The Big Shift in Television Programming

We’ve all sensed the change, but it’s fascinating to study the numbers. Just released by FX Network, an annual count of television series produced by/for/with:

  • Broadcast television networks (such as ABC or CW)
  • Pay cable networks (such as HBO or Showtime)
  • Basic cable networks (such as USA or Nickelodeon)
  • Online Services (such as Amazon or Netflix)

In 2002, the broadcast networks produced 135 of 182 series; pay cable accounted for 17, and basic cable networks produced 30.

In 2009, there were just a few online series. Today, there are nearly 100.

Today–just seven years later–basic cable networks produce more original series than broadcast networks. In part, that’s because there are so many basic cable networks, and in part, because so many of them are now producing original material. Of 455 original series on U.S. television, online services are now responsible for about 1 in 5 of them.

Scripted Series Charts 2016 Updated.xlsxBut check out the trend: in 2013, there were 24 original series available online. In 2015, that number had basically doubled to 46, and it doubled again a year later. If the trend continues, 2017 will be the year when basic cable and online services produce an equal number of original series, and 2018 will be year when online services produce more original series than any other U.S. “networks” (we lack an English-language term that describes both online services and television networks).

Bear in mind:

  • These numbers count only “scripted original series” and do not include daytime dramas, specials, children’s programs, short-form content (less than 15 minutes), or programs not produced in English. If we add children’s programs–Nickelodeon, Disney, etc.–the numbers change, probably in favor of basic cable now, and online services in a year or two (all are stepping up).
  • These numbers do not count non-U.S., and we’re certainly seeing this shift in other parts of the world. A global chart would be wonderful, but then, so would U.S. access to programs shown throughout the world (the arrow typically points from the U.S. to others).
  • For now, the basic cable networks seem to be holding steady at about 175-185 series, and the same is true for broadcast networks at about 145-150. Ditto for the pay cable services at about 35 original scripted series per year, but look at those online services grow!

Can’t help but wonder how these supply numbers compare with demand. If we were to chart hours viewed per week, I wonder whether the horses would finish in this order: basic cable, broadcast, online services, pay cable. I’ll try to find an answer. Meanwhile, readers, if you can help with that side of the equation, please do.

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In the future, we’ll watch TV

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 11.51.26 AMSure, there’s been a lot of hubbub about how television has changed and will change, but I think the conversation is over-rated. For seventy years, people have watched news, sports, comedies, dramas, movies by pressing a button and staring at a screen. We’ve added stereo, color, lots and lots of TV channels, on-demand viewing. Ask the average person about the revolution in the television industry and they’ll tell you that that they thought The Tonight Show was kind of funny last night. They probably would have said the same thing in 1954.

What has changed is the industry that provides the programs. Once, there were three or four. networks Now, the number is uncountable because nobody’s sure how to classify Netflix, YouTube, or HBO NOW. Kudos to Pamela Douglas for trying to make sense of a very messy industry. She wrote a book—a very good book, in fact—entitled The Future of Television: Your Guide to Creating TV in the New World. We got to know one another, and talked about why she took on such an impossible project, how she approached the subject matter, and what she learned along the way. I should explain that Professor Douglas works at USC, that she has done her share of writing for prime time television, and that she is the author of a popular book entitled Writing the TV Drama Series for the same publisher (Michael Wiese Productions, a publisher also active in the production world).

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 11.51.34 AMMoving from the old world of traditional broadcast networks through hybrid innovators including cable networks then into the new world of internet services and alternative funding models, she covers the waterfront. There are interviews with knowledgable leaders from Netflix, Kickstarter, HBO, and other companies whose work matters a great deal in 2015.

I knew she was on the right track when I read this sentence, part of an interview with longtime Writer’s Guild executive Charlie Slocum: “…some writers are introverts and they don’t want to deal with all the people who are production managers, accountants, location scouts and so forth. Fine, so partner with a producer who loves all that and doesn’t have the patience to sit down with a blank page. That’s the path to being an entrepreneur in a partnership.”

He goes on: “On broadcast, the priority is to be similar….The classic example…what they have on at eight they hope is compatible with what they have on at nine so they keep the audience. It’s audience flow programming strategy.”

And here’s the important point that informs not only the conversation, but the whole book: “…individuals pay for HBO and Netflix. So if your base is subscribers, your goal is to have as many different subscribers as you can. That means when you have one show like House of Cards, you want the next show to be as different as possible [italics mine]…On subscription TV the goal is to get as many different people as possible to be happy to pay the monthly bill. One series, maybe two, can lock you in for the whole 12 months.”

The strategy comes to life in a conversation with Dan Pasternak of IFC. “…our brand is silly and smart. Our tagline is ‘Always On. Slightly Off.’ I said let’s not try to be Comedy Central. Let’s not be Adult Swim. Let’s program content that feels uniquely like IFC. So one of the first shows I helped to develop was Portlandia. And fortunately it became brand-defining.”

(In the 2010s, brand definition is the major challenge for every cable network, and every subscription service. It’s the most effective way to rise above the competition.)

He goes on: “(Portlandia) doesn’t belong anywhere else. Sketch comedy has evolved in the era of the digital short. Essentially each episode of Portlandia is eight little movies. But it’s really one unified perspective, voice, look, and feel.

The philosophy that drives an IFC is vastly different from the strategy that drives NBC’s prime time schedule. Often—and this is the reason why Pam wrote the book—it’s about the writer’s vision. That’s confirmed in her interview with HBO’s Michael Lombardo, who explains, “HBO starts with great writing. There’s no cheat to it…that has been our mania since early on.”

In the new world, the starting place is Netflix. Pam writes, “My writer friends and I love Netflix because it provides (a) place for our best work. But this isn’t our first romance. At the dawn of the 21st century, we were sweet on HBO for Oz and The Sopranos; in the first decade of the century, we had a big crush on AMC for Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Now we welcome Netflix into the second decade.

If you’re sensing a pattern here, you’re beginning to understand why Pam wrote the book. It’s all about the writing, the stories, the characters, the writer’s vision, and, of course, a place for all of that creative energy in a well-defined marketplace.

Netflix’s Ted Sarandos: “It’s about the product. Netflix was the only way to see House of Cards.”

So that’s the key for the subscription services—the only place to watch. This is a vastly different strategy from the one employed by A&E or TBS in order to achieve their current success (they used reruns to build audience).

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 11.51.21 AMNowadays, most cable networks are coming to the same conclusion: their future is going to be defined by original programming (scripted and unscripted, both have their place), and by events (which tend to work only sometimes, in part because they’re expensive and also because they’re difficult to construct with any frequency). So there’s the conundrum for the deeper future: as each cable network, and each subscription service, develops and markets their own unique programs, the audience becomes that much more fragmented. The pie slices become smaller, the ability for any individual player to make an impact becomes that much more challenging.

If you’re a cable programmer, or you’re responsible for one of the growing number of subscription services, your job relies upon your ability to generate programs that can be seen and heard above the crowd. If you’re a writer, or an aspiring writer, you now need to understand the nuances of the programming marketplace in ways that were never required in the past. Everything is more complicated. And it’s not.

In the end, nothing has changed. A writer has an idea, pitches it, somehow survives the development and production process, and connects with an audience. That fundamental formula has been around for a century (longer, if you dig back to the days when John Wilkes Booth was widely known as one of America’s most popular stage actors).

The message: be a diligent student, but spend most of your energy dreaming up great stuff.

This Just In… (from Aaron Sorkin)

I just watched The Newsroom on HBO. Aaron Sorkin in back on TV!

Probably fair to say that I was one of the dozen people who watched Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip with any regularity. Most people will recall Sorkin’s The West Wing with greater clarity.

Here’s the scoop. Jeff Daniels is a far better news anchor here than William Hurt was on Broadcast News, but the anchor is again struggling with a smartest-one-in-the-room brunette who is suddenly his Executive Producer. Once again, the anchor is a guy with issues, but in Sorkin’s hands, those issues drive the storyline. Daniels’ Will McAvoy has serious doubts about the news, his role in it, and whether journalism will ever matter more than ratings. Fortunately, there’s a moral compass, albeit one who drinks a lot. Sam Waterston is quickly mastering the craggy, seen-it-all puppeteer by way of Ben Bradlee.

Episode one contains the usual Sorkin hijinx: a bit of slapstick from the good-looking young man who doesn’t speak up until he saves the day (think Sam Seaborn, but see Jim Harper, above), the aforementioned brunette (MacKenzie McHale, who served embedded time) who takes control and out-maneuvers her mean spirited anchor (for whom she continues to carry the torch), insecure occupational glue (as the old newsroom crew is dismissed and the new one takes charge before job interviews are complete), backstories that just begin to reveal themselves, “let’s watch that again with closed captioning on” fast-talking during the key scenes, the busy workplace where important and loopy things happen simultaneously, the earnest speeches (one about Man of La Mancha) that deflate moments after their most dramatic deliveries, the open story lines that make me want to watch the next episode.

It’s all here. It’s good television. It moves, it winds, it surprises, it’s fun to watch, and it’s smart. And there’s sex, no violence.

It’s early yet, and Sorkin is still finding his footing. But it’s a real Sorkin show, and, well, it’s been a long time since The West Wing.

Now, if Stephen Sondheim would write a brilliant new musical for Broadway, everything will be back to normal.

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