Television's Lost Year


So this is where we say Happy New Year. We're not simply trying to be cordial. Given the ugly 2007 the TV business went through, welcoming 2008 carries with it more than the usual hopes. It's been a long time since we've slogged through a year this lacking.

For one, program-wise, this has been a buzzless non-season. No new broadcast or cable series has caught on fire, and that's not going to change as long as the writers stay on strike. Because of the Writers Guild impasse, broadcast networks, except for Fox, are losing viewers rapidly. Much of that lost audience isn't coming back anytime soon.

The promos now emphasize that, indeed, networks still have some new episodes of programs to show. But those excited announcers only serve to reinforce the reality that the primetime landscape is becoming increasingly barren.

And what odd timing: During the holiday season, the nation's consumers rushed out to buy expensive, technologically advanced high-definition television sets, and beginning in January, the networks will serve up…more game shows!

In 2007, primetime's woes were only one part of the story. For the last month or so, the cable industry has been insisting that it is losing its dominance in the multichannel subscription business. It was strange to see Kyle McSlarrow, the president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), whose job it is to promote the industry, get angry when FCC Chairman Kevin Martin claimed cable was doing better than cable itself believes. McSlarrow's agitation was justified. Martin wants the FCC to grab more authority over cable, and the FCC has partially won by now putting a ceiling on cable acquisitions.

The NCTA may also be noticing that the FCC is preparing new, onerous rules for broadcasters, where the agency does wield power and wants still more. Martin and the FCC are floating ideas about some very intrusive rules that would require broadcasters to prove how well they serve the public interest. Some of the measures mentioned in this week's Washington Watch column (p. 5) would meddle with content in ways that trample free speech. Scary, if it happens.

Indeed, in 2008, television has to be on its game in every way. It has to settle the strike, and watch out for the FCC and Congress, and cover a presidential election that will be especially contentious—and oh yes, continue to mesh broadband into its future.

The industry starts 2008 with some bumps and bruises. It had best snap out of its hangover quickly.