Editor’s Note: Bill Carter covered the media business for more than 25 years at The New York Times. He has also been a contributor to CNN, and the author of four books about television, including “The Late Shift.” He was the Emmy-nominated writer of the HBO film adaptation of that book. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Fall TV! Premiere week! Promos everywhere. Who’s going to be a breakout star? Magazine covers. Predictions of what’s a hit; what’s a flop. So much excitement!
Wait; is this the History Channel? Surely this is not a description of fall TV, circa 2023. If somebody is doing a magazine cover now, on what used to be called the “fall season” of television, it would surely have a different headline. Not “Fall TV.” Who’d care? “Fall of TV,” maybe.
The idea that anyone outside industry executives and their immediate families were working up unbridled enthusiasm about the launch of new scripted series on broadcast networks, or anywhere in the dimming universe known as “linear television,” was already on the level of a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. And that was before two creative guilds shut down all work in television and movies.
Fall TV has not been a significant cultural “thing” for the better part of a decade, as streaming has thoroughly overrun the former method of program distribution.
But when the writers announced their strike in May, and the actors followed in July, the chances for TV even surviving in diminished form seem to be shrinking quickly toward zero.
The vessel supported an enormous, sprawling crew of artists and artisans, including the writers and actors who did the creative work. All it took for them to secure financial security through residual payments was landing on one long-running show.
Then it all sank.
For the writers and actors, the lifeboats they have landed on — streaming shows — are less grand and less safe, as they are losing billions for their owners. That leaves the surviving writers and actors tired of doing all the rowing for a lot less reward.
In 2006, I wrote a book, “Desperate Networks,” about the rocky future of the old model of the television business: Studios produced shows; networks paid to license them; networks sold commercial time to advertisers hungry to reach mass audiences; studios re-sold the shows in syndication or on cable for even more profits. Everything depended on finding big, broad hits.
The model hung on in more or less stable form for most of the first two decades of this century, shored up, beginning in 2000, by reliance on a new form called “reality TV,” and continued belief in the salvation of the “big hit.”
Then, the viewers started leaving for a world where they didn’t have to pay for a bundle of cable channels they didn’t want, only for streaming channels they believed offered higher quality content. And they didn’t have to watch commercials.
In reaction, the barrel-scraping of reality concepts has been ever more evident on broadcast networks in recent years. Does anyone really believe NBC or CBS or ABC or Fox or could ever manage to find another “Seinfeld,” “CSI,” “Lost” or “The X-Files” that would grab the attention of the nation? The schedules networks announced in May looked like a patchwork of formulaic ideas, more reality fare and shows that few people would believe were still on the air.
“‘Grey’s Anatomy?’ That’s still on? I used to really like that when Sandra Oh was on. When did she leave the show?”
Ten years ago.
Why can’t broadcast networks generate a good show? They can, especially in the sitcom form, which streamers really don’t try to replicate. “Abbott Elementary” on ABC is a superb show for any time and any platform. “Ghosts” on CBS is a solid comedy. But they’ll never be “hits” of the magnitude to turn around that business.
And, for now anyway, they won’t even be on because of the strikes.
Instead, it will be just a tiny few new episodes of scripted shows. One strategy seems to be borrowing shows from network-sister streaming channels. CBS is bringing over the Paramount hit Yellowstone, starting with its premiere episode (first aired in 2018).
If things really get desperate this time, maybe they can try to dredge up even older fare. A lot of people may now have seen “Lost” the first time around. It made more than 120 episodes. ABC could run three hours a week and cover about 10 months. Imagine how much time CBS could fill with “CSI.” That was on for more than 330 episodes.
Or maybe the networks could emulate the record business. When a band would break up, a record company would inevitably put out a “Best of” album. Fox could try that with “The X-Files” — just the good episodes with Mulder and Scully. NBC had endless episodes of “ER,” not all of them memorable. It could still fill hours with the best ones.
Sure, most of those episodes are already on somewhere on a streaming service. But they don’t get much attention there, buried in the stacks of those libraries of shows.
Consider “Suits,” another show buried in the streaming stacks. It originally ran on the USA cable network beginning in 2011 and was recently added to Netflix’s lineup. It has racked up more than 3 billion minutes of viewing each week on Netflix and Peacock.
Now maybe it takes a princess in the cast (Meghan Markle was a co-star in the series), but in contemporary television terms, those definitely qualify as “big hit” numbers.