Welcome to Panic Town


Network executives are a lot like sports coaches in several ways. Chief among them are: a) They are hired to be fired, and b) We look at many of their decisions and become convinced we could do better. Heck, sometimes we're sure our 2-year-old kid could do a better job. But enough about the Minnesota Vikings.

Any leader has to weigh the pros and cons of one natural reaction to a challenging turn of events: panic. In tough times overreact, and that's when you make bad choices that will come back to haunt you. And yet, a healthy amount of panic isn't a terrible thing; it can lead to new ideas. And that's probably what we need right now, both on Wall Street and in the TV business.

So if the fall television season is going to be as challenged as many people fear, network execs are going to have to find the right mix of panic and patience.

To be honest, I'm the last person to be preaching patience when the sky is falling. When I woke up last Monday to the news that the financial world had gotten much worse, I jumped in the car and raced first to the bank and then to the mattress store. I took everything I had out of the first place and stuffed it all into what I bought at the second.

So it's probably a good thing that I am not running a broadcast network, because I have a hard time seeing how it's going to be anything but a challenging fall season from a ratings perspective. Who knows what I would do in one of those chairs right now?

I don't by any means think the bottom is going to drop out. But with so few new shows—and few among those with buzz—coupled with so many returning shows that failed to impress last year, it looks like a sign reading “rough waters ahead.”

That's when it will be up to the networks to keep things in perspective. You know, “Stay the course.” As our Executive Editor Melissa Grego wrote in a cover story a couple of weeks ago, it is time to see if the networks will actually practice the patience they always preach, yet seldom do.

But while sticking with a ratings-challenged show with upside is a smart play in this environment, a healthy sense of panic is also not a bad thing, given this latest piece of news: The TV business is blowing up before our eyes.

Business 101 tells us that down times are opportunities to steal market share. To do that, you have to roll the dice.

We are seeing some small doses of risk-taking, like Fox telling viewers at the beginning of shorter breaks in Fringe exactly how long the commercial pod is going to be. I think that's a smart play.

But at a time when the bar (read: audience) is lowering consistently, why not experiment even more? I am full of (mostly bad) ideas about blowing things up. Here's one: Don't only program on the 30- and 60-minute wheel. If sitcom creators complain 30 minutes is too short, give them 40 minutes and program something afterward at 8:40, like a 20-minute comedy or a special from your late-night host. Yes, advertise the special as starting at 8:40.

I'm not saying it's the best idea, but isn't now the time to see if some things stick?

I ran this and a couple of other ideas by one programming chief. I think he actually called me an “idiot.” I usually only get that kind of reception at home from you-know-who, so that was a nice surprise.

Still, a little panic right now might not be the worst thing. Granted, based on my reaction to the Wall Street train wreck, I'm not cut out to be a network chief. If there were a small hamlet somewhere called “Panic Town,” I would be named mayor immediately.

And where could you possibly go from being a small-town mayor?

E-mail comments to ben.grossman@reedbusiness.com