Sunday, May 27

Freeing TV: Dr. Seuss On Jericho

One day, making tracks in the prairie of Prax, came a North-Going Zax and a South-Going Zax. — from The Zax by Dr. Seuss.

And, well, we all know what happened. Neither Zax would budge in the prairie of Prax, not an inch to the east, not an inch to the west. But the world did not stand still. It grew up around them.

Has the Jericho story turned into a deadlock, with CBS and Jericho fans embraced in an unblinking standoff? Some people might suggest this is the case, but I really don't think so. Not in the least.

If there is any deadlock to be found, it's between the measure of new media and old media, which has put a wrinkle in the compensation model for content creators. Jericho fans just happen to be a large and growing group of people who say the world is more than ready to grow up around this deadlock and remove the TV ratings system.

I won't go so far to say that Nielsen Media Research isn't needed. It is. But what I will point out is that we already know most networks have wanted to expand beyond Nielsen ratings for some time.

Just yesterday in an Associated Press story, Fox executives cautioned against counting American Idol out simply because Nielsen reported that the 30.7 million people who watched Jordin Sparks win last week was a "sharp drop" from the 36.4 million people who watched Taylor Hicks win last year.

Fox said that for the season as a whole, American Idol ratings are about the same when DVR viewing is taken into account. Bravo! That's the same assessment made by Jeff Jensen with Entertainment Weekly, who asked viewers "Are You Killing TV?" His story points out that the way people are watching TV is changing, which is skewing the somewhat flawed and thinly sliced rating system even more.

"Consumers value the ability to manage their time more than ever," said Ted Sarandos, chief content officer of NetFlix to Entertainment Weekly. DVDs and DVRs allow fans to "enjoy a show at their own pace."

Kudos to Jensen for pointing out the obvious. No kudos for Chuck Barney of the Contra Costa Times. He knows the numbers are flawed but went right on ahead with a piece that screams "IT WAS NOT a good year to be a television programmer. New hits were hard to come by and several old favorites lost some of their power to enthrall."

Using Nielsen ratings exclusively, he said "serials have no snap, crackle, and pop ... sitcoms are poison." I'll give him a couple of points on asking producers to practice some gun control before killing off major characters weekly. But, overall, his story only reinforces a myth that TV is in trouble. Not trouble; transition.

Sure, the networks are not doing everything right by flooding the next line-up with six new "nerd" shows, countless reality TV spins, and repackaged crime dramas. But they are hardly doing everything wrong when you look beyond Nielsen numbers.

Mark Harris, also writing for Entertainment Weekly this week, comes close to making a similiar case when he suggests that numbers alone don't make quality movies. Paraphrased: If you care about your customers — the 2 or 5 or 10 million who are passionate about Friday Night Lights or Rescue Me or The Office (he lists more) — they will stay with your show as long as it's good. Their enthusiasms and high standards and judgments may even help, indirectly, to make what you have better.

But what about the money? Please! If you think for a minute that a show like Jericho cannot make money with 8-10 million fans, DVD sales, and future syndication (alone), then you're out of sync with the industry. Jericho has already paid off with a pretty good profit margin. The only real hold up is that networks haven't settled on a "measure" for making decisions in the world of new media.

Yet, finding this magical "measure" isn't even the real challenge (that's easy). The real challenge is making it through the transition.

Sure, I know there's a lot of talk about advertisers, but that's just nonsense. I've written more than once on how advertisers are aleady diverting dollars away from mainstream advertising budgets and toward digital media, social media, and the Internet with increasing fervor. They want some changes made too.

That said, it seems to me that CBS Entertainment, Jericho fans, cast, crew, and every other stakeholder all seem to be on the same side. There doesn't need to be a compromise because all sides want the same thing: a hit show in Jericho and more freedom for TV. And, in the process of saving Jericho, these fans might even find a way to save a few other shows as well.

With Jericho, there exists an opportunity to move beyond old media measures. For me, it's an easy choice but not mine to make. It's all up to CBS. And if they pass on it, while waiting for old media Zax and new media Zax to budge, then the world may grow up around them too.



Sharon E. Herbert on 5/27/07, 12:15 PM said...

Excellent post. Television execs are obviously struggling as viewer habits are shifting from the TV being the only or primary source of program viewing. They are missing so many opportunities to reach audiences on the Web and to "count" them into their out-dated rating system. They also seem to fail to understand the demographic they are reaching with shows like Jericho - I'm betting these viewers are mature, intelligent, have good incomes and are more likely to purchase high ticket items they see in advertisements. So 9 million Jericho viewers may be "worth" as much as 30 million (predominately tween or teenage) American Idol viewers.

Rich on 5/27/07, 12:35 PM said...

Thank you Sharon. Great of you to drop by!

Some execs, I think, seem to be thinking more than others. So you're very right: the quality of a niche audience to your business might mean everything. It's not all that different from what we see in social media everyday.

One would have to be pretty isolated not to recognize that all audiences across all media are becoming more niche everyday. How could they not? With more choices on radio, television, and the Internet than ever before ... consumer choice and being customer-centric seems to be critical.

All my best,

Unknown on 5/27/07, 5:39 PM said...

Ok- so I'll say this yet again! Great article.... I love DR. Seuss (Theodore Geisel) and I love Jericho! I would highly recommend the book Dr. Seuss Goes to war... very appropriate for the topic. Who knew Dr. Seuss was a political Cartoonist during WWII! Check it out!

RevAnne on 5/27/07, 7:04 PM said...

Thanks for this post, Rich. I'm a Jericho fan, but I'm also interested in the viral media aspect and also in the implications for how community forms in a crisis in our culture...CBS has given me a ton to read in the last couple of weeks.
TV's not the only media struggling: as information and entertainment become more available online, and more universal due to the proliferation of free email services and free & low cost internet providers, print media are struggling to find their way around it, and the music industry's only just begun to learn how to market in an internet-driven, ala carte market.

Rich on 5/28/07, 9:07 AM said...

Thanks Sarah and Revanne, its nice to know the posts are appreciated. You all made a great story.

Revanne, you also draw up a couple interesting side bar topics that I've been looking at ... online communities can be pulled close together for a campaign or in a crisis. I noticed that they are different in some ways to physical communities, especially those working together (whether it is a crisis or not), but the friendships developed as a result are no less real.

I also think you hit an excellent point about the music industry, which with much less resistance, is already seeing new media as an opportunity instead of a liability to create great music and, perhaps, make more money. As long as the music isn't stolen, I think that industry has a pretty good working model.

jonodan on 5/28/07, 11:40 AM said...

After a slow start, “Jericho” was building a good deal of momentum and had become a truly enjoyable program. It was with a good deal of surprise that I heard it was cancelled as it had become a “must watch” program for myself and many others in the Baltimore, Md. viewing area. In addition to the MILLIONS of regular TV viewers watching each week on normal TV,
there are quite a few people who had started watching the show mid-season and were “catching up” on earlier episodes either online or via cable on-demand services… or
simply awaiting the summer re-runs to catch those earlier episodes. Now CBS simply says "Sorry!.. CANCELLED!" and plan to replace it
with another mindless reality show. BLECCCH!! "Jericho" dealt with some interesting issues
about about how the survivors of a nuclear attack on the U.S. cope with a new reality... banding together and working together ...or descending to baser instincts. This story had some great areas to explore and was a program CBS could have been very proud of long after its initial broadcast. This program certainly
had become very popular in this area and makes me wonder if our Nielsen ratings system is somewhat obsolete nowadays... Life will go
on without this program, but do we really need more "reality" proramming and crime dramas???! Hopefully the folks at CBS will
re-consider continuing this program for a second season… and create a win-win-win result for CBS, its sponsors, and all of the
cast, crew and MILLIONS of viewers.

Check it out:

Rich on 6/3/07, 7:50 PM said...

Famous Last Words:

"More than half of digital video recorder users fast-forwarded through commercials while watching prime-time network fare, according to the first study of how many DVR users actually watch ads." — AP


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