TCAs 2013: NBC's woes raise the question; what is a broadcast network in the modern TV age?
LOS ANGELES – There may not be a worse time in history to be a broadcast network television executive.
These days, competition comes from all sides, as cable television and online streaming sites like Netflix erase the distinctions which often kept viewers glued to the big broadcasters. Worse, these other platforms have learned how to make money on a smaller stage, profiting off every disaffected viewer turned off by the less challenging stuff on big networks.
Small wonder there’s more than a tinge of desperation in the words of Jennifer Salke, the latest NBC executive handed the seemingly impossible task of salvaging the network’s audience at a time when viewership seems to dip 4 to 7 percent every year, no matter what they put on air.
“The cynicism against networks from the viewing audience is just bigger than ever, given the popularity of all the cable material,” said Salke, whose official title in president of NBC Entertainment, just after talking up NBC’s new fall slate to a roomful of TV critics here Saturday. “They expect the stuff to not be any good. We’ve trained them to expect stuff to be pulled off the schedule, so they approach it as ‘It’s a network show. How good could it really be?’”
Which explains why the network’s new mantra revealed to critics here sounded more like a note of surrender: The year of improvement.
“We’re the only broadcast network flat from the previous season,” said Bob Greenblatt, Salke’s boss as chairman of NBC Entertainment. “I know one could (ask) how good is it to celebrate being flat? But at this point, flat is the new up.”
Really? Winning equals losing less than the other guys?
NBC seems a sad, perfect example of what ails network TV. Back in the day, a broadcast network’s prerogative was simple: It was the Big Tent, a place where viewers of all stripes gathered for the only shows which really mattered, providing free entertainment to the nation which also bound it together around a communal, electronic hearth.
But few shows draw those big numbers anymore and most people pay cable systems for their TV service. As competition dismantles audiences and disintegrates their business model, everyone agrees that a radical reinvention of the broadcast network is in order.
And no one seems to have the slightest clue how to do it.
So NBC’s big revelations during press conferences here Saturday felt more like a trip back to the future, chasing trends established by competitors. Since CBS has reeled in major summer audiences with its version of superstar novelist Stephen King’s Under the Dome, NBC will create a new version of King’s 1987 book The Tommyknockers (already done as a miniseries on ABC 20 years ago).
There will be other miniseries on Hillary Clinton, Cleopatra, a new version of Rosemary’s Baby and Plymouth, the story of the Pilgrims as told by Survivor and The Voice executive producer, Mark Burnett. In fact, NBC also filched a sequel to Burnett’s miniseries The Bible after the original was a hit for the History channel.
And the two biggest stars in the fall schedule are ex-Will & Grace star Sean Hayes and Back to the Future alum Michael J. Fox – which makes NBC’s schedule feel less like a step forward and more like a trip down memory lane.
The key, Greenblatt said, is creating events people want to see in the moment, curbing the habit of saving shows on digital video recorders, which cuts the advertising revenue they can earn.
“If there’s a Wallenda out there, please call us,” he joked, referencing another big hit from cable, Sarasota resident Nik Wallenda’s walk across a gorge near the Grand Canyon for Discovery channel. “Anything that makes it feel like an event -- it’s happening now, you’ve got to watch it -- we want. I’m open to all ideas.”
One of NBC’s best ideas for this fall may be bringing Fox back to television in a surprisingly well-done family comedy that references the star’s own struggle with the degenerative nerve disorder known as Parkinson’s disease.
Coming after a string of successful guest appearances -- including Emmy nominations three years running for his role as super shark lawyer Louis Canning on CBS’ The Good Wife – The Michael J. Fox Show places the former Family Ties and Spin City star in a setting ripped mostly from his real life.
Facing critics here, Fox allowed that his new show – featuring a TV reporter returning to work after taking a break when his Parkinson’s tremors emerged – feels “a little meta.” But there’s no denying the goodwill the public feels for Fox, who handled his own Parkinson’s-induced break from show business with grace.
“The struggle I had is the struggle (my character) Mike Henry had; you want to go back, you want to do serious work, you don’t want to be a novelty,” said Fox, whose current Parkinson’s symptoms lead him to just look restless and fidgety, constantly in a state of movement. “I think Mike Henry avoids it, I think I avoided it, by just taking the work seriously, work hard, trying to do the best show we could and not cruising on any kind of perceived goodwill.”
The Michael J. Fox Show pokes gentle fun at his malady, showing Fox’s character misdialing 911 due to his hand tremors and taking so long to ladle out a spoonful of corn that his wife snatches up the utensil.
But Fox said he and show’s producers weren’t worried about outraging people or maneuvering around the horror others often see in a lifelong malady.
“It’s about perception. A lot of times when you have a disability, one of the things you deal with is other people’s projections of what your experience is, and people projecting on what they think it is, and their fear about it, and not seeing the experience you’re having,” Fox said. “And so I think there’s nothing like Parkinson’s itself, there’s nothing horrifying about it to me. It is what I deal with. It is my reality and my life, but it’s not horrible. I don’t think it’s Gothic nastiness. There’s nothing on the surface horrible about someone with a shaky hand. There’s nothing horrible about someone in their life saying, ‘God, I’m really tired of this shaky hand thing’ and me saying, ‘Me, too.’ That’s our reality. We have no control.”
Fox’s show might not be the answer to what ails network TV, but it seems like a good first step.
Still, even if it works well, NBC will still face the same question bedeviling most every broadcast network these days: