For 51 weeks of the year, it is all too easy to nod in agreement as the dispensers of conventional wisdom rail about how hopelessly inept the Big Four broadcast networks are—how they are over-cautious, unimaginative, lowest-common-denominator-targeting dinosaurs. But then this week—when the broadcasters announce their fall schedules—rolls around, and we are reminded again what a remarkable institution the networks remain in this media-saturated world.
What the network upfronts represent is simply one of the most impressive displays of coordinated creative effort and marketing in a country that has defined those terms for the modern age. It is one thing to pay for and promote one blockbuster movie; it is quite another art to commission, schedule, promote and pay for more than 20 television shows all at the same time. That is what each of those supposedly creaky networks does year after year.
When B&C does a special report on “original programming,” it is understood that we're talking about cable because, well, original programming on cable is indeed “special”; original work on broadcast networks is par for the course. Don't get us wrong—we love our cable box. This isn't to disparage non-broadcast programming. Much of it is terrifically entertaining. FX's Rescue Me—amazing. MTV's Real World— riveting reality before Mark Burnett was a gleam in the CBS eye. And premium cable, with HBO's The Sopranos as the obvious example, has taken the medium to a new heights.
But cable channels have the luxury of picking their spots, launching original programming as a sort of bonus for viewers—without having to worry about drawing the big-league ratings required on broadcast television.
Studios this year cranked out 120 pilots or treatments for broadcast series. After thousands of executive hours of agonizing, a few shows will be chosen. And most of them, regrettably, will fail. It is amazing to us that all this effort adds up to so little that lasts more than a few weeks or months. But it is even more astonishing that so many people in the industry remain gung-ho to try again, season after season.
Despite all this effort, time and money, of course, the broadcast networks will continue to surrender share to cable, which already boasts a larger aggregate prime time audience. That has got to be discouraging for network sales forces.
And with a still fragile economy, we'll be surprised if advertisers give either cable or broadcast networks sizeable rate increases this season. But the broadcast upfront season is still a time of outrageous hyperbole and crafty strategy, when the representatives buying advertising for some of the world's greatest brands match wits with the sales staffs of the world's most powerful media organizations. It is all predicated on the idea that next fall's shows are the best batch of genius the television gods have yet devised. Completely bogus, of course. But, for the sheer stubborn dedication that implies, we're grateful.