13 January 2010

The Late Night Debacle and Everything That's Wrong With Television

If you haven't been following the circus that has become NBC's late night scheduling and personality lineup, here's a brief history. NBC, once the powerhouse network of the 90s that was home to shows like Friends, Seinfeld, and ER, has slipped to a distant fourth in the ratings behind ABC, CBS and Fox. To cut costs, they devised a plan to have Jay Leno, who recently turned the hosting duties of NBC's The Tonight Show over to Conan O'Brien, host a similar prime time variety show featuring comedy and celebrity guests. Such shows are much cheaper to produce than scripted dramas and even reality shows.

The experiment was a colossal failure for all the reasons many had predicted from the outset. Jay Leno seemed watered down from his late night persona in prime time, and people simply aren't used to or interested in that kind of programming at the 10 o'clock hour. The ratings tanked, and local NBC affiliate channels grew angry because their 11 o'clock news programs were also suffering with such a weak lead-in program. At the same time, Conan O'Brien's ratings for The Tonight Show have slipped considerably, though in all fairness, that has typically been the case for at least a short interim period whenever a new host takes over the show.

Through all this, NBC and its affiliates have lost millions of viewers, and hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising revenue. The blame for this rests solely on the shoulders of NBC's executives and their terrible mishandling of the few viable properties the network still has to its name. Now they want to put salt in the wound by returning Leno to late night with a half-hour show at 11:30 PM, pushing Conan and the rest of the late night line-up thirty minutes back. It's a terrible quick fix approach to the situation, and Conan has now announced that he'll have nothing to do with a Tonight Show that technically doesn't come on until the morning (12:00 AM).

How did all of this happen? In my mind, it came about because the executives at NBC have forgotten what kind of television people want to watch. In an age where they compete with video games, the Internet (with its original content and the piracy to which it plays host), increasingly sophisticated cable competition, Blu Ray and DVD, they have panicked at the sight of declining viewership and made rash decisions based on shortsighted thinking. The entire function of the 10 PM Jay Leno Show was to save money, to plug the leaky dam rather than to actually provide programming viewers wanted to see and perhaps restore the network to its former glory.

And that's just the problem with a lot of programming these days. NBC is the most visible quagmire, but all of the networks have largely failed to do in the past decade what any business must in order to survive-- namely, provide a product that their customers want. Even in our struggling economy, Americans are spending more money on entertainment than ever before, yet television viewership, particularly on the networks, has declined. Furthermore, an increasing percentage of television's viewing audience is older, comprised of people who simply aren't embracing new technologies. When you look at the number of new, young viewers television is getting, the picture gets grim. The 18-34 age demographic is the most important to advertisers because they spend the most money. But they are becoming a smaller and smaller portion of the pie.

Think about the last time you had a conversation with someone about television-- not any show in particular, but just about what they like to watch. Chances are, you heard many familiar complaints. There is too much reality TV on the air. All the dramas are cop shows, doctor shows, or lawyer shows. Shows that rival the creativity and variety of decades past are few and far between. These are common complaints and yet, like lemmings following each other off a cliff, the networks continue to churn out more of the same old garbage.

Reality shows manifest from the same mentality as The Jay Leno Show-- they are cheap to produce and take up a time slot. Execs know that many Americans are so lazy or apathetic that they'll watch something they don't like rather than change the channel or turn off the TV. Some reality shows, like American Idol and Dancing with the Stars, are genuine hits. But for every hit there are a dozen knockoffs that are just filler. The networks aren't the biggest offenders in this case; it's the cable channels desperate to fill 24 hours of daily programming that have come to redefine "trash TV." But they're certainly not without fault.

In an old post I made about FlashForward, I mentioned that it seems like TV writers believe that all Americans outside of Hollywood are either cops, doctors or lawyers. Last year the oversaturation of police dramas became so bad that one show called itself "The Unusuals" in a desperate attempt to convince the audience that it was somehow not just another cookie cutter cop show (oops-- it was, and was quickly canceled). It's no secret why such shows, as well as doctor and lawyer shows, are so commonplace. They are easy fodder for mediocre writers and safe bets for executives afraid to risk capital on original ideas. The shows have built-in violence and conflict, and plots that can be recycled ad nauseum (see Law & Order, which was good for its first seven or eight years but is now about as gripping as watching a test pattern). Story ideas can be easily adapted from newspaper headlines. "Characters" can be cardboard cutouts that just go through the motions, and the plots are easily digestible hour-long nuggets. It's lazy writing to match the lazy viewers they hope to pull in.

Dirtbread here shows about the level of creativity involved in concocting today's typical cop show:

To an extent, the reality and cop/doctor/lawyer formulas are successful. There are, indeed, many millions of Americans who will watch such shows because they are there, and not because they are anything stimulating, artistic or memorable. But think longer term: think about the most talked about TV shows of the last decade. A few names that readily come to mind are The Office, The Shield, Rescue Me, LOST, 24, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, The Wire, and The Sopranos. Only two of those shows could be considered close to "traditional" cop shows. And while reality shows may be popular and profitable when they're on the air, no one really remembers anything specific about them when they're gone. I challenge anyone to name a truly famous, timeless moment from a show like Star Search or American Bandstand. In twenty years, American Idol will be exactly the same.

With television being in the state that it is, monkey-headed executives are scratching their heads trying to figure out where those viewers have gone. The single biggest untold story in entertainment in the last decade has been the video game industry and its evolution from a kids' pastime to an adult way of life. The generation that grew up with video games still plays them as adults, only now, the games are more realistic, more submerging, and more interactive than ever. Games are no longer a solitary activity, but rather they are social networks through which one can interact with people all over the world. They're not the realm of geeks or recluses but of mainstream America, and the billions and billions of dollars that they siphon away from television has gone largely unobserved in entertainment reporting.

Sure, there are fundamental differences between television and video games, but the reason for the latter's explosive success is because the industry has responded to what players wanted. As the medium aged, players wanted darker, more adult themed games with increased complexity. They wanted online capability and easy access to content like downloadable games and add-ons. The new systems have adapted to these demands. TV, meanwhile, is still treating the Internet like the enemy, as it is dragged kicking and screaming into the world of online viewing. That's what the Writer's Strike of 2007-2008 was all about.

Television no longer knows its own potential audience. The Jay Leno debacle has proved that all too often, short term cost cutting is winning out over ambitious ventures on fresh material. Conversely, you have a property like LOST, wherein original and talented writers were given creative control, and execs even took the bold step of letting the show reach a natural end date dictated by the creative process rather than the tides of the ratings. Studios used to seem to understand that letting ambitious writers and actors take risks on unique ideas was what eventually resulted in profits-- that staying out of the creative process as much as possible was the key to making the most beloved television shows. Now, they seem determined to either repeat proven formulas and settle for lower viewership, or unnecessarily butt in with entertainers doing their thing, as is the case with Conan O'Brien. Now he appears poised to leave the network, and Leno or whomever ends up with the 11:30 PM slot will face an uphill battle to save face for The Tonight Show and NBC.

The big winner in all this is David Letterman, who is now winning the late night ratings war and seeing NBC reap the fruits of its poor decision making after he was passed up for hosting duties of The Tonight Show nearly twenty years ago. Meanwhile, it's my genuine hope that Conan makes it to another network, perhaps Fox, that gives him total creative freedom and support, as for my money he is the most talented late night host in a generation.

Naturally, I want to avoid speaking in absolutes here, and it's true that a fair number of good, creative shows seep through the cracks. However, they are typically on either cable channels or subscription channels, leaving only a few glimmers of originality like LOST and 24 on the network lineups. Such shows are the exception now, rather than the rule. It's also possible that every generation complains that originality is dead in popular entertainment as they begin to age, and if so, then I am happy to fulfill my obligation in that regard. I'm not a network executive myself and I am indeed playing armchair quarterback to the industry. It's all just one guy's opinion.


Kells said...

Yeah, as dumb as the networks seem what with the brainless reality shows they air, I gotta cut them some slack: It's a pretty daunting task to come up with a premise that could be the basis for dozens of hours worth of television. If it's not a police procedural or hospital show, you're gonna strain credibility pretty quickly in the process of creating the type of drama that commercial television demands; you could make a show about a dentist who gets into crazy situations every week, but it's not gonna be very believable.

ABC in particular always seems to be flailing around... The only time I ever watch is for Lost, and every season they air ads hyping some new show that looks horrible and winds up flopping hard. I gotta give them some credit for trying to be original here and there, but it's kinda sad it took them this long to capitalize with on Lost's success with something like FlashForward. What was up with that cop show filmed in sepia tone? Talk about confused marketing... None of the ads even mentioned that the premise dealt with time travel!

"Rodimus" Ben Lundy said...

I'll grant you that not every show on television can be the next LOST. There's always going to be dumb cop shows and doctor shows. But I would add in regard to the rest of your comment that "believable" is a word I've come to dread these days, as I think its meaning has changed and hurt the potential for some really great stories to be told.

To me, believable means characters you can relate to, who act the way real people act in whatever situation they're presented. A good example of this would be the 80s show "Quantum Leap." The whole show is about a paper thin time travel theory and even extends into the supernatural concept that God is making Sam leap through time to right certain wrongs. Yet the premise of the show is really just a device for great character drama. You see, I don't mind if a concept sounds silly (you mentioned Life on Mars, about a cop time traveling back to the 70s), if it leads to great characters and stories.

But instead, there is a modern push for ultra-realism and, honestly, I'm not sure where it comes from. I think that's what leads to shows like CSI, NCIS, and so on. Your example about a dentist show reminded me of "Murder, She Wrote," which, from a certain perspective, is a completely unbelievable show. If a book author really encountered that many murders in her daily life, they'd have her under lock and key in some government facility as some sort of cosmic, karmic phenomenon. but no one really thinks about that watching the show from week to week. My point is, television already asks us to make some leaps, so that shouldn't be an impediment to storytelling potential.

Kells said...

Though it may not hold up to a great deal of scrutiny, I think Quantum Leap was a GENIUS concept for an hour-long drama series, and the non-stop drama is totally plausible if you can accept the concept that he's entering into these people's lives at a pivotal moment in their lives. Why? When will it end? Why does Al's communicator thingy need to be smacked around all the time? It doesn't matter, just put it out of your head and go along for the ride.

So yeah, realism isn't essential, but I guess it's all in how a show presents itself... If it's a show that's supposed to be rooted in reality and they do implausible things, it can feel cheap or insulting to your intelligence.

And yeah, the writing and characters are ultimately what makes a show, but most people won't give a show a chance if the premise doesn't sound promising. I was pretty skeptical on Breaking Bad before I watched it because it sounded like a dramatic version of Weeds and potentially kind of a drag, but the writing was strong enough that you can't help but get sucked in.

I'm not even sure what point I'm making anymore, but go Team Coco!