01/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Big Bad Business of Television

I just loved the following taken from a "trade report":

NBC replaced scripted series with talk show host Jay Leno in its Monday to Friday 10 p.m. time slots.

NBC was criticized by several television producers at Hollywood Radio and Television Society's "Hitmakers" luncheon panel Tuesday. A report quotes James Duff, the creator and executive producer of TNT's The Closer, who said he wondered if NBC "is publicly transforming itself into AM radio."

I just love the James Duff quote. Why did I love it you might ask? I loved it because he I expect meant it in a derogatory way, and this metaphor is a correct one, and all delivery of content in the future will make both AM and FM radio delivery seem like the Television Networks of "yore." There are probably several hundred channels of cable and satellite services plus a gazillion Pay choices delivered to the television sets of the consumers of content.

Has Mr. Duff seen the "young people" who are destined to develop arthritic thumbs from excessive cell phone text messaging? The broadcasters just hate to lose this audience. And how about the evil internet that consumes so many of people who would probably be watching television as well if they were not on their Facebook page.

Television was simple when I started with Screen Gems International in 1960. The television business was a small one, and did it ever grow. The business that Mr. Duff remembers grew from one that was disdained by the Screen Gems sister Company Columbia Pictures as they would remark to me: you guys spend so much time to make so little money."

Studios risked money to get programs that they owned onto Network Television. If a comedy program was a success, the US Syndication values were enormous.

Screen Gems on the other hand, produced the acclaimed Police Story and Police Woman programs, and neither of these dramas ever found a significant syndication market.

For a large variety of reasons, in the early 21st Century, things are no longer the same.

During the last 50 years, nothing and everything has changed about Television.

The William Goldman line about "no one knows..." is still true, and the business is still about making money. When you understand that the "art of television" is important, yet it pales in the face of a studio or network executive's Profits or Losses, successes or failures.

Many years ago I wanted to buy the distribution rights to the ABC series Soap, I sent my President a note saying that I wanted to risk many millions of dollars on the deal, and promised him that the series would be the biggest comedy success in the history of American Television, unless it wasn't.

Never forget "Goldman."

I think that the Leno move is a brilliant one, and portends the diminution of US Network programming costs that will parallel the diminution of its ratings and revenue.

NBC, along with CBS, ABC and Fox have lived to see their "glory days" and they are now over.

When the Broadcast networks showed a reduced appetite for the broadcast of high profile Theatrical films I told my "bosses" the truth, and they did not like it at all. I said:

"If you are a network executive and you buy a Theatrical movie from a studio, which is a simple financial transaction handled mostly by the Network Business affairs lawyers. If on the other hand you ordered "made for Television Movie" there was always a chair on the set of the production for you in Hollywood, as well as your usual suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and your usual table at Chasin's."

Anyone remember the NY Times Sunday Magazine cover with Michael Fuchs and Steve Schiffer of HBO walking on the Croisette in Cannes smoking cigars and the caption said something like "the new Kings of Hollywood."

While the details of this are for another time, the "business" and "economics" of producing and "publishing" content continues to change. That matters a lot in the equation of the business. Of greater importance is the changing tastes of the audience, Thirty years ago I would say that here I am a 40 something NY born, Californian trying to decide what 20 something audience will watch in Dallas Texas. More difficult then that was the television programmer who needed to buy content for that audience while pretending that he or she knew what they were doing. Decades ago audience tastes evolved slowly, not any longer.

In conclusion Mr. Duff, you were correct, it is now like AM Radio, and many including you need to adjust. The Closer that you do for TNT is part of the reason along with a lot of other stuff programmed by cable is ultimately responsible for the diminution of the broadcast networks audience.

Mr Duff, cable opportunities are the good news to some, and the bad news to others.

Norman Horowitz
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