hill Street Blues, the big shows of NBC were developed over time and became hits.”
Network executives for years have preached patience but seldom followed through. This year, they may not have a choice.
The work stoppage resulting from the 100-day writers' strike hampered production on primetime shows just when repeats have been proving that they do not hold up. So with shallower benches than usual, the networks may need to stick with some shows strong on buzz and creative promise but short on viewership in order to remain in originals.
And that may be exactly what network television needs: to give shows a chance to grow, just like old times. Because these days, programmers tend to think that they can always grow ratings by swapping in a new show.
“This is always a business of, 'We can do better,'” said Preston Beckman, Fox's executive vice president of strategic program planning and research. “Networks are always quick to cancel shows. There's a certain belief among people who develop shows that we can be better than what is on the air.”
“The alternative to patience is incredibly expensive,” concurred Mitch Metcalf, executive VP of program planning and scheduling at NBC Universal. “You can throw a lot at a time period and waste a lot of program money there.”
The CW entertainment president Dawn Ostroff said that since viewers have so much pull on their attention these days, it is imperative to do some waiting. “When you look at how long it takes for someone to find a show -- so many people, so many networks to watch -- these shows take time,” she added.
Much, of course, has changed since the premieres of Seinfeld and other TV legends that had meager starts. Last fall marked the first time viewers didn't all come back from summer vacation, as many seemed to forget that network viewership was under siege even before the strike.
Compound that with ambiguous audience measurements and the mass adoption of multiplatform on-demand viewing and a nod to the old days starts to sound like comfort food.
The networks took different approaches to this new season, so each strategy represents an opportunity to unearth answers about how to thrive in a business that is evolving faster than ever. But one of the biggest unknowns is simple: whether executives have the fortitude to exercise enough wait-and-see muscle to get the answers. In other words, can TV executives both hurry up -- and wait?
“Last year there were a lot of shows that were pulled after one or two episodes, so to suddenly say that's not going to happen -- I think you have to look on a case-by-case basis,” said industry analyst Brad Adgate, senior VP of research for media-buying company Horizon Media, adding that where a network stands in the ratings race will have a bearing, as well. Some networks simply have more to lose than others, he noted.
The idea of patience is nothing new. Network executives have tried for years to exercise it when making the tough calls they face every season. As Kelly Kahl, senior executive VP at CBS primetime, put it: “It's easier to say, harder to sit in the chair and [do].”