Glenn Geller, recently appointed president of CBS Entertainment, opened his presentation at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour this month with a bold proclamation.
"When you factor in all forms of playback, more people are watching CBS shows than they did 15 years ago," he said.
Is he telling the truth? Who knows? But therein lies the beauty of the Press Tour, the bi-annual gathering of TV critics and broadcasters (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, The CW, PBS, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu and numerous cable networks were all in attendance this year) dedicated to hyping the networks and latest shows. The broadcasters spin, and the critics do their best to see the reality through the piles of BS.
So let’s give it a try.
Confirming or disproving CBS’ numbers is virtually impossible, of course. Give enough viewing data to a decent number-cruncher these days, and you can probably support any conclusion. But I can go along with Geller’s overall message that the broadcast networks are not dead. They are changing, yes, and certainly facing more competition. But there is still no better platform to reach the greatest number of viewers. If Fox can find a recent breakout hit like "Empire," the bottom line for any broadcaster is still the caliber of the programming.
What you have to be wary of is someone like Fox co-president and co-CEO Gary Newman boldly stating that his network had its most-watched fall in four years and its second most-watched fall in 14 years — across all platforms. I wonder how the network is coming to that conclusion when many of those platforms didn’t exist 14 years ago. Isn’t this, at best, an "apples to oranges" comparison?
Newman also touted fall freshman entries "Grandfathered," "The Grinder," "Scream Queens" and "Rosewood" as "long-term assets," which is just plain hogwash. While I am the first to acknowledge the stellar social-media presence of "Scream Queens," you need a microscope to find the traditional Nielsen ratings for three of these four shows (the exception is "Rosewood," which benefits by leading into "Empire"). So why not admit, just for once, that not everything is a bed of roses?
ABC Entertainment Chief Paul Lee was also full of malarkey (I can’t use the "s" word since this is a G-rated column) when he commended fading dramas "Castle" and "Nashville." "We’d love for 'Castle' to keep going for many years to come," Lee said. "And we don’t have any plans to finish ‘Nashville.’ We have an incredibly passionate audience."
Potentially keeping both "Castle" and "Nashville" afloat only magnifies a topic addressed repeatedly in this column: the broadcast networks’ unhealthy reliance on series that have worn out their welcome. When will these networks ever learn?
In a refreshing turn, FX President and General Manager John Landgraf — who opened up an important can of worms at the most recent Summer Press Tour by admitting there are just too many TV shows on the air — offered a realistic estimation of the current state of broadcasting.
"The US television ecosystem is in a period of dynamic and rapid change. Part of this change is the ongoing shift of viewing time from live linear to delayed, digital and on-demand," he said. "And some of the erosion we’re seeing on the linear side is being mitigated by increased viewing on nonlinear platforms."
Since the word "erosion" is probably not in the average network executive’s vocabulary, I commend Mr. Landgraf for calling it like it is.
Showtime president and CEO David Nevins said it best, perhaps, when he described 2016 as the year of customized viewing. "Today’s audiences are cord cobblers," he said, using a term he coined to refer to "individuals and households who creatively manage their content consumption with an assortment of subscriptions that work uniquely for their need. And for the first time, we have a direct relationship with many of these paying subscribers."
Given Showtime’s acclaimed itinerary of programming (including scripted hours "Homeland," "Shameless," "House of Lies," "Ray Donovan" and "The Affair"), let me repeat — it is all about the programming. Showtime has done a very good job planning for the future (as has FX).
Netflix was the second-to-last network to present at the Winter Press Tour. (PBS closed it.) And what fascinated me about that day was probably the inflated interest in the session on "Fuller House," the revival of classic ABC family-themed "Full House." While the critical obsession, at present, is on cutting-edge programming like "Transparent" and "Narcos," sometimes all it takes is generic chuckles, a hearty laugh track and a dash of campy nostalgia to ignite interest.
Once again, it is always about the programming.