The television industry unified in relief last week as the writers' strike ended and the production machine came back to life. But it may have actually been a dark day for the future of the network business.
With due respect to all the people out of jobs since Nov. 5, the best thing for the future of the television industry would have been for the strike to go on at least another six weeks and wipe out the whole upfront season. While the tragically flawed development cycle may be a bit shorter this year, in the end it will still be the same mechanism that is gradually killing network television.
“Everyone talks a good game about what we learned from the strike, but my worry, and I'm smelling it now already, is everyone is already falling into the same patterns,” said one media company chief.
On the first day of the strike in a column entitled “Can a Strike Save TV?” I wrote that “a long, drawn-out strike could be a de facto resetting of a failing mechanism. And while that will be ugly for the next year, in the long run it is exactly what the network television industry needs.”
Unfortunately, we will never know. The problem in a nutshell is a counter-intuitive annual development cycle in which the networks spend frivolously on comically expensive pilots. A flashy drama pilot can cost around $7 million, for a product that will look hardly at all like the rest of the series and therefore is a terrible predictor of its success.
Then the networks launch all their new shows mostly at the same time in the fall. They always say they want to stop this by moving to year-round development, but it hasn't happened. So everyone keeps fighting for the same writers, directors, actors and stages at the same time. It's as if every movie in an entire year were made at once.
But had the strike wiped out this year's cycle entirely, it would have forced the business to re-invent itself, if only for a year. With no pilot or upfront season as a safety net, the networks would be compelled to start from scratch and collectively build a new model that would at least give network television a chance to reverse its slumping fortunes.
Two different network presidents told me a longer strike would have been better in the long run, but neither would say so on the record. After all, they do have to go to work tomorrow.
On the record, network and studio executives are saying all the right things, such as Jeff Zucker's recent talk of scaling back expenditures like pilot production and multi-million-dollar holding deals for writers. Whether NBC is contemplating this fiscal responsibility for the right reasons or simply to get leaner before General Electric finally spins off or sells the media company after the Beijing Olympics, the thinking is correct.
Now with a rushed development season, we'll see if NBC and everyone else practices what they preach. The networks say they know the model is broken, but they just can't help themselves.
So if things don't go well this fall as expected, will the networks go back to spending to swing out of their slump? The May upfront may be a sneak peek. NBC says it may kill its Radio City show. But Fox is sticking with its big song and dance, and many expect CBS, The CW and ABC to follow. Will NBC or anyone else really sit on the sidelines?
Make no mistake, I am glad for all the food-service people and florists and those whose livelihood depended on the strike ending. But with a development season and upfront cycle proceeding as usual, the TV industry missed a golden opportunity to dumb-luck its way into having a chance to save itself.
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