Friday, January 22, 2010

Even the Chinese are following the NBC night show disaster

Who cares about the Jay Leno - Conan O'Brien - NBC fiasco? Let's just say that if it really matters to you it's time to get a life. But it's a symptom of a major cultural change that America is going through. It's not just a political argument between NBC, Leno and O'Brien. It's another step in the collapse of broadcast TV. Writer's strike. Reality shows. Decline in quality scripted shows. Switch to the clearly inferior HD TV. Newspapers aren't the only media suffering from a sharp decline in advertising revenue. It looks to me like broadcast TV is going the way of daily newspapers.

First though, consider the NBC - late night TV crisis from the Chinese point of view.

Huh? Chinese? How did they get involved? Who knows, but they have posted this very entertaining U-Tube video cartoon that explains it all. As is appropriate to the unimportance of the subject, it's in Chinese. Don't worry. That doesn't matter because the cartoonist or cartoonists have captured the story beautifully.

Does this really matter? No. But it's the car wreck on the freeway we all slow down and look across the media at as we pass it. But for those of us who have watched broadcast TV go from a rich family's toy in the 50% to the required utility in every room that it has been for more than the last generation, this is broadcast TV's death rattle.

It became obvious several years ago when "reality" TV replaced one of the three hours of night time scripted dramas. It was disgusting, but the networks were desperate for broadcast air fillers which were CHEAP and could survive on the reduced advertising revenue that the networks finally realized were all they could get. But reality TV has gone as far as it could. Where could NBC (especially) get more low cost schlock to fill prime time air with? Well, they had Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien at night and both were doing well. They each cost about 1/3rd what a scripted show costs per hour. Conan apparently forced the issue five years ago when he threatened to jump networks to FOX and compete head-to-head with Jay Leno.

NBC delayed his move by promising Conan the Tonight show in five years. They bought Leno's agreement by telling him he could have five hours per weeknight in prime time instead. NBC kept both shows with their audiences and it had the advantage of sharply lower production costs for for one of the three prime time weeknight hours. The number I have seen quoted is that Leno costs about $100 million to produce five nights a week for a season where a scripted drama to fill those hours costs about $300 million.

Did replacing a scripted drama the last night of prime time lose audience? Apparently. But NBC decided that the loss of audience could be accepted because it brought the production costs in under the level of the revenue they were getting from advertisers for that time period.

Only - Gack! - the affiliate stations make a lot of their money from the advertisers paying for the night time news, and the Jay Leno show did not feed as big an audience into those late night news shows. The affiliates were losing a lot of money so that NBC could bring their third hour of prime time production costs in under what the advertising revenue covered. Translation - NBC profited in part by lowering the audience and revenue to the affiliates who followed that last prime time hour. The affiliates looked at the results of NBC's brilliant strategy and revolted. They determine what actually appears on the local TV screen, so they threatened to pull prime time Leno and replace it with - I don't know. Star Trek reruns? I love Lucy? More reality shows? Whatever. It wouldn't be revenue to NBC. It would be revenue to the affiliate stations. They are the actual owners of your TV screen in broadcast TV. Prime time Jay Leno was fired.

I knew something was wrong when so-called reality TV crap replaced quality scripted shows. Prime time was reduced from three hours a night to two hours on weeknights with reruns on Saturdays and some Sundays. That was not the result of a writer's strike. It was clearly caused by declining advertising revenue. The networks wanted to shift some of the production costs to writers and the writer's guild objected. The networks then took the opportunity to blame the writers for the collapse of the industry.

The NBC - Jay Leno - Conan O'Brien has been a bunch of sturm und drang about damned little that matters. Except for one thing. The sturm und drang is at it's base all about the death of broadcast TV. Leno and O'Brien just put familiar faces on the end of the industry.

One last thing I had wondered about. Broadcast TV made the shift from a technologically stable long-term broadcast technology to High Definition last year. Some customers may have made the switch OK, but in my experience it has been a disaster. I've completely lost half the channels I used to watch and the remaining ones flicker on and off erratically, often freezing for several words. Was the switch to Hi-Def a plot to force broadcast customers to buy overpriced subscription TV instead? That's still my best bet. Someone apparently thought it was a good idea, and the FCC is captive to the industry so they forced it through. Trust the Republicans to get the government to screw the customers so that the business persons can blame the government for the economic disaster they caused instead of taking responsibility themselves for what they did.

I am not an expert on the media. This is just what I have observed in recent years watching broadcast TV and I am trying to find an explanation for the degradation of the medium. So far this makes some sense of it to me.

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