NATPE fellowship and future of TV

On Friday I joined a small group of television scholars to hear Graeme Turner‘s impressions of the NATPE (National Association of Television Programming Executives) conference and exhibition (tag “Where now meets next”) he’d attended in January in Las Vegas. Graeme was one of 25 or so academics awarded a NATPE Faculty Fellowship to attend. His ARC Federation Fellow project explores the relations between contemporary media (particularly television) and the nation state.

NATPE is a barometer event, a place to hear what the television industry is thinking and saying to itself. Graeme was impressed by the openness and lack of corporate front and PR bluster in presentations, and the robustness of discussion about some aspects of the medium’s future. Faculty Fellows attend a pre-conference day in which they can discuss with key industry players their visions and strategies, and can attend any other sessions of the conference.

Headline news was Jeff Zucker’s plan to revitalise NBC by no longer making pilots of series, but going straight to commissioning series (one of the first beneficiaries of this new approach was the US version of hit Australian sitcom Kath and Kim). Zucker’s goal was not only to lift NBC from fourth spot in network TV ratings behind ABC, CBS and Fox but to make it viable in future on a reduced audience share because of competition for attention. Zucker’s reasoning went something like this: if you spend $500m a year on pilots, of which 10% go to series then $450m is wasted. If only 10% of these series are successes, then $495m (or 99%) of original outlay was gambled on failures. Why not simply commission shows (or buy them from somewhere else) and screen them, and trust the programmers’ judgement. This will mean a reduction in the volume of production – probably not what most of the producers attending the exhibition/market wanted to hear – including by the networks themselves, and perhaps changes in commissioning/programming outlook and new contractual relations between networks and producers. This radical approach to programming will not include another industry tradition: seasonal launches of programming. Although this kind of new approach is understandable for a last-placed network, it was clearly a consequence of the writers’ strike (which has been estimated to have cost US$3.5 billion in lost productivity and tax revenue).

While NBC’s Zucker is the only exec to have come out and claimed this approach, there is further evidence of the immediate effect of the writers’ strike which may indicate a broader industry trend in the number of shows that first screened on cable television that are migrating to free-to-air. Some, like Showtime’s Dexter, will have to be modified for their new audience of more vulnerable and easily offended viewers. Variety offers these reasons for the trend:

It allows networks to offer more programming that’s new to their airwaves, and new to most viewers — at a fraction of the price.

Repeats of network shows don’t work as well as they once did.

Cable has bridged the quality gap.

(This trend also happening in Australia with last night’s debut on ABC 1 of the TV1 comedy Stupid, Stupid Man.)

Graeme observed that ‘quality’ was not a term used at the conference, only ‘success or failure’. Also no talk of ‘interactive’, enhanced programming or user generated content. Someone in questions brought up the question of women in drama, some discussion of programs like Desperate Housewives, Chuck, Terminator: The Sarah Connors Chronicles, Bionic Woman. Interesting to set alongside recent Nielsen/Netratings data on online video use which showed women much more likely than men to watch network television shows online than user generated content.

A mismatch between presentation at NATPE by Bruce Leichtman, saying that average viewing of online video is about 6 and a half minutes a day compared with 3 plus hours for television, and the Nielsen/Netratings data which suggests 67 million users of YouTube watch about 47 mins on average, though his point that TV still major claim on attention valid (and unclear whether his research discussed multi-media use – ie. watching tv and using internet at same time). Question is, for how much longer?

The other big take-home for Graeme was the revitalisation of television stations through local news and current affairs programming.

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One Response

  1. There’s so much here. Did GT present a written summary? It would be fascinating to read. Interested to see that there does not appear to be much comment about piracy/IP and network scheduling issues.

    It’s a very real point that he’s made about audience use of different media. The decline in TV audiences in toto is not rapid AT THE MOMENT. The big question for all networks is then to start serious investment in a full digital X-platform approach. At the moment most are spending as little there as possible in order not to cannibalise their own content and, more particularly their own profits. They will need to be very good judges of timing!

    The future of NOT making pilots is going to depend not on the programmers but on the advertisers. Given that they will be seeking guarantees of mass audience ( it can be hugely expensive for networks if they don’t deliver the targets) AND new ways of packaging/incorporating their messages, it’s going to be a hard initiative for NBC and Zucker to pull off beyond the first season.

    The other pressure on this idea will come from the Producers of succesful shows who will use success as a lever to force networks to pilot their other concepts.

    But it is a useful reminder of the threat to general quality TV content production.

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