TV net­works fight­ing back against stream­ing

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Business - BY DAVID BAUDER AND LYNN ELBER As­so­ci­ated Press

If there is a high point to Net­flix’s sta­tus as the “cool kids” tak­ing over tele­vi­sion, it may be re­mem­bered as an emo­tional Chuck Lorre ac­cept­ing a best com­edy Golden Globe last month for “The Komin­sky Method,” his show on the stream­ing ser­vice.

Lorre is one of the most suc­cess­ful com­edy pro­duc­ers in TV his­tory, with an es­ti­mated net worth of more than $600 mil­lion af­ter pro­duc­ing shows in­clud­ing “The Big Bang The­ory,” “Two and a Half Men” and “Mom” for CBS. Yet he’d never won an Emmy or Golden Globe, and odds are he still wouldn’t if “The Komin­sky Method” had been on broad­cast TV and with a more mun­dane ac­tor than Michael Dou­glas.

De­spite the hum­bling mo­ment, lead­ers of tra­di­tional TV net­works in­sist they’re fight­ing back, and may even sense an open­ing. Their very sur­vival may de­pend upon it.

“I think it has cre­ated an op­por­tu­nity for us to say we’re pro­vid­ing a unique plat­form,” said Paul Telegdy, co-chair­man of NBC en­ter­tain­ment with Ge­orge Cheeks.

Many ex­perts would see that as whistling into the wind, be­cause isn’t stream­ing the place to be? Net­flix, Ama­zon, Hulu have seem­ingly bot­tom­less wal­lets and a stran­gle­hold on how a new gen­er­a­tion wants to con­sume tele­vi­sion. For the first time ever, stream­ing ser­vices made more scripted shows than ei­ther broad­cast or ca­ble net­works last year. Big-name pro­duc­ers Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Mur­phy, and even Barack and Michelle Obama, have agreed to make shows for Net­flix.

Stream­ing feels like the fu­ture, while CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox evoke a time when you needed to get off the couch to switch chan­nels, and maybe ad­just the rab­bit ears for bet­ter re­cep­tion.

Even with rat­ings a frac­tion of what they were in the glory days of mo­nop­oly, the broad­cast net­works say their chief ad­van­tage is the op­por­tu­nity to of­fer cre­ators a large au­di­ence. Net­works are still the only dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tem ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing a per­fect pic­ture to vir­tu­ally every home in Amer­ica, said John Land­graf, FX Net­works chief.

While net­work execs are jeal­ous when streamed shows scoop up awards, “my fam­ily has never heard of them,” NBC’s Cheeks said.

Net­works are ar­gu­ing to cre­ators lured by a less re­stric­tive en­vi­ron­ment at Net­flix that they risk get­ting lost in an ocean of con­tent. The stream­ing ser­vice of­fered a stag­ger­ing 500-plus orig­i­nal shows last year, ac­cord­ing to es­ti­mates.

“The sheer vol­ume that they take on has made it more dif­fi­cult for net­works and ca­ble to com­pete,” said Karey Burke, ABC’s new en­ter­tain­ment pres­i­dent. “But, to be hon­est, I have no­ticed in prob­a­bly the last year a trend away from my friends who are cre­ators from be­ing part of that vol­ume. I think that what net­works can of­fer in terms of our abil­ity to mar­ket a show, to launch a show, to sched­ule a show so that it will get seen, is a value that still holds.”

The most ex­treme ex­am­ple of that ad­van­tage was when CBS de­buted its new tal­ent show, “The World’s Best,” di­rectly af­ter the Su­per Bowl and it was seen by 22 mil­lion peo­ple.

TV ex­ec­u­tives point out that Net­flix rarely re­leases ver­i­fi­able tal­lies of how many peo­ple watch their shows. Net­flix did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

The broad­cast­ers’ un­der­ly­ing mes­sage: The stream­ing gi­ant has plenty of fail­ures, too.

“If you want a large com­mu­nal ex­pe­ri­ence, if you … have a pas­sion project that you hope pierces pop­u­lar cul­ture, where do you think that can be done best?” asked Char­lie Col­lier, Fox en­ter­tain­ment chief.

Un­like the stream­ers, broad­cast shows are “there week in and week out and a lot of pro­duc­ers like that feed­back, they like be­ing in front of the au­di­ence every week­end,” said Kelly Kahl, CBS en­ter­tain­ment pres­i­dent. “And they like that man­ner of sto­ry­telling where they bring you some­thing new every week. I’m not just go­ing to drop in your lap in one week­end.”

Net­works are be­com­ing more flex­i­ble in re­sponse to pro­duc­ers’ ex­pec­ta­tions as shaped by stream­ing ser­vices, whose sea­sons are shorter than the 22 or so episodes on net­work TV.

Pro­duc­ers may sing Net­flix’s praises but the smart ones – Lorre in­cluded – aren’t ready to write the net­works off.

“I’ve never had a prej­u­dice against broad­cast tele­vi­sion,” said Tom Fon­tana, ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of NBC’s ac­claimed 1990s drama “Homi­cide: Life on the Street and HBO’s “Oz.” “It’s like writ­ing a haiku vs. an epic poem. I have sto­ries to tell, and who­ever wants to lis­ten, I’ll tell them.”

For all the pub­lic bullish­ness, net­work ex­ec­u­tives know they need to ex­per­i­ment. ABC this spring will show the NFL draft for the first time, fo­cus­ing on ath­letes whose lives will change. It will air more episodes of “Amer­i­can Idol” live. CBS of­ten brings Stephen Col­bert in live af­ter spe­cial events. Fox will start air­ing pro­fes­sional wrestling.

While CBS is still in busi­ness with name-brand tal­ent, the com­pe­ti­tion cre­ated by stream­ing ser­vices “forces us to look at new tal­ent,” Kahl said. “I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It could be good for us.”

CBS, home to “NCIS” and other tra­di­tional ac­tion dra­mas, is stretch­ing this sea­son with a lim­ited se­ries, “The Red Line,” that tack­les a po­lice shoot­ing gone wrong and its com­plex af­ter­math, and whose pro­duc­ers in­clude film­maker Ava DuVer­nay (“Selma”). To put a gloss on even stan­dard scripted fare, there are heav­ily pro­moted cross­over episodes for sib­ling se­ries such as NBC’s ”Chicago“dra­mas and CBS’ “NCIS” spinoffs. For “This Is Us,” NBC juices view­ers’ emo­tional in­vest­ment in the fam­ily drama with an on­line af­ter­show in which cast mem­bers dis­sect key plot points.

“The idea of hav­ing a weekly ap­point­ment where you’re hav­ing a com­mu­nity with your friends while you’re tweet­ing and tex­ting while you’re watch­ing some­thing to­gether and you’re talk­ing about it the next day, that’s still the prove­nance of net­work tele­vi­sion,” Burke said.

Net­works also sell an in­fra­struc­ture built over decades, of morn­ing shows and late-night talk shows, of ties to com­mu­ni­ties through lo­cal an­chors, of a myr­iad of op­por­tu­ni­ties. NBC’sTelegdy said that when “The Voice” coach Kelly Clark­son wanted to try some­thing new, NBC had a syn­di­cated arm that is al­low­ing her to start a new talk show.

Net­works, of course, are far from is­lands. They are in­te­gral parts of me­dia giants such as Dis­ney and Com­cast that both rely on their prod­ucts and bol­ster them. NBC is among the broad­cast net­works whose par­ent com­pa­nies are among the joint own­ers of the Hulu stream­ing ser­vice. CBS has launched its own stream­ing plat­form.

Cheeks said he may get an un­set­tling an­swer when he’s back home in Cleve­land for a visit and his friends’ kids ask where he works (“What’s NBC?”), but he dis­cov­ers they’re watch­ing Jimmy Fal­lon’s “The Tonight Show” on YouTube and stream­ing “Sat­ur­day Night Live.”

“The way peo­ple are watch­ing is dif­fer­ent and the way we try to find them has to be dif­fer­ent,” Kahl said.

MONTY BRINTON CBS

The TNT Boys per­form on the pre­miere of the com­pe­ti­tion se­ries “The World’s Best,” which de­buted im­me­di­ately af­ter the Su­per Bowl on Feb. 3. The pro­gram was viewed by 22 mil­lion peo­ple, at­test­ing to the power net­work TV still has to mar­ket a show and sched­ule it so that it will get seen.

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