Five years ago today, TV writers stopped working.

by Colin McGuire. 0 Comments

On Sunday morning, I awoke fully loaded with my one extra hour of sleep and stumbled to my computer after checking the door to find that this newspaper’s delivery guys had again forgotten to deliver the Sunday edition to my doorstep (thanks, FNP!). After realizing that the garlic bread I cooked the night before wasn’t edible anymore (the stuff nearly shattered my teeth, for God’s sake), I landed on Hulu.com to play catch up with the previous night’s episode of “Saturday Night Live” only because Louis CK hosted and I wanted to see how the writers would address Ms. Sandy.

Three things: 1. I’m not the biggest fun. fan in the world, but man, those performances were fairly impressive. 2. Louis CK’s “Lincoln” was the funniest thing the SNL people have done all season. And 3. Boy, when my Internet connection isn’t stifled and Hulu isn’t experiencing “technical difficulties” … is there a better online television service?

No. No, there is not.

Why bring this up now, when one probably already assumes that this is an everyday occurrence for me, anyway? Good question, disembodied voice.

The answer can be found by clicking over to tv.com for a piece penned by Cory Barker a few hours ago. The item reflects on the almost-entirely forgotten writers’ strike that paralyzed the TV industry exactly five years ago today, and the headline asks if the notion of broadcast television as we once knew it is entirely dead. Naturally, we read …

“Numbers and politics aside, the underlying theme of the WGA strike was pretty simple: The current business model of American television, particularly the broadcast model, was not going to be sustainable,” Barker writes. “Everybody could see where viewers’ consumption habits were headed—online, on devices that weren’t ‘TV’ — and the writers were smart to try to get a bigger piece of the new pie (whether or not they were successful in doing so and whether or not the strike itself accomplished much is still up for debate, I think). Now here we are, five full years later — and those squabbles over residuals seem even more important. Unsurprisingly, the broadcast network model seems less sustainable than ever before. In fact, based on what we’ve seen in the first six weeks of the fall season, I’m willing to say that the broadcast model is already broken.”

He goes on to point to a recent CBS study that found DVR usage to be up 6 percent and a TechSpot report that noted how traffic for Hulu increased 1.5 percent before the current season even began. Maybe more intriguing is his paragraph on the price of ads for “American Idol,” the once-ratings-dominant karaoke contest that (cue the cliche!) has swept the nation off its feet over the course of the last decade or so. I mean, who knew the price tag for a 30 second spot is a little more than $300,000, and at its peak, the thing cost half a million bucks?! No wonder Simon Cowell has three different girlfriends and can buy entire islands like they are boxes of Lemonheads.

Anyway, what’s the most striking sentence of the entire piece?

“So if you’re catching up with ‘Revolution’ on Hulu (or via torrents), you don’t really care that it’s on NBC, right?”

Well, golly gee. Now, there’s an observation!

No, but seriously. That’s a pretty good point.

Barker argues that the new slate of shows being broadcast into our living (or computer) rooms this fall have been exceptionally bad and we have been reduced to watching them only as a means to an end — none of us actually enjoy these programs, he implies; it’s just that we need to watch something. This, Barker says, is one of a plethora of reasons that the broadcast television industry, as we once knew it, is in trouble.

Here’s the thing: He’s right. The writers had an awfully good point when they went to the bargaining table five years ago to demand more money from the Internet product because that’s where this industry is so clearly going. What makes it all a bit more interesting today is the climate in which these people operate now, compared with where they were when they first went to the picket lines and people were wondering why the writers had any reason at all to be that mad.

The popularity of services like Hulu (as evidenced above) and Netflix (Barker also points out that its traffic was up 33 percent at one point this year), among other sites, has grown exponentially since then …  and “then” was only five years ago! Think about that: In half a decade, the entire broadcast television model has been shattered and studied over and over and over again, yet still nobody has found a proper way to turn the niche into a lucrative mainstream facet of popular culture.

It’s fascinating how quickly this whole thing has grown, don’t you think? It seems like just yesterday, I had to set a VCR timer to record a late-night television performance from Ben Folds Five and hope to God the thing worked properly. Now, before I even have time to allow my tea to cool down, I have already viewed and digested an entire episode of “Saturday Night Live” without being anywhere near a proper television at 11:35 p.m. the night before. Of course the writers wanted a piece of this pie five years ago — that pie wasn’t even in the oven yet!

“I wish I had a more creative way to say this, but broadcast television — and broadcast television measured by the Nielsen ratings — is just busted,” Barker notes in his essay. “And so the big question is, now what? Honestly, I’m not sure. I could further vouch for the abolition of the Nielsen ratings as a unit of measurement and the release of more complicated — but clear — viewership data. I could say that the broadcast networks should emphasize online and/or second-screen experiences. And I could definitely suggest that the major networks simply stop trying to recreate the mass live audience that just isn’t going to be there as regularly as it was in 1984. All of those ideas seem valid to me, but if they were legitimate fixes, one would think that the broadcast nets would be smart enough to really hit them hard. But none of that changes the fact that, five years after the WGA strike, the industry and its employees aren’t really better off than they were in 2007. And so, let’s just presume this model is as busted as I might think it is. The industry needs radical ideas. What would you suggest?”

A new ratings system might do the trick. More original content for the Web (as I’ve noted here recently) would also help. Either way, the reality is this: The suits at the major networks need to figure out how to successfully make that transition from over-the-air broadcasting to Internet streaming, and they need to figure it out soon. That’s clearly where their industry is headed, and if it’s come this far in the last five years, the millionaire and billionaire minds behind it all might want to take some legitimate time to predict where the next five years will take them. I mean, they wouldn’t want to be too late to their own party, now would they?

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