A Dimmer Picture For Broadcast TV


I’m a TV fan, and I’m not ashamed. In fact, my first thought when I heard about the NBC-Comcast deal was of Jack Donaghy. You know, the growly-voiced Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming for GE on NBC’s “30 Rock.” I’ve always given GE props for letting Tina Fey and the rest of the cast satirize it so hilariously.

But, the deal has unleashed a fresh round of predictions that broadcast TV is dead. In fact, what adds insult to injury is how small a role in the overall transaction the NBC broadcast stations play. As the ground shifts under their feet, I’m wondering how Donaghy, and his real-life counterparts at the networks, will adjust. And whether they could have saved “free” TV.

The broadcast picture started fading long before the Comcast deal. Before Oprah’s announcement that she’ll decamp for her cable network. And long before NBC’s controversial decision to air Jay Leno’s show every weeknight in primetime instead of investing in original programming.

Tina Fey captured it poignantly at last year’s TV Critics Association Awards when she thanked critics for making her show “the most successful cable show on broadcast TV.” Her final line really wrote the epitaph, though. “It’s a great time to be in broadcast television. Exciting. Like being in vaudeville in the ’60s.”

Of course, the cloudy picture is largely due to the advertising-supported broadcast revenue model, which has, in TV jargon, jumped the shark. It’s far easier for a cable channel to be profitable in today’s TV universe. And, the Web has definitely eroded the audience for network news.

When writing the obit for broadcast TV, though, you have to look at the programming. I remember when, a couple of years ago, I mentally ran through my DVR list and realized that “30 Rock” was the only broadcast show on it. (Okay, I have friends who’re obsessed with “Lost,” and “Grey’s Anatomy” had its day of glory. And, there are others.) But, in general, the breakthrough shows are on cable, and everyone knows it. And, it’s not just because they can swear and show sexual content.

I’m old enough to be sentimental about the networks, and I have apprehensions about the results of an approved merger, not to mention the possibility of the brand that gave us “Friends” and “Seinfeld” going away. But, sentiment doesn’t really stand up when you think about the convergence of broadcast distribution changes, online advertising, and fragmented viewership.

In the meantime, the deal has given us some entertaining content already. Conan O’Brien has started a tongue-in-cheek segment called “Sucking Up to Comcast,” while Leno dubbed it “the TV industry’s version of ‘cash for clunkers.'” On the Jack Donaghy front, when asked about the character’s probable reaction to the news, Alec Baldwin says he’d like Donaghy to barricade himself in his office and refuse to take calls from anyone other than former GE chief Jack Welch. Ah, nostalgia.

Oprah’s Departure: Doomsday For Broadcast TV?

If I hadn’t known about Oprah’s announcement before waking up to a WNYC Radio listener roundup of “what Oprah has meant to me,” – honestly, I would’ve thought she died. Of course, the impetus for the wave of coverage was not a tragic event, but merely her tearful disclosure that she will end her daily talk show within two years, in September 2011.

But for CBS, which syndicates the show, and ABC, whose stations carry it, Oprah’s move actually is a bit like a death in the family. In fact, it’s an overall blow for broadcast television and its ad-supported business model. CBS’s statement, which affirmed that it’s looking forward to the next several years, “and hopefully afterwards,” read like a plea for her to change her mind, and who can blame them? Oprah’s reason for turning out the lights after 25 extraordinary years is to concentrate more fully on her next big venture – the Oprah Winfrey cable network, or OWN.

(I can’t help but wonder about the much-publicized ancient Mayan calendar predictions that the world will end by 2012. Is Oprah preparing for the end? Or, is life without a daily dose of Oprah the apocalypse itself?)

There’s no doubt that Oprah’s departure is another sign of the growing dominance of cable television. But, to date, the plans for OWN are murky. It was originally announced in 2007 and was meant to debut last year, but it was stalled amidst executive turnover and lack of focus. Even now it’s not clear what Oprah’s role in front of the camera will be, if any. She’s told staffers that she will not simply move the show to cable, but rather will produce programming that might involve occasional appearances.

So, there’s another side to Oprah’s decision.What will happen to her influence once she’s no longer a weekday presence in our lives? Naturally, her media empire is far larger than her talk show, and her brand larger still. Yet, the show has been a powerful platform. It may be a relief for some PR people (see previous post), but the ramifications of a (broadcast) world without Oprah are as huge as her impact…including for her.

I can’t help but wonder if her diminished TV presence could also dim the influence of the woman who persuaded so many about so much – from trying Twitter to picking our president.

Taken For A Ride: What Did We Learn From Balloon Boy?

What more is there to say about the balloon boy – other than that he was never actually in a balloon?

Plenty, it seems. Four days after the country’s most overinflated news story, what’s notable is the backlash. Not just against Richard Heene, the fame-seeking father who apparently dreamed up a public relations stunt to rival “War of the Worlds.” No, the real vitriol is against the media. Both the news crews who took to the air just as the balloon did, and our celebrity-saturated culture. After all, Heene had gotten a taste of notoriety when the family appeared on the ABC show “Wife Swap,” and word was, he wanted to give some lift to his idea for a show of his own.

I was as carried away as anyone. Who wouldn’t be aghast at the idea of a child aloft in a helium balloon that resembled an old Jiffy Pop commercial? Even worse was a certain fairy-tale-gone-terribly-wrong aspect (was I the only one who thought immediately of the Disney-Pixar film “Up“?) My own child is just six years old, and for a short while, I watched with a bit of the surreal sense I had in the minutes after the planes hit on 9/11…an irrational conviction that, if the world is watching, surely someone will figure out a rescue. In this case, thankfully, no rescue was needed – unless you consider Mr. Wife Swap’s future, the cable networks’ reputations, and our own fame-obsessed values.

In the cablers’ defense, the runaway balloon was made-for-TV. It had suspense, pathos, man-against-nature, and even a kid named Falcon. As anyone in television (or in PR) knows, it’s the visual that makes the story. So, I don’t blame them for airing the whole thing as it was…um, unfolding. Could they have used more skepticism in checking out and following the story? Sure, but the sheriff, FAA, and first responders were there already. This is live TV, folks. As Howard Kurtz explains it, “you show the process live and scramble around to figure out whether it’s true.”

What’s tougher to defend is the attention the family, and various “experts” received after story ran out of gas and a hoax was suspected. Who can forget the video of poor Falcon blurting out the truth, then vomiting on live television, as his parents continued the interview? Sickening, yes, but maybe more real than any reality show I’ve seen lately.

Which brings us to what Gawker calls “the sorry state of a reality TV-addled culture.” First, the Octomom. Now, another overblown production. How far will people go to try to grab their slice of fame?  And, how weird is it that people actually feel entitled to that slice?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a reality TV fan. I’m addicted to “Top Chef” and have been known to tune into the “Rachel Zoe Project,” possibly the greatest guilty pleasure of all time. But, those programs showcase people with real skills…or, at least, great clothes.

Blaming reality TV for the balloon-boy hoax is like blaming the Internet for spammers. Nor do I agree with those who say it’s the Web that was full of hot air. For me, believe it or not, Twitter was a bright spot. The #balloonboy updates were faster than the news, and when I spotted the “Wife Swap” bit on someone’s feed, I cut my losses and went back to work. Plus, there was that built-in community of users who were also swept up in the moment – sharing fear, horror, and skepticism. Score one for the social Web.

At the end of the day, maybe we’re left with nothing more than a few days of self-reflection, anger towards the waste of public resources, and a very funny SNL bit. As my former boss, an ex-Army guy, used to say, at least no one died.

Cronkite, Media, and The Way It Was…

Just as there will never be another pop star like the late Michael Jackson, there can never be another journalist like Walter Cronkite. In ways that partly parallel the music industry, traditional broadcast journalism has changed dramatically since those quaint days of of the three-channel, black-and-white TV universe. In both industries, changing technology, demographics, and economic conditions have had a large – and largely negative – impact on the industry’s economic model and its influence.

But, there’s another important reason why Cronkite’s passing symbolizes the end of an era. Traditional media – once the ultimate authority, embodied by the television anchor – has steadily lost credibility over the past decade.  According to the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, in a 1998 survey, 42% of people gave CNN the highest rating for credibility on a scale of one to four. In the most recent survey, only 30% gave it the highest rating. Other television networks suffered a similar deterioration, as have key print outlets.  No matter how you read the data, it’s clear that the public feels a deep skepticism about what we read, see, and hear in the press.

Blame it on the ubiquity of “infotainment,” the blurry line between reporting and commentary, the rise of “shouting heads” TV, plagiarism scandals, or budget-cutting. Chalk it up to our ever-more-skeptical national character. The fact is that no journalist – in fact, no individual – is likely to inspire the trust that the most trusted man in America enjoyed. As Howard Kurtz suggests, maybe that’s a good thing. But, it’s also a bittersweet reminder of just how much has changed.

The Social Media Revolution That Wasn’t

In the wake of controversial election results in Iran, there’s been much discussion about the role of social media in communicating popular sentiment among the rank and file there. Mashable reports “mindblowing” statistics on Twitter, claiming evidence that social media has been at the nexus of the Iranian unrest.

But, does Tiananmen Square + Twitter = Tehran? It’s very cool to think that #Cnnfail – the protests of the Twitterverse about what it viewed as insufficient coverage of the election and its aftermath on CNN – might have accelerated the traditional media’s reporting on the events in Iran. But, social media’s being credited with much more. Some have hailed “the end of totalitarianism.”  The Vancouver Sun describes #TwitterIran as “the central battlefield for the early stages of what looks like a revolution in Iran.” That’s exhilarating stuff.

Yet, it’s not true, at least not in the way we would wish. Social and digital media have sharpened the focus of the world outside Iran on the massive post-election demonstrations, and the pictures and text messages that have emerged are very moving.  The fact is, however, that the overwhelming majority of those living in Iran lack access to those reports, and it’s naïve to think they’re fomenting protest.
For Iranians, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Friendfeed, and other social networks remain blocked.

Transmission of SMS text messaging through mobile phone networks is impossible. Internet access via satellite is shut down. Some within Iran have been able to get messages out through proxies, and the real heroes may be the hackers.  But, it’s a narrow slice at best. There’s also the fact that, even in ordinary times, social media is used by the young, urban, and privileged…not the masses.  The tweets and texts that have emerged from Tehran represent a very narrow slice of the Iranian population.

So, where’s CNN in all this?  It’s there, of course. But, since its journalists are forbidden to leave their bureau, it had to make do with Christiane Amanpour’s stand-ups, re-runs of her last interview with Ahmadinejad, and assorted talking heads. (Many don’t realize that the protests 20 years ago at Tiananmen Square were captured by CNN because it had permission from the Chinese government to report on a schedule visit by Mikhail Gorbachev. It was a lucky break – if you can call it that – that the cameras were rolling as the tanks rolled in.)

No such luck in Iran. And while the CNN-watching Twitterers demonstrated its ability to harness and focus media criticism, it also proved that the real credibility still rests with “traditional” media – yep, the journalists who actually travel to the site of the action, often at considerable risk and expense, to try to get their story.