Why Does Network TV Suck So Much?

Sick of reality shows on network TV yet? Every few months a new batch rolls out, each more awful than the one before. And when you’re talking about FOX, that’s saying something. They started out with Cops and have been getting worse ever since. I expect that next year FOX will air a show where midgets get plastic surgery based on the results of monkey knife fights.

Is this trend indicative of the downfall of Western civilization? It you listen to talk radio you’d think so, but as usually talk radio is dead wrong. Reality TV is a result of economics. When network TV started out it was also almost exclusively devoted to reality shows, and some of them, like Queen for a Day, were arguably as bad as the ones today. But in the 1960s they died out. Why? Advertising. Once TV was recognized as a great way to reach people companies were willing to pay much more money to advertise on popular shows. With more money coming in the networks were able to make (or buy) scripted shows, which are much more expensive on the front end but more lucrative on the back end.

Recently the advertising trend has reversed. Advertisers have found that cable networks can be a good way to reach specific groups, and so a lot of money that networks used to get is now being spread over the whole spectrum cable channels. The networks have less money to spend on TV shows, so reality TV is the result.

Let’s do a little math to demonstrate how easy this decision is for the networks. The biggest battle on TV for the last few years has been on Thursday nights, between the sitcom Friends and the reality game show Survivor. It’s a matter of public record that NBC pays the Friends producers’ around $7 million per episode, most of that going to the collection of future failed movie stars that are the actors on the show. I don’t know how much Survivor costs CBS, but I can guess. They give away $1 million at the end of the season, and let’s say the other prizes total $1 million. To make things easy, let’s assume that the other expenses on the show (renting the area where the contestants will be tortured, Jeff Probst’s salary, keeping the camera crews there for a month) total $5 million. I think that $5 million may be a little high, but let’s go with it. The total is $7 million for the whole season of 13 (or so) episodes, or about $600,000 per episode.

But wait, you can’t really compare the respective revenues of Friends and Survivor on a per episode basis, because revenue is based on how many commercials you can air during the show, and Friends is a half hour and Survivor is a full hour. Friends costs $14 million per hour, while Survivor probably costs closer to $600,000 per hour. To put it simply, Friends probably costs close to 25 times more per hour than Survivor. Keep in mind that the two shows get nearly identical ratings (despite all of NBC’s recent hype about how Friends going off the air will mean that everything good and light in the universe will be gone and the living will envy the dead who never had to see the blasted wasteland that will be our world without new episodes of Friends), and therefore make about the same gross amount of money from advertising. If you were making decisions for a network and were faced with declining ad revenue, a show that costs 1/25 as much and makes the same amount of money would probably sound damn good.

I admit this analysis is oversimplified. Scripted shows have some other benefits reality shows don’t, like longevity, prestige and greater rating when rerun. Reality shows end up being more like sporting events in these respects. But when it comes to short term profits it’s easy to see why there are so many reality shows and why we will probably see many more as advertising dollars continue to go to more and more different cable channels.

Is this the death of scripted TV? I don’t think so. The networks, including WB and UPN, have certainly gone dysfunctional when it comes to scripted TV. If they remain dependent on dwindling advertising money I doubt any of them will ever successfully mount another good dramatic or comedic series. Trying to fill a full roster with quality scripted programming in the current economic climate is probably impossible, and as expected the networks have becomes super-conservative. Expect to see lots of stuff next season that looks exactly like the successful stuff this season, including many spin-offs and rip-offs of Law & Order and CSI. I suspect these kinds of police/trial shows do so well because they appeal mainly to TVs core primetime audience of less active older adults. The message of shows like Law & Order and CSI is that leaving your house is an extremely risky thing to do, so you’re better off spending every night watching TV. But to get really big ratings the networks need to appeal to younger people who might normally have something better to do at night than watch TV, and these are the people the networks have been failing to reach in a big way. Airing shows like Law & Order: Arresting Teenagers to Protect the Elderly and CSI: Atlantic City isn’t going to do it.

I see scripted TV evolving in one of two possible directions, using the technology. One is the subscription model. Remember the old HBO motto, “It’s not TV, it’s HBO”? Pretty soon I think all TV will be HBO, or will have moved to cable networks like HBO. Because HBO is funded directly by the people who want to watch it and doesn’t have to worry about offending advertisers they make shows about whatever material they please, and they’ve shown the ability to attract good talent and stick with a show even if the first season isn’t a runaway success. In the past few years they’ve produced Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, OZ, Carnivale and Deadwood.

The other direction would be distribution by DVD. The groundwork has already been laid. Entire season sets of TV shows are doing very well on DVD. It’s only a matter of time before somebody tries releasing a season of TV show directly to stores, perhaps one episode at a time as has been common in Japan. At one point the producer of 24 said they were going to do it, but I haven’t heard anything more about it. I think Angel would be another candidate for DVD-only projects.

Of course, new technology could come along that I can’t imagine. TV-on-demand has been talked about, where you would order the shows you want directly, though frankly I think that the PVR and DVD has put off the demand for such a system by quite a few years.

All I know is that if FOX starts airing Monkey Fight Makeovers, I’m suing.

Posted: Wed - May 5, 2004 at