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Networks React to World Where Viewer is Programmer

As the new television brings vampires, aliens, cougars, witches and a fresh batch of medical and police dramas to screens nationwide, it is the variety show hosted by a big-chinned comic that will be the most closely watched. Giving an hour in primetime to Jay Leno for a new show originating from NBC Studios in Burbank is the latest move of an industry in transition to stay relevant to its viewers, curb spending, and keep the loss of advertising dollars in check. With cable, satellite, DVRs, DVDs, video-on-demand, the Internet and mobile devices all clamoring for attention of potential viewers, the broadcast networks must make changes to remain viable businesses. They are not on the road to extinction quite yet but it’s safe to say that in five or certainly 10 years time, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox will not exist as they do today. At an entertainment industry conference earlier this year, NBC Entertainment executive Marc Graboff foresaw the future of network television as one of event programming (the Oscars, Olympics), water cooler shows like “American Idol” and news. “The networks will exist as a mechanism for sending out programming and advertising to mass audiences but will not be powerful organizations,” said Robert Gustafson, an associate professor in the Department of Cinema and Television Arts at California State University, Northridge. With the passive viewing experience killed off by Tivo and other recording devices, viewers have less need for networks than ever before. They have become their own programmers, watching a favorite show where and when they want and while skipping the commercials. With younger viewers it is more likely their favorite shows are watched on a computer screen. So what is a network to do? If viewers are creating their own networks then Marla Provencio wants them to make it full of mostly shows offered by her employer, the ABC Entertainment Group. “This is a very competitive landscape,” said Provencio, the executive vice president of marketing. “The quality of work here and on cable is exceptional. We need to be at the top of our game and make sure what people are coming to ABC for is actually there.” The network brings back for another season hits “Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Dancing With the Stars,” and, for its finale, “Lost.” Coming on board are shows that Provencio said are reflective of the established hits in that they emphasize great storytelling and have characters that make an emotional connection with the viewer. Wednesday nights will have all new shows – four half hour comedies and a one-hour drama – with the comedies complementing each other. To boost viewership of the new shows, ABC is taking the unusual step of reducing the number of commercials in the premiere episodes. Only Fox has tried this tactic but abandoned it after one season. Defining what a large audience is in network television isn’t what it used to be. Provencio knows that the days of 21 million viewers for a premiere episode of a new show, which is what “Desperate Housewives” drew in October 2004, are long gone. An accurate count of viewers is what led to ABC, other media companies and advertising firms to announce this month the creation of a new coalition to come up with new methods to measure how people watch television. CSUN’s Gustafson pointed out that popularity doesn’t translate into high ratings. The CW, a joint network of CBS Corp. and Warner Bros., for instance, has shows that are well received and create a lot of buzz, but have low ratings. How could this be, Gustafson asked. “The answer might be viewers of CW shows are in fact looking at the Internet and by definition aren’t Nielsen households,” Gustafson said. (CW spokesman Paul Hewitt refused to make any network executives available for an interview.) Leno’s attention NBC has four new shows debuting this fall, plus another fall as mid-season replacements but it is Leno’s 10 p.m. show getting all the attention. The cover of a recent issue of Time magazine declared the comedian as the “future of television.” Handing over that time period to the former “Tonight Show” host has not made some happy, with some published reports that Hollywood insiders want to see Leno and NBC fail at this experiment of taking away time that traditionally had gone to scripted programs. “It is depressing because it does take the wind out of the sails of the folks who were in one-hour dramas. That is five shows worth of people that aren’t working,” said Robert Del Valle, a two-time Emmy nominee, producer and production manager from Sherman Oaks. “But it’s cheaper for them.” Gustafson anticipates that the talk show will work, less because of the format than because of Leno and his penchant for using topical issues in his monologues; issues that are a perfect lead in to the local news show that follows. “If it were a different type of talk, I’m not sure that would be true,” Gustafson said. NBC spokesman Curt King refused to make any network executives available to discuss the Leno show so there is no clear indication on how NBC will determine whether the show is successful or not. The network probably isn’t expecting to come out ahead in ratings when stacking Leno against new episodes on the other networks, Del Valle said, and instead hopes to pick up viewers when the competition shows re-runs. However the “Leno experiment” turns out there is no argument that NBC’s cost-savings move chips away at scripted programming at a time when sitcoms and dramas have already lost much ground to reality shows. According to figures from FilmLA, the agency issuing permits for on-location filming in the City and County of Los Angeles, reality shows outpaced sitcoms and dramas in the number of production days for the first six months of the year. Tough as it may be for the one-hour drama, they are not going to be killed off so easily. The legal, crime and medical procedural shows always prove popular, as CBS found with its “CSI” franchise, and this season adds to the “NCIS” franchise with a new show set in Los Angeles. What these shows offer is the ability to tell a story like a novel with an unfolding story line but at the same time is confined within the 44 minutes of a single episode, Del Valle said. “You do not get to do that with a talk show,” Del Valle said. “You can do it with a sitcom to a degree. There are reality shows but after 12 episodes they are come and gone.”

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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