Monday, December 15, 2008

Get ready for some really cheesy TV

As the newly appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in 1961, Newton Minow gave a landmark speech decrying television as a “vast wasteland.”

It didn’t help. TV programming got only worse in the intervening 47 years.

Now, as difficult as this may be to contemplate, television is about to become even cheesier, thanks to NBC’s decision to slot Jay Leno into a 10 p.m. talk show on every weeknight.

The decision, which was made for unabashed financial reasons, will turn NBC into the lowest-cost producer in the final hour of prime-time programming an an age when audiences are shrinking and revenues are weakening.

NBC’s talk-is-cheap strategy inevitably will encourage the competing networks to move to other forms of low-cost, prime-time programming, such as so-called reality shows featuring sweaty amateur gladiators, grainy police-chase videos, singing baristas and similar mindless junk.

But what can a network do in these economically uncertain times?

“We do have to continue to rethink what a broadcast network is,” said NBC boss Jeffrey Zucker last week, as reported in the New York Times. Without changes, he added, “the broadcast networks will end up like the newspaper business, or worse, like the car companies.”

Even though Leno makes some $30 million a year, the economics of his show are far superior to those of a traditional drama like CSI or Grey’s Anatomy.

A network pays $3 million to $5 million for each episode of a typical TV drama. Depending on how much NBC pays Kevin Eubanks and the rest of the crew, the per-show cost of the Leno show would come in at about a tenth the cost of the cheapest drama.

In his speech to the National Association of Broadcasters in 1961 (text and audio here), Newt Minow reminded the crowd that the television “possesses the most powerful voice in America.” And then he lowered the boom:

“I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit-and-loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”

Now, it’s about to get vaster. If you want to see what you will be missing, check out the following clip from the 1961 hit, “Sea Hunt.”


Blogger Phone & Email said...

Actually, Newton Minow was wrong.
In 1962, television wasn't a vast wasteland. We only had the three networks to produce the waste.
Today, we have 500+ channels producing 2rd rate Tv and 3rd rate advertorials on a 24/7 basis.
Now, that's vast.

6:52 PM  
Blogger Racoon said...

Gee, what happened to the laugh-track on the "Sea Hunt" clip? TV's not TV without a laugh-track, you know. ;-)

You make good points re: the Detroit situation and the galactic expansion of television's wasteland.

9:15 AM  
Blogger said...

While I understand your sentiment, TV today isn't a vast wasteland at all. There's garbage on it, sure, but there's also great work. Dramatic TV has been in its golden age in the last decade, I'd argue, thanks to the more adult-oriented HBO and Showtime series. Comedy has gotten to be both sharper and more experimental. TV journalism tends to be lazy, particularly at the local level, but that's no more true now that it was in the 1960s.

That said, TV and cable will have their backs to the wall as ad dollars dry up, and they'll definitely have an eye towards cheaper series. Cheap doesn't mean bad. For instance, Adult Swim is probably one of the edgiest and most experimental -- not to mention interesting and funny -- things on cable, AND their shows are produced on tiny budgets.

Some high-end dramas with cinematic production will feel the pinch, I'm sure. But that's only one part of what TV is. TV isn't just "Sea Hunt." It's kids shows, DIY shows, documentaries, goofy comedies, reruns, talk shows, music videos, home shopping, soap operas and all manner of programs for all manner of interests.

And if the BBC can create iconic dramatic programs on a humble budgets, there's no reason mainstream American TV can't learn to do the same.

8:00 AM  

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