TV industry struggles to adapt


This has been a complicated season for the TV industry. The broadcast networks – your ABCs, CBSs, NBCs and Foxes – produced more high-quality television than they have in years.

It seemed like they were headed for banner ratings. And that’s what they got. In some ways.

Ratings for the big TV dogs have dropped only a couple percentage points so far this season, but in this new digital era, when entertainment choices are a click away on every kind of equipment in the house except the power drill, only a small loss is a victory.

Ladies and gentlemen, may we introduce digital democracy, where anyone can be a commentator, filmmaker or critic, and everyone has a circus of entertainment choices a click, dial or button push away.

Not all those choices are good, and most of the homemade films and commentaries reek of homemadeness, but what is happening is that rather than people going to a handful of places for information and entertainment, they’re spreading their attention across the planet.

And it’s not just television. Newspapers, book publishers, the music and film industries are all scrambling to find new ways to connect to people (translation: customers), which, then, produces more new ways for those people to entertain themselves. Circulation, ratings, the box office and all kinds of sales are down – for the big boys. Instead, viewers, readers, movie-goers and others are spending their time, and their money, across that digital globe.

The TV industry has reacted a bunch of ways, by offering shows on demand, on the Web, on iPods and cell phones, and eventually, maybe, even on those power drills, which sounds a little dangerous.

And the networks and studios stepped up the quality – mostly – but seemed to make one large, critical mistake. Nearly half the new dramas this fall were serialized in some form.

The idea was to make appointment TV that people had to watch every week – and right when the shows actually aired – so they wouldn’t miss anything or risk having the surprises spoiled. The nets were thinking about hits like “Lost” and “24.”

But most of the new serials flopped, or are struggling. Part of the problem is that people already watch “Lost” and “24,” not to mention the can’t-miss-a-week reality hits like “Dancing With the Stars,” and they don’t have room in their lives, or at least in their TV nights, for new relationships.

Now it’s January, and another wave of shows is about to appear, including a new season of “24” (on Sunday) and the uber-hit “American Idol” (on Jan. 16). The TV industry needs to adjust – to the digital bleeding, the struggles of some quality shows, the general rejection of serials, to the need to find new hits.

But how it does won’t be simple. Some of the cable networks are doing what’s been working, only more. FX continues to produce new, different dramas. Bravo is running with “Project Runway” and “Top Chef”-style shows. Comedy Central is pumping out quirky half hours.

The broadcast nets are moving more carefully. CBS and ABC are generally happy with their lineups and are adding just a few new shows through the spring. Fox has “24” and “Idol” riding to the rescue. NBC has a good set of quality shows if not quality ratings, and is hoping they’ll catch on. CW is doing decently with younger women viewers but is still working to establish a larger identity.

All of this confusion, all of the new and returning shows heading our way, makes this a very good time to take a look at TV. And, semi-coincidentally, that works out well because, starting this week, broadcast and cable programmers, producers and stars are meeting in Pasadena, Calif., with TV critics from around North America to promote new and returning shows and dissect what’s gone right and wrong so far this season.

It’s mostly a series of press conferences – running network by network, show by show – mixed with various forms of mingling, ranging from breakfast and lunch to full-on parties.

If you pay attention, you can learn a lot about where TV is going and how the television industry, and much of Hollywood, is dealing with this new digital era and that circus of choices. Even if you don’t pay attention, there’s a lot to learn because it’s two weeks of TV emersion 24/7, although paying attention is always, you know, good.

So for the next couple weeks, I’ll keep you posted on what gets said and who’s doing new things and old things, and, hopefully, we’ll all come away with a sense of what TV is going to look like in the swiftly approaching future. I just need to pay attention.

Rick Kushman:

(c) 2007, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).

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AP-NY-01-08-07 1021EST