Hi there. Do you remember what it was like when you were #1? Because I do. When you were good, you gave us some of the greatest (or at the least, most enjoyable) television programs ever created. Shows like Knight Rider, the A-Team, Miami Vice, Quantum Leap, Cheers, Frasier, the Fresh Prince, the Cosby Show, Seinfeld, ER, St. Elsewhere, The West Wing, and select seasons of Law & Order and Saturday Night Live. Heck, you even gave the world Star Trek. Oh sure, it hasn’t always been all wine and roses (I still remember Manimal), but overall, you’ve put out a lot of quality shows that go down in TV history and are remebered decades after they stop airing.
Now look at you. It’s like you have no respect for yourself nowdays. You’re 4th in the networks and the only reason you aren’t dead last is because the CW is…well…it’s the CW. And this isn’t just becasue of the whole Tonight Show debacle; Jay Leno forcing his way back like that was only an obvious symptom of the decay, not the root cause. This past week, you got off the couch and set aside the gallon of Hagen-Daz you’ve been drowning your sorrows in long enough to release your 2010-2011 line up. And I gotta be honest: it doesn’t look like you’re making a comeback any time soon.
So, consider this an intervention by a freind that remembers the good times we’ve had and wants them to return. Becasue I love you, bro. No homo. Not that theere’s anything wrong with that.
1) Complete shake up of Upper Management. Yeah, I know this isn’t likely to happen. But the fact of the matter is: it *needs* to happen. Ever since he ran SNL into the ground, Dick Ebersol has never showed much tallent at choosing and producing shows other than sports programs. The success of NBC in the late 90’s/early 00’s is more due to Tartikoff’s legacy and vision than Ebersol’s capability. Ebersol needs to step aside and get back to what he knows and does best: produce exceptional coverage of sporting events like football and the Olympics. And speaking of stepping aside, Jeff Zucker has to go. I don’t think we’ll ever totally know what happened in January of this year with CoCo-gate, and there are some chances it wasn’t all Zucker’s fault, but he’s the man in charge of the network. He has to take the blame for failures as well as the credits for successes. Even though Captain Smith wasn’t totally at fault for the Titanic, it still happened on his watch and he had to go down with the ship as well as take the blame.
2) Give Law & Order it’s last lap. Come on, this should be a no-brainer. Yes, I know the quality of the show isn’t what it used to be, but seriously? The finish line is in sight and you’re going to pull the plug on it now? Give the show it’s last season to make the record books and let Dick Wolf give the remaining fans full closure. Just admit that the reasons the ratings tanked this past season was becasue L&O’s time slots were shifted around to accomidate Jay’s failed experiment and it’s consequences. You already look like a bunch idiots from the Tonight Show disaster; can you really afford to look like major jerks twice in one calendar year?
3) Flashy FX + Bad Writing = Poor Ratings. Look, I loved Heroes when it first came out. It was awesome and fairly inventive. But the writing took a nose dive in the second season becasue of the strike and was never allowed to recover becasue it was more important to the network to spend the money on special effects and salaries than good writers. If you are going to develop a sci-fi show, you need to realize that your audience is going to be divided in two camps: sci-fi fans and everyone else. If you give Sci-Fi fans things they want like good writing, character development, and plots, you have a solid and loyal viewing base that anchors the show and will be talking about the show around the Internet and office water coolers to keep Mr. & Mrs. Middle America intersted instead of giving into ADD and flipping over to see the shiny new show on the other network. Do you think the average veiwer would have caught on with the insanity of Lost in the beginning if the Sci-Fi fans that work with them hadn’t been talking about it non-stop? You know (and count on) the fact that average television viewers are herd animals that follow a leader, and the geeks will lead them if they’re excited about a sci-fi show.
4) Listen to the core fanbase. This goes hand-in-hand with #3. If you had been paying attention, you wouldn have known that Heroes had pretty much lost the comics geek audience in Season 2, and that you weren’t getting it back in Season 3. You lost your geek core, and the average viewers left to go check out the Next Big Thing. How much money would you have saved if you hadn’t tried to do a fourth season with the ‘Claire goes lesbian at college’ storyline that smacked of total desperation for ratings? Relevant case in point for the upcoming season: The Cape. If comics fans are laughing at your comics-themed show becasue of the costume design and premise (and believe me, we really are getting a good laugh), do you think Mr. & Mrs. Middle America are going to find them less ludicrous? And again, tossing Summer Glau (her excellent acting skills notwithstanding) into the show is an obvious and desperate attempt at gaining geek cred for a doomed show.
5) Admit that the Internet is not going away and figure out how to profit from it. This is something that *all* of Hollywood and the entertainment industry needs to wake up to. Digital distribution and viewing on the Internet, leagaly or otherwise, is not going awsy. Sticking your collective heads in the sand while plugging your ears and screaming “LALALALALALAICAN’THEARYOU!!!!” isn’t going to solve the situation. You need to adapt and figure out a way of making a profit or you will die out as the rest of humanity passes you by, and you need to adjust sooner rather than later. Broadcasters screaming about the death of radio due to piracy in the 1930’s didn’t stop magnetic tape recording from being adopted and becoming the main media storage choice for most of the 20th century. Jack Valenti screaming at Congress about how the VCR was the work of Satan and was going to kill Hollywood if it wasn’t ruthlessly stamped out didn’t stop the VCR from being in virtually every house in America in the 80’s and 90’s. Pretending that a rapidly growing portion of Americans aren’t bypassing traditional broadcast TV to get their entertainment from DVR’s, direct downloads, and Internet video sites isn’t going to make digital distribution go away. With the technology that’s available, you can scrap the outdated Neilsen system and get a much better picture of how many viewers each show is getting. Realize that broadcasting original programming is becoming a loss leader into DVD and direct download markets like iTunes. Also realize that piracy is not going away; but rather than screaming about it and using it as an excuse not to go into the digital distribution age, learn to work around it. You think a fan is going to pirate a DVD collection of thier favorite show if they get a cool freebie when they buy it legitimately? Like a contest to visit the set, or even a walk-on bit? Learn the lesson from J. Michael’s Stracynzsky’s appearance at BayCon: he made a surprise appaerance at a chairty auction one year and raised $10,000 just for a single busness card with his signature that entiled the bearer to a tour of the Babylon 5 set and lunch in the commisary. The bottom line: geeks and fans will pay big money for things related to their favorite shows; give them a reason other than legality to buy a show and 9 times out of 10, they’ll pony up.
Just think about these things, okay? The last thing anyone wants is for a full intervention crew to show up at an NBC board meeting. Because Intervention is on A&E and you wouldn’t get the shares.