We are experiencing a golden age of television. At least, that is what the people working inside the television industry have proclaimed. And there might be grounds for such a bold statement.
The National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) annual conference, known simply as The Cable Show, took place recently in Los Angeles. The industry confab brings together cable television providers and the programmers that supply them content.
“In the earlier days, this show was really a showcase for the networks and the programmers to show off their new content, or it was a place for distributors to get a better understanding of what new networks were being developed.” said Matt Strauss, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Video Services for Comcast Cable. The event has evolved to include a greater emphasis on technology and innovation. 4k video and gigabit residential broadband were popular topics this year.
Despite the shift, the show provided an excellent opportunity to take the pulse of an industry that is changing at a remarkable pace.
The words of many industry executives suggested a fascinating internal conflict. On the surface speakers seemed generally positive about their recent performance and optimistic about the future. But a palpable sense of concern lingered just underneath their words. The pay television industry has stumbled a few times during an era of unprecedented competition. Initiatives like TV Everywhere are off to a rocky start, government regulators are knocking at the door, and customer satisfaction with cable providers remains very low. Meanwhile over-the-top services like Netflix and Amazon Prime are diverting precious time, attention, and money from the traditional players.
But what does all of this mean for the working producer? Taking the optimistic view, there are more opportunities than ever to get a new project made. Each programmer is looking to fill their pipeline, increase their brand cache, and improve their offerings in a very competitive landscape. “There’s an arms race for programming,” said John Martin, CEO of Turner Broadcasting System.
Kathleen Finch, President of the Home Category at Scripps Networks Interactive, said that HTGV and DIY Channel both set new viewership records this past year. House Hunters has six series that total more than 400 hours of programming per year. Yet Finch says she doesn’t have a hit-driven business; rather, the aim is to satisfy the core desires of their audience. Scripps takes an experimental approach to developing new series. Focus groups are eschewed in favor of running pilots in a variety of slots to see how they perform in the marketplace. Finch described a high tolerance for risk when she said, “if a 20 episode experiment fails, it’s okay.”
Fox chose to buck the trend of creating hyper-focused regional sports networks with Fox Sports 1, a channel designed to appeal to every sports fan across the nation. David Nathanson, General Manager and COO of Fox Sports 1, said they are taking winning concepts and broadening the scope to appeal to a wide audience. For example America’s Pregame Show is a new show format based on Fox’s top-rated NFL Sunday. APS reports on all sports events happening that day regardless of the network that broadcasts the game.
New music channel Revolt is looking to provide a home for legions of fans that founder Sean Combs says have been left out in the cold ever since Viacom evolved its music channels into more general lifestyle brands. Combs believes that the new channel will ultimately be successful because they are putting boots on the ground at the important music events. He ended his stage time imploring audience members to seek him out to do business together.
A+E Networks president Nancy Dubuc admitted to feeling the pressure of competition from the internet, saying that the “next round of creators is opting to go to YouTube and Vine.” Discovery Networks is attempting to capture new talent and new audiences by launching digital networks such as the science-themed Test Tube and animal-focused Animist.
On the scripted side, executives and showrunners continue to proclaim that cable distinguishes itself by the quality of the storytelling. Noah Hawley, writer and showrunner of Fargo on FX, proclaimed that “this is the place to write your novel.” He continued, “There are no limits on what your characters can do or say.”
"The golden age of television is like the revolution in advertising," declared Matt Weiner, showrunner of AMC’s Mad Men. "It's a term that is coined by the television business. What really happened is that it was the lower cost for talent and special deals made by the WGA, DGA and SAG to encourage this part of the business."
Hit shows often have humble beginnings. While Mad Men is currently considered one of the best shows of this generation, Weiner suggested that his series was initially produced in large part because of his previous writing job at HBO. He quipped, “The first poster might have said the words Sopranos larger than the words Mad Men.”
Scripted shows are no longer disposable, gaining a profitable second life on VOD and streaming services. Noah Hawley said he enjoys not having to build to a splashy ad break like on network shows, and he often checks his output to ensure each episode works when the ads are removed. Michelle Ashford, the showrunner of Masters of Sex on Showtime, says the longevity of shows also engenders greater scrutiny from viewers. “They’ll see things we didn’t intend or notice ourselves.”
Ashford said that ultimately, she doesn’t worry too much about the technology of how the show gets to the consumer. She suggests that people creating the show stay focused on doing their best work.
"I think when you write something because you're interested in it, and not for the market, you probably write it differently" said Josh Sapan, President of AMC Networks. "In a business environment, that sounds like a bad thing, but it's really a good thing."
Sapan went on to explain that the golden age of television is best defined by comparing today’s series to those of his youth. In those days his parents would caution him, “Don’t watch it. You’ll get dumb.” By comparison he proposed, “If Dickens were alive today, he would be a showrunner.”