TV lives! After the last 15 months, it’s safe to say that we’ve all come to rely on our screen more than ever. While waiting anxiously for the pandemic to subside, we had to watch something to keep ourselves occupied, and we found a rare bright spot — the breadth and depth of TV programming fueled by a growth of services offering quality video entertainment. At least that’s the most charitable view. But in a post-pandemic world, will it continue this way? And whose content will we be watching?
I’ve been talking to experts, executives and ex-insiders who are all hoping to game the future and get good jobs. As both producers and consumers, we all want to know: What will happen to us? The answer: A mix of business bets and viewer behaviors, ignited by COVID-19, point to a future where we will all be looking at very different media models in the next few years.
This may provoke a collective “duh” for being obvious, but taken as a whole, the changes are nothing short of a revolution in our lifetime. Consider the following:
CHILLY OUTLOOK FOR CABLE NETS. We’ve been hearing for years that lesser cable nets will die at the hands of cable operators who are paying for channels that no one watches. Even big networks are feeling the pain, not only from cord-cutting subscribers, but from the pressure to premiere their programming on streamers that are owned by their parent companies — think of HGTV and Discovery+ or National Geographic and Disney+. Yes, cable is still generating revenue and airing lots of shows. But like AM radio and VHS tapes, the glory days of cable are over. The bundle gave us continued growth until it didn’t.
NO MORE APPOINTMENT VIEWING: The days of “Tuesdays at 9″ are fading. The chess-like scheduling games of networks are less important when networks themselves are less critical, and when consumers can watch their shows at any time, not just when the network decides to run them. It’s ironic that streamers sometimes spread out their premieres to generate anticipation, a reminder that scarcity can build interest. Nevertheless, the creaky micro-scheduling model is a relic of broadcast TV, and now an occasional option, not a mandate.
LIVE IS ALIVE: The exceptions, of course, are sports, news and live events such as the Oscars (well, maybe it’s not that big anymore, but you get the idea). If it’s live and audience-friendly, viewers will watch at the appointed time, whether airing on NBC, ESPN or Facebook.
MOVIE THEATERS, R.I.P.: The robust debate now brewing in Hollywood and on LinkedIn combines elements of nostalgia and desperation. Going to the movies is part of our entertainment tradition, and no one wants to see it go away. But facts are facts: As the quality of our home screens increased, theater attendance dropped. The pandemic accelerated the decline. As with cable TV, it’s hard to imagine that movie theaters will disappear entirely, but when ArcLight recently closed its theaters, a chill went through movie fans everywhere.
REALITY AND DOCS: TRENDING OR JUST TRENDY?: From Oscar winners such as My Octopus Teacher to popular sensations such as Tiger King to niche reality such as Chef’s Table, it’s been a bonanza for unique factual programming on TV. But you can see the old lines being drawn again, with an explosion of food, real estate, and Chopped-style contests featuring everyone from gardeners to glassblowers. Light reality fare is more prevalent than ever on streamers, including the 55,000 titles on Discovery+. Will this crowd out more serious and less formulaic documentary genres, which are often more expensive? From my view, as an occasional supplier, the surge of interest in traditional docs has as much to do with generating prestige and getting attention as it does with gaining viewers. HBO, Netflix and others seek high-profile topics to build buzz and keep subscribers from straying. In general, though, as a return on investment, fact-based programming has always served a more practical purpose: It’s a cheaper check against the cost of big-ticket scripted entertainment. There’s no magic here. Reality shows can deliver programming that lends itself to more entertainment-oriented series and stars, not necessarily serious topical fare. And it’s happening everywhere.
All told, even cynics can be encouraged that the marketplace can support such a wide array of programming, including all kinds of factual fare. But will the battle for viewers sustain the explosion? Or will programming resort to familiar formulas? Keep watching.
Michael Cascio is president and CEO of M&C Media LLC, where he advises selected media and production partners, and produces documentaries. He is also a guest speaker and writer, whose recent article for the Sunday New York Times revealed how his experience as a backstage janitor prepared him for a career in television. At National Geographic, A&E, Animal Planet, and MSNBC, Cascio has won four Emmys, two Oscar nominations and a “Producer of the Year” award.