Magazine article Variety

Networks Grapple with Serious Devotion Deficit

Magazine article Variety

Networks Grapple with Serious Devotion Deficit

Article excerpt

Broadcasters in need of more shows that inspire rabid fan followings

'We're in the passion-engagement game," HBO Entertainment chief Michael Lombardo told TV critics last month, describing the not-ratings-driven nature of the pay service's mission. And while that might sound like a lofty characterization, it nicely captures what's become a central ingredient in the media stew - and an area where the broadcast networks are operating at a serious deficit.

Among the central shifts in the TV landscape is the ability to make programs profitable because a small but loyal audience will pay for them via one platform or another. Although the major networks face a delicate balancing act between achieving what still approximates mass appeal and inspiring I'll-pay-for-it ardor among the passionate few, their new fall offerings don't suggest they've fully gotten the memo on amending their marching orders.

Not that this question of volume vs. engagement is new. In a 1998 article pondering the evolution from broadcasting toward narrowcasting, producer John Wells - who at the time was attracting 30 million people to watch "ER" every Thursday - suggested the key for any TV program looking ahead must be that "people are going to be desperately unhappy if it's not on the air.... It can be a relatively limited core, but if you've identified it, and you can sell it to advertisers, that's a successful series."

The main impediment to that mindset, he added, was the networks, because to embrace such a view would be "an admission of failure.... It's not in anybody's best business interests to yet pronounce (the model) dead."

Wells wasn't alone in reaching this conclusion around that time. A year earlier, the late Brandon Tartikoff wrote an op-ed piece saying, among other things, "Every show should be someone's favorite show" - indicating "least objectionable programming" was no longer a viable approach.

Frankly, broadcasting as a concept has proved more durable than naysayers imagined. The mass audiences drawn by shows like "NCIS" - despite being lightly regarded by the critical intelligentsia - suggest the sky that appeared to be falling back in the '90s hasn't yet crashed.

Such successes have allowed broadcasters to downplay their diminishing role at the Emmys, and dismiss critics as being out of touch. …

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