Monday, December 6, 2010

The Future of Television




My wife and I used to have a Friday night ritual: she would order the best Chinese food in Manhattan from Charlie Mom and we would plop down on our living room couch and watch The SciFi Channel 'til midnight.

Back in those days SciFi had a show on called Farscape starting at 9:00 PM followed by Stargate SG1 (based on the movie Stargate with James Spader). They would repeat the same 2 shows over and over 'til 1:00 AM. Now I know some of you are rolling your eyes "Great, another science fiction geek talking about some nerdy show." and THAT would be your big mistake.

So... "what's the big deal Brad, it was just a television show?"

Let me explain: I live in Manhattan. The heart of New York City. I stayed home on a Friday night to watch what most would consider a stupid science fiction show. But the reason I liked Farscape was because it was a damn good show, and it was neatly scheduled at the end of the week. So, every Friday I could have some alone time with my wife...we could catch up on our day, watch some silly TV that allowed us to escape for a few hours from the hustle bustle of New York City and then lazily fall asleep.

And I wasn't the only person rescheduling my life for this...millions were tuning in on Fridays to watch Farscape, SciFi number one rated show.

But for some weird reason, after a multitude of programming glitches, they canceled it in the middle of the 4th season!!! No reruns. No reasoning. No explanation. That's right, they canceled their cash cow because (they claim) it was too expensive to produce!

You can get the complete story at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farscape 

Ratings were not the issue, after all, a regular person doesn't choose to watch Science Fiction. This is a niche channel. If execs at the top believe their channel could get the same ratings as say CBS on a Monday night, they are delusional.

The SCiFi Channel shut up the Farscape fans with a 2 night 4 hour follow up to the series called Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars. 

But my point to this article is that when leaders at the very top of an organization are disconnected from their customers, they can make some pretty erratic decisions. Their actions reflect their hubris: they do not respect their customers.

And because of that, SciFi lost my loyalty

Look, television runs like any other business and since I know it so well, I use it as an example in my books and lectures. And like any other business it works on a model: create a captive audience, give them great content and try to sell 'em something while you have their attention. Television believe it or not is not about the shows...it is about trapping a captive audience in front of the screen so advertisers can run commercials.

Nothing makes sense, unless you know what to look for. Our system here in the United States works on ratings. How many people are watching at a given time of day. So every channel is hustling to attract viewers to their particular channel. Competition is stiff. From 8 PM to 11:00 PM is considered Prime Time viewing...at least it used to be. When ratings dip below a certain amount, a television show is in danger of being canceled...but this tactic seems to be arbitrary and unscientific...and old fashioned. The company that usually tracks viewership is the Nielsen Company. They measure and track everything from radio and television to book and magazine sales.

And here is where executives are making their big disconnect: there is a division in your audience right now. That division is between Baby Boomers (raised on TV...who like to sit down while being entertained) and Generation Y, who is NOT really watching television, (if they do watch TV, it is not at any specific time). This is the generation that likes their media on the go...to download their favorite TV show to watch on a bus or train or airplane. If they watch at all. They like interactivity and Reality TV, and UFC fight nights and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. In other words, to attract Gen Y to your show, you've got to be over the top. But once a show is off, they shut off the TV and start using one or two of the 6 other devices they can use for entertainment.

Over the past 25 years our media habits have changed gradually without us knowing it - especially from generation to generation. My Dad's generation - The Depression Era and WWII generation - enjoy radio, newspapers, magazines, television, records, books and movies as their source for news and entertainment. Baby Boomers media habits are similar but center more around television, magazines, books, rock concerts and movie theaters. Generation X & Y on the other hand get their media news and entertainment from The Internet, DVDs, smartphones, video games, YouTube, Twitter, Hulu, and online games like Second Life and World of Warcraft. Television is very rarely on Generation Y's radar. You are more likely to see a 24 year old having a Rock Band party on Saturday night than inviting friends over to watch TV.

Ever wonder why reality shows like American Chopper, Dancing With The Stars and Ice Road Truckers are so popular? Or intense dramas like Sons of Anarchy, The Closer and Dexter? These shows are luring viewers because they are really well done. Who is taking the time to sit down and actually watch these shows for several hours at a time? Baby Boomers.

It makes no sense, but people have no time to actually sit down at a specific time of day. That is a last century model. People have more important things to do with their time. Our media needs to catch up with us and be available when the customer wants it...on demand. Those in charge of programming have to figure out what TV means in the 21st Century. Sure sporting events will always attract an audience that wants the game "live" in real time...but the rest needs to be delivered when the customer says so. Tivo, video on demand and Netflix have done excellent jobs at using technology to reach us.

Next, our ratings system needs to be changed. Shows need time to attract an audience. Remember, it took Seinfeld 3 years to get a decent audience. Today he wouldn't have lasted 3 episodes.

And finally, figure out if your channel is geared for Boomers, Gen Y or the WWII generation. MTV knows their audience. The History Channel knows their audience too...but, Ice Road Truckers could run on any network.

That's because the shows are brands...
NOT the channel.

If you disappoint your customer, we look elsewhere. Treat us well and you get our loyalty...loyalty Generation Y does not have. They have other cool things to do, watch or instant message on.

Over the years since The SciFi Channel canceled Farscape, they did bring us a few well made hits like Dune: the miniseries, Tin Man (a revisit to the Wizard of Oz) the New Dr. Who?, The Children of Dune, Firefly, even Stargate got better and better in the writing, and created 3 more spin offs.

And finally, a down and dirty, grittier revision of Battlestar Galactica (a.k.a. BSG). This is NOT the Battlestar Galactica of the Baby Boomers childhood with Lorne Green...this was an intense series about the possible end of the human race. They brought in Edward James Olmos to play Adama. Even non-science fiction types started watching it.

And then SciFi did it again. Weird gaps in programming. BSG would come on for 6 episodes then disappear for 4 months. No warning. No reruns, until a week before the new episodes. Then Canceled. A big miniseries finale to shut up the fans. BTW: Ratings for the show dropped because no on knew when it would be on (no one reads TV Guide anymore), once again, the fans suffered.

Last year The SciFi Channel decided they wanted to change their image because of the negative image of the science fiction geek. Whoever did this marketing survey should have been fired because the SciFi channel spent millions to relaunch as the meaningless SyFy Channel with the tag line "imagine greater." (yawn). They wanted to target 18 - 24 year old's when their audience is in their 40s. What a disconnect.

The only good thing they did do last year was create another gritty prequel to Battlestar Galactica called Caprica...but , and this is the stranger thing about this SyFy Channel...they never give reruns of any of their most popular shows? Why I ask? They only run reruns when attempting to get us excited about a new set of episodes. They are missing out on a huge untapped market.

Look it's simple: give us Boomers gritty shows, middle aged sitcoms and the occasional odd ball idea and we will watch...and you will have a hit. Why do you think Modern Family, Burn Notice and Fringe are so popular? BOOMERS who watch TV...on a television set!!! Hell we'll even sit down and watch a family show with our kids...like Glee or 90210. But please, learn about your audience!!! If your audience is made up of Boomers, give em middle aged dramas and comedies we can relate to. If you're audience is Gen Y, give 'em outrageous reality shows like Jackass, Gossip Girl and another Keeping Up with the Kardashians styled show.

Know your audience...oh, and Boomers like reruns. Especially when it comes to science fiction and Julia Roberts. Conan O'Brien is a Gen X & Y brand...no mystery why his show bombed in a Boomer time slot.


Thank you again, sorry for the rant;-) LOL...

Brad Szollose