Sunday, January 17, 2010

TV: Counter-programming

It's as though TV past doesn't extend beyond Punky Brewster. How else to explain the inability to counter-program? (There's another way to explain it, we'll get to it.)

NBC is in dire trouble -- and the Winter Olympics aren't going to help -- because instead of attempting to counter-program, they just threw in the towel and gave their last hour of prime time to Jay Leno, Monday through Friday. The network was confessing, "We have no idea how to beat our competitors so we'll just serve up cheap programming that's inexpensive to make and point to how cheap it is and call it a win!"

That was never going to work because NBC owns only a small number of stations and, for the most part, is a content provider. When you don't provide stations with content that want, they will threaten to drop your scheduled shows.

Right now, the Water Cooler Set (TV 'critics') are lining up to bicker about Jay and Conan O'Brien with most deciding that Conan O'Brien is the 'wronged woman' and that they must defend Lady Conan's virtue. This results in a bunch of jokes about and slam on NBC suits. Do they feel pressure? No, they love it because, as usual, the Water Cooler Set never knows what the hell they're talking about.

Jay and Conan aren't the issue. The issue is NBC. As long as the Water Cooler Set continues to pit the two men against each other, NBC execs know they can mislead the shareholders through the Winter Olympics. Focusing on Jay and Conan is like turning Enron into a story of what Ken and Sharon Lay ate for dinner.

NBC is the story. They couldn't program a full slate, they couldn't entertain America and, hate to be the ones to point it out, but that is their job in prime time: Entertain.

They have failed and they have failed repeatedly. It was hilarious to listen to the bald guy chatting with Terry Gross this week as both pretended to know something and neither knew anything. It was NPR's Fresh Air so when it was time to briefly note NBC's failures, the man naturally went to Bionic Woman and pointed to bringing back that show as a problem.

Now we know sexism runs free on Terry Gross' program but The Bionic Woman being remade wasn't a problem. What NBC did to the show was the problem. That involved recasting the pilot, that involved robbing the lead character of her power and making her sappy, that involved adding a man to guide her on each mission. It wasn't The Bionic Woman being remade it was Penelope Pitstop and no one wanted to wait for her to be rescued.

It was amazing to grasp that an alleged critic couldn't grasp that remaking a popular show wasn't the problem, it was how it was remade.

And it's the how that remains the story ignored.

Take Jay Leno. Jay Leno did not say, "Hey, NBC, I want prime time! You're giving it to me!"

NBC approached Leno. NBC pitched to and persuaded a reluctant Leno (part of the persuasion was promising him a full run of his show which, obviously, is now not going to happen). Though The Jay Leno Show got bad ratings, Jay's not the problem. The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien got low ratings as well but Conan's not the problem.

The problem is NBC.

Fred Silverman was a genius at counter-programming for about seven years (ending when he brought SuperTrain and other travesties to NBC). Counter-programming means you look at Sunday night and see what your competitors have? 'Hmmm. They're pulling in a huge number of women. Okay, we'll program the opposite way.' That's an example of counter-programming.

We loathe the Law & Orders. And NBC does as well but for a different reason. We loathe them because they bore us to death. NBC loathes them because, as long running shows, they have higher costs. NBC lucked into Law & Order (in all of its franchises) and it was the only thing that allowed them to compete with CBS' forensic shows.

There was a reason that was effective counter-programming but NBC never grasped it (looking at Dick Wolf's many failed efforts this decade, we're not sure he got it either): The 'humanity factor.' To us, that's laughable because we see nothing but reactionary plot points slapped on to the whatever story they've just ripped from the headlines. But compared to the forensic shows, Law & Order(s) offered a view of humanity -- one not all that dissimilar from what gods provide in Euripides' Hippolytus. (The regular characters are the Greek gods.)

Once upon a time, network execs could figure that out on their own or (more likely) pay someone else to figure it out. NBC execs have made a startling revelation and it has little to do with Jay or Conan. The suits have exposed themselves. They're like Steven Post without Raffles there to guide him in programming decisions.

And that's really a huge problem when your job is programming. You can stink at programming if you're a bartender or a singer or professional athlete or a pilot or whatever. But when your job is programming, you can't afford to stink at it.

Which is why NBC suits are so very relieved that the Water Cooler Set is selling a cat fight between Jay and Conan. It keeps everyone focused on everything but the real problem.


ABC, CBS and Fox execs are loving it too -- especially ABC and Fox. All three networks decided to program towards women on Friday night. Only CBS (with The Ghost Whisperer and Medium) remained standing. Fox has canceled their really bad show (that should have been canceled last May and The Sarah Connor Chronicles should have been kept on the schedule) while ABC nearly killed Ugly Betty (now airing the last hour of prime time on ABC Wednesdays). CBS already had The Ghost Whisperer airing Friday nights and, when they picked up Medium, it was a given Patricia Arquette's show would follow it. So what really was the point of what ABC and Fox programmed? That wasn't counter-programming. What was it?

At the top, we noted the inability to counter-program and how it could be seen as a lack of knowledge and tools but said there was another possibility as well. Why did ABC and Fox 'same-program' against CBS? If you don't stick your neck out, it may not get chopped off.

Meaning, ABC and Fox execs can play their major shareholders for fools and insist, "I don't know why it didn't work. We were doing what CBS did and they were successful." In other words, they'd rather fail in copying than risk anything by originating. NBC execs have a lot to answer for but they're far from alone. A functioning Water Cooler Set might try exploring that.

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