I read a report yesterday on MovieWeb by Ted Bajer (“What NBC dropping its 10 p.m. timeslot could mean for television”) about how, according to the headline, NBC is planning – I’m only emphasizing – to close shop on its 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. in prime time. If they follow through – and again I point out that the report says it’s just some network execs spitting around the old conference table – that hour would go to local TV stations (although what they would do with it is anyone’s guess).
Behind this reflection, there is the economy. That would be seven hours a week that the network wouldn’t have to schedule; a saving of millions of dollars in production costs in each of twenty-two weeks (usually) of new episodes per show per night.
NBC has obviously already reduced, but only gradually. The network had previously cut half an hour of very early morning programming (1:30-2am), handing it over to local affiliates (I guess; a test case because one of you has he even noticed?). The guy behind this decision – Mike Lazarus, president of NBCUniversal Television and Streaming – is participating in the conversations about removing the net from the 10 p.m. programming. I think he put the tip of the net in the water in the early morning to see how it played and is now maybe considering putting a full foot in it.
The big driver behind all of this, at least as I understand it, is twofold:
For NBC to focus more on streaming, which the industry consensus seems to agree, is where the future of the medium lies;
And that future may already be here since streaming services overtook broadcast networks earlier this year. It may not be the end of the broadcast network platform, but the doctor sits the patient and tells him how he now has to deal with an irregular heartbeat; not dead, not dying, but it doesn’t look good.
The question I always ask when these types of mid-terrain reshapings happen is, so what?
Well, we have to put things together. Streaming has cut into theatrical distribution, it allows each individual to tailor programming to their tastes and schedule, there is subscriber access to streamers’ deep libraries, and more. Lots of nifty things. And now the platform is similarly eating away at mainstream TV broadcasting.
But there’s a cultural price to pay, even if that’s only apparent to old geezers like me who grew up in a more cohesive, mainstream-focused environment.
One of the problems with public discourse today is that the multiplicity of media platforms has allowed individuals to bury themselves in silos of information that confirms and reinforces their beliefs…even the beliefs without facts, biased and favored by Tin Foil Hat Brigade. We have gradually experienced the same fragmentation of popular culture from three broadcast networks to dozens and then hundreds of cable channels, then comes the Internet, and now streaming services. It’s a pretty new experience for me to come across what I think is a terrific streaming original and ask a friend, “Hey, have you seen anything?” and they look at me as if I spoke in tongues. And I look at them the same way when they tell me about a gem they’ve found elsewhere in the streaming universe.
Ok, maybe that’s corny nostalgia (or nostalgic corn?); this idea that we all know what the big shows are, who the big stars are, the big bands, the big whatever, I grant you that. Maybe this whole idea of shared cultural experiences coast to coast is just a quaint thing of the past, like the Good Humor truck and poodle skirts. But it has a very real practical impact on how much it will cost streamers to entertain you…and how much it will cost you to entertain yourself.
Let’s illustrate this point with a crudely simplified example.
You are a streaming service. You have ten subscribers (I told you this would be extremely simplified). You produce a show for $100 that is of a quality that entertains them all. Ah, but then their tastes diverge! They each decide they like something different and want you to provide them with these ten different shows. The catch is that it’s not just about having to produce ten shows instead of just one; it’s quite hard. It’s that none of those ten subs are sitting there to give you slack because they all want something different. They still each want a quality $100 show, so now your production costs are $1,000 to keep the same ten subs that only cost you $100 to keep.
You’re already seeing this dynamic play out as streamers drop shows and cut back on original production while raising their prices. We are already there.
Every time one of these seismic shifts occurs, I remember a monologue from Inherit the wind, the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee:
Progress has never been a godsend. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says, “Okay, you can have a phone, but you lose the intimacy and the charm of distance. Madam, you can vote but at a price: you lose the right to retire behind the powder puff or your petticoat. Sir, you can conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.
And maybe add to that, “Dude, you can watch whatever you want whenever you want to watch it… but it’s going to cost you.”
If I’ve been around long enough to have grandkids, it’ll be an interesting conversation as I bounce him on my lap and tell him what TV was like when I was his age. “Yeah, Pumpkin, a lot of bullshit… but it didn’t cost me a dime.”