September 24, 2017

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

Thinking Outside the TV Box

Thinking Outside the TV Box

NBC thinks America will tune in to see Jay Leno stripping.

The above statement contains a pun and a half truth.[1]

Once it’s done, NBC will have seven hours of programming every weekday from sets designed to look like your living room.[2]

Television networks are holding onto the inertia of having done the same thing the same way for more than 50 years, and must let go.[3]

Not only are we no longer watching shows when we used to, we’re not watching them where we used to.[4]

Programmers need to anticipate the coming shifts, and adapt.[5]

That means rethinking everything, and not being a slave to tradition.[6]

This is a chance to break out of convention, and find a new format that reaches people where they are.[7]


[1] “Stripping” is a reference to scheduling, whereby a program or series is blocked out within the same time slot across multiple days. While local stations do it regularly with daytime syndicated programming, it is unusual for prime time shows. The idea that America will actually tune in is debatable. They don’t have to increase the ratings of the 10/9 hour; they just need to be more profitable with cheaper programming.

[2] This is a future anachronism, if there is such a thing. Viewers are increasingly not watching television from their sofas. The four hour-long Today marathon (which is still somehow allowed under the auspices of the Geneva Convention) takes place in a fake living room, and is not watched but listened to by people getting ready for work or doing other tasks. The evening gabfests from Leno, O’Brien and Fallon also feature sofas, even though they are primarily watched by people in their bedrooms, or on YouTube the next day from the office. (At least they have desks…)

[3] It’s not just clinging to the visual tropes established by Jack Paar and Steve Allen; as an industry, networks have never questioned themselves. We’re still talking about “summer reruns” and the “new fall season,” as though they have any meaning. The fall television season was fueled initially by advertisers, specifically the car manufacturers. Detroit wanted fresh content to coincide with the rollout of the new models. Today, our TV networks are basing their calendar on the past habits of the car industry, which is about as unstable a model as you can find.

[4] American television is ruled by the clock. There is little surprise, because you know a resolution is a less than 30 or 60 minutes away. The schedules are dictated by half-hour increments, because that made “appointment television” possible. The appointment TV metric is falling victim to time-shifting and butt-shifting (we watch it later, and while sitting somewhere other than in front of a television appliance.) Because of the adherence to the clock, we know a denouement is coming; a plot resolution is on the way. And we know that the only real surprise comes from sporting events that can “run over time.”

[5] We have buttons that skip us 30 seconds ahead at a time. Multiples of :30 won’t cut it, commercial content will have to evolve to become something we actually opt-in to watching. Or else it must be delivered on a platform that limits the ability to skip ahead. But if we get away from the ideal that 30 and 60 minutes are perfect for storytelling (they’re not,) we can get away from the scheduling notions that dictate commercials of static length. After all, you’re going to watch it later, right?

[6] If NBC’s experiment is to succeed, Jay Leno needs to do something more than move up his old show by 95 minutes. (See, the networks did throw local affiliates an extra five! It can be done!) He needs to rethink how people are watching his show, and what they do with it. He needs to innovate, and that may well start with ditching the couch and the curtain. He needs to show NBC that seven hours of fake living rooms won’t mean anything to a generation that only uses the living room to play on the Wii.

[7] Rather like I did with this column, which now reads like a shorter column but with heavy footnotes. It’s more skimmable and more easily summarized. But should it still be called a “column,” or am I being a slave to my old print masters..?

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