It’s Halftime At The Super BSowl

There’s been excitement and action eminating from the Pacific Time Zone all week, and there’s more ahead in the coming days.  Today, of course, all eyes are being turned in the direction of Las Vegas where some say Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce will be in attendance for an Usher concert.  Or perhaps it’s the other way around.

Regardless, it’s the only event short of boardroom politics that can keep media companies and journalists from churning out a raft of articles, previews, pressers and opportunities to paint their businesses in the best possible light, as has been the case since Tuesday when this winter’s Television Critics Association tour kicked off.  For the first time in a loooong time, it is attempting to recapture both the size and the scope of the ones I attended decades ago with my fellow network executives.  There are few venues anywhere in the Los Angeles metropolitan area as storied and as imposing as Pasadena’s Langham Huntington hotel, and in years past it served as an apropos venue for what we would lovingly call a junket.  Newspapers actually employed actual critics to speak to specific that might appeal to their local readerships, whether it was a familiar setting or a hometown connection to talent.   A fortnight of schmoozing and cocktails and photo ops and a chance to give stars and producers a chance to tout their upcoming efforts seemed to be embraced by both participants and critics.  The networks would insist that their executives show up in their workplace best to cheer on their colleagues and provide a rooting section and “be on hand” to help answer some of the more discerning reporters’ questions.  I often would be asked to schmooze someone from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle or the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and educate them on local cable ratings–they indeed did exist contrary to their preconceived notions, and the reporters would eagerly write up our spin on them.  I earned my shrimp cocktail.

But now that this process has been altered by several years of disruption from both the pandemic and the loss of hundreds of jobs on both the network/platform and the publication/platform sides of the business, this year’s TCA has, to date, fallen quite short of the standards that had been set in the past.  Not every company feels an obligation to present these days; among those eschewing this winter’s tour are Netflix, Amazon and Paramount Global.  Perhaps that’s in part because that the concept of a “critic” has been redefined to now include reporters from national publications and sites who also cover the business of media.  Not to mention a few folks who are capable of asking questions more than just the softballs that some lesser types eat up more willingly.

Which is why what we’ve seen so far is at best a partial list of what’s going on, and not necessarily painting either side in the best possible light in every case.

On the one hand, old fashioned glitz and glamour still sells.  Apple TV+ kicked things off with an impressive array of stars and clips for their upcoming fare, with the kind of sizzle and appeal they tend to save for their announcement of $3500 spatial video computers.  When you have auspices like the cast of the upcoming period piece PALM BEACH, you can easily get the likes of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY to devote an “exclusive special section” to it, and get the likes of THE WATCH’s Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald to effectively serve as adjunct publicists.  Not that Apple would share any actual information on how many people watched their previous critical darlings or even some idea of whether their subscribers are looking forward to these shows as much as the press seems to.

On the other hand, you had the unfortunate timing of AMC+, whose presentations conflated with the earnings calls that occurred back East in the pre-dawn hours where the top brass all but called out the folks facing the press as distractions.  Witness how DEADLINE’s Dade Hayes covered this week’s events:

Shares in AMC Networks dropped sharply Friday following a shaky fourth-quarter earnings report and a conference call with Wall Street analysts.

The stock initially drifted down by mid-single-digits in pre-market trading after the earnings release, which revealed a 23% drop in domestic ad revenue and a 16% decline in affiliate revenue. Although it was difficult to draw a direct line between management comments on the call and the stock movement later in the morning, the selloff intensified after the call.  Sharesfell 19% in the first hour of the trading day, to their lowest level since last October. They improved slightly in the afternoon but still finished down 15% at $14.41.  

Execs were asked on the call to offer their guidance as to when the company’s top-line revenue might stabilize or even return to growth. “We’ve been very clear for the past year and going forward about how we’re managing the business and making it as efficient as possible,” CEO Kristin Dolan said. “On the top line, we’re really waiting out what’s going on in the industry. What I’m happy about is we continue to produce, through [Entertainment and Studios President Dan McDermott] and the team, really high-quality content.”

Dolan cited McDermott & Co.’s presentations this week at TCA Winter Press Tour. “This is part of our ongoing strategy to own and manage franchises that we can monetize over time,” she said. “As the marketplace sorts itself out, the opportunity to grow topline in the out years continues to be there. I think it’s just going to settle. We’re sort of sticking to our knitting. …. We’re going to stick to the plan and we’re optimistic that over the next year to two years that the ship will right itself in our industry and things will open up again.”

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes – The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live _ Season 1 – Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC

Which means the tepid reactions such as the one expressed by ROTTEN TOMATOES’ Whitney Friedlander to one of those knitting outputs are the least of their concerns. I guess when your ex-husband and business partner is too busy making trades for his basketball team and building a defense against rape charges, even something like Friedlander’s coverage is welcomed.

And when Disney took over the balance of the week, the amount of spin over substance grew exponentially.  National Geographic touted their upcoming unscripted iterations of Disney IP, such as a new season of A REAL BUG’S LIFE, and teased the possibility of a real FINDING NEMO.  The exact same network now under the stewardship of John Landgraf, who took his usual role as what TV GUIDE’s Amber Dowling fawningly referenced as “The Smartest Man in TV”  to once again attempt to educate us with what he sees as empirical facts about the state of the industry.  Continued Dowling:

Landgraf has long predicted that at some point the number of produced TV shows would peak, and the industry would go through a massive change.

That time has come. In a chart critics lovingly refer to as the “Langraph,” FX revealed that the number of scripted programs decreased by 14% in 2023, down to 514 from 600. It was a bigger dip that the one in 2020, when COVID-19 impacted production. At the time there was only a 7% drop (to 493 shows), and production recovered to 559 shows the following year. 

Nowhere in John’s work is there any reference to the amount of unscripted television that continues to supplant it, including those now on his corporate watch.  Let alone even admitted to among the New York Times-produced unscripted series that he touted in his presentation that accompanied it.  Or any reference to the fact that Netflix had shifted gears in recent weeks via the departure of film honcho Scott Stuber and the $5B investment in WWE RAW which will provide a consistent, 52-week stream of content (ironically, scripted).  Not even an attempt to explain to inquiring journalists like TOO MUCH TV’s Rick Ellis who cited more inclusive data from proprietary global research firms such as Ampere that, frankly, have far more resources at their disposal than the staff of otherwise highly competent researchers who seem to only get mentioned by Landgraf as de facto bean counters, devoid of context of whether a particular show has relevance, scale or impact.  Ellis summed up his feelings succinctly in a sidebar piece he authored on his ALLYOURSCREENS website:

The Peak TV number is almost irresistible to reporters, even though the number doesn’t really represent a usable metric for the health or even the growth of the television and streaming TV business. Yes, tracking the number of new English-language scripted originals released in the U.S. is interesting. 

But it doesn’t actually provide any accurate sense of the health of the TV industry. Any more than you can judge the health of Quaker Oats by tracking how many boxes of Cap’n Crunch it sold over the past decade.

What the phrase “Peak TV” is more than anything else is a sly bit of marketing. It combines a desire by Landgraf to craft a clever message with a tendency of a lot of reporters to use a number even though they don’t quite understand what it means or how the numbers were assembled.

I truly find it both compelling and somewhat sad that for an executive as accomplished and as revered as Landgraf is by those who actually make content he continues to obsess over, and deflect any discussion that would call for an explanation, of why he insists on being the official industry arbiter.  He didn’t get his promotions by being a prognosticator, and were I someone like Courtney Monroe I might want to take my boss aside and ask why the shows the network you continue to have me in charge of don’t seem to warrant making your arbitrary list.  But then again, she’s still working for him, so perhaps her strategy works.

But an even bigger embarrassment occured during yesterday’s presser from his sister ABC network’s victory lap for the BACHELOR franchise.  As THE DAILY BEAST’s Kevin Fallon reported it:

Things turned more thorny when rosy when The Bachelor producers appeared on the Unscripted Storytellers panel at Saturday’s Television Critics Association press conference.  Producers Bennett Graebner, Claire Freeland, and Jason Ehrlich spoke with all the canned enthusiasm of one of the show’s contestants about being in the business of “happily ever afters.” But when journalists grilled producers Bennett Graebner, Claire Freeland, and Jason Ehrlich about diversity, demographics, and race controversies, their messaging was different: silence.

NPR’s Eric Deggans asked the producers about why The Bachelor has had so many controversies and issues when it comes to race. Matt James was the first Black Bachelor in 2021, and his season was overshadowed when photos of one contestant at an antebellum plantation-themed party surfaced and then-host Chris Harrison defended her—ultimating leading to Harrison’s departure from the show. Rachel Lindsay, the show’s first Black Bachelorette, has spoken about the show’s failings when it comes to race. Deggans asked if the show has learned anything from these past scandals. 

“I can speak to where we are now,” Freeland said. “Our goal is to represent the fabric of the country not just with respect to diversity and ethnicity, but also ability and body types and representing where people are from in the country… I think so far we’re kind of putting our money where our mouth is and demonstrating that. So hopefully audiences are feeling that because it’s something that we’re always working on. And we’ll continue to do so as we go forward.”

That, obviously, did not answer the question, which is what Deggans followed up saying, reiterating, “Why does The Bachelor struggle to deal with race, particularly Black people, when they star on the show?”

The producers sat in silence, and when it became clear that no one was going to answer the question, journalists in attendance started gasping in surprise—and then giggling a little bit. “I guess we have our answer,” Deggans said, breaking the silence.

When given the chance to speak to a more selective audience, such as the one DECIDER’s Nicole Gallucci provided, the producers were a tad less tongue-tied:

“Just for me, I don’t know the people on the show. Talk to me about the show in Canada for the last ten years, I got you,” Freeland said. “But all I can do is say what we as a team here are committed to doing and I would hope that the last year reflects that.”  “I was there for Matt James’ season. I was there for Rachel Lindsay’s season. I was also there for Michelle Young’s season, Tayshia Adams’ season, Charity Lawson’s season,” Graebner added. “I think as stewards of this franchise, which has been such a part of the cultural zeitgeist for over two decades, there’s a tremendous responsibility to have conversations on camera that are difficult and challenging — conversations about race, conversations about class, conversations about gender. We have done that. Have we always done it perfectly? No. We’ve certainly made some mistakes along the way. But moving forward we’re going to do everything in our power to correct this.”

Now please take a moment to consider Duggans’ CV, including his head shot:

Eric Deggans is NPR’s first full-time TV critic, also serving as media analyst and guest host for the network.

Deggans came to NPR in 2013 from the Tampa Bay Times, where he served as TV/Media Critic and in other roles for nearly 20 years. A journalist for more than 30 years, he is also the author of “Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation,” a look at how prejudice, racism and sexism fuels some elements of modern media, published in October 2012 by Palgrave Macmillan.

How unfortunate for ABC and Disney that they may not have provided their producers with such preparation, as was often the case at past TCA prep events I personally attended.  And how unfortunate that someone with Deggans’ auspices is now considered a critic, ostensibly just as qualified as someone like Dowling.

Mike Fleiss had plenty of faults, to be sure.  But I can categorically assure you he would have been able to think on his feet faster, and anticipate the possibility of questions like Deggans’.

Apparently even the quality of BSing in the Super Bowl of it that the TCA tour essentially is pales now pales in comparison to how it was executed back in the day.

So while everyone takes off to watch the game today and perhaps even catch a few rays of relatively warm California sunshine in anticipation of what awaits from PBS, Peacock, NBC and the CW, not to mention a trip to the Warner lot to be distracted by what’s still actually being produced by Yosemite Zas, perhaps it’s time for a huddle.  Maybe a new playbook.  Maybe reinvest in some core competencies. It’s not too late–yet.  (Well, maybe for those at Paramount Global).

Brock Purdy is no longer Mr. Irrelevant.  But I’d hate to see a few more reporters and executives take his place.

Until next time…

 

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