IF you’re hunting for evidence of how broadcasting is evolving, look no further than the fall skeds of the U.S. networks. Talk to a few media buyers and they’ll tell you that the days of the big fall premieres are numbered. (Actually, they have been for some time, but it’s never been so obvious.) Forget seasons, fall schedules, sweeps weeks and taking the summer off with re-runs. We’re moving to a cycle of continuous refreshment – new content piled on new content. Case in point: Fox, which promises three separate seasons within this season. It’s all about filling primetime hours with ratings winners and always giving viewers a reason to show up.
And this tear in the programming paradigm is mostly thanks to reality TV. (No, this isn’t another ‘I hate reality’ editorial.) Reality television has proven that viewers will consistently show up at any point in the calendar, for any length of series. Think of what The Apprentice did out of the box in mid-season last year – almost 20 million viewers for its debut. Forget 13 episodes a season. Try five, or eight – and start them in November. Viewers are smart. They’ll figure it out. And who knows, maybe it’ll mean more primetime opportunities for docs – filling that four episode space between The Casino and the next season of The West Wing.
Most importantly, the money is beginning to move around as well. In the U.S., more than half a billion ad dollars migrated from network to cable this year, continuing a double-digit growth trend that has been going on for years. (This year, that brought the cable advertising spend to almost $6.5 billion, closing the gap on the $9-plus billion spent on network.) Much of that new money is headed to familiar outlets like Discovery, USA Networks, MTV, Lifetime and a few others. U.S. networks have kept raising rates and promising viewers who don’t show up, while cable is delivering strong and steady niches on a consistent basis. (And doesn’t Reaganomics explain what the trickle-down value of those increases will mean for producers…?)
We’re getting very close to a time when the difference between network, cable, digital and satellite will be meaningless in the minds of the viewers – and perhaps more importantly, in the minds of the advertisers. That’s something that smart players like Discovery twigged to almost a decade ago. Interesting things will happen when personal video recorders – TiVo and the like – arrive in full force over the next few years and bugger up the model again.Never get comfortable. The only real constant in broadcasting seems to be change.
And as the world continues to evolve, so too does RealScreen. In addition to my return beginning this issue, the remarkably talented Kimberley Brown takes on managing editor duties. Mark Lacoursiere comes aboard as associate art director and next issue we welcome Alicia Androich as senior writer.
The down-side, of course, is that this issue we lose senior writers Kristen Vinakmens and Matthew Sylvain to two commercial pubs here in Toronto, and editor Mary Maddever has moved to another one of our titles that is re-launching.
But change is good, be it change in broadcasting or change closer to home. Transformations often bring new momentum. Hopefully you’ll notice some of that this issue, and more in the coming months. And don’t hesitate to get in touch to suggest additional changes. RealScreen has to be relevant and imperative, and no one can tell us how to get there better than the people who brave the tempests of the non-fiction industry every day.