As Barry Manilow once peppily crooned, “Looks Like We Made It”. Yep, if you’re reading this, we’ve somehow all slogged through 2022, and now can skidoo into ’23.
What, you’ve never heard of Manilow? As my new bestie often eloquently says, “Google him”. You might be surprised how much of his work you recognize that endures more than five decades after their creation. Which is more than most of us can say about our output.
Which is why while there’s certainly tremendous hope and anticipation ahead for all of us, especially those in the media industry who truly, as Manilow once wrote for a certain hambuger chain’s commercials “deserve a break today”, there are storm warnings ahead that lead me to some somewhat troubling predictions as yours truly puts on his Nostradamus–or, as one former friend snarked back last year at this time–Nostra-dumb-ass– hat and takes his stab at predicting what may come to pass in the next twelve months with a fresh calendar at the ready:
1– The Scripted U.S. TV Business Is About To Change Forever
The seeds of such disruption are already in place, and they”re eerily similar to the landscape of 2007. As Cynthia Littleton of VARIETY! , one of the few media writers who was prominent then and now, wrote a few weeks back:
The outlook for the next six months is starting to look a lot like it did in the summer and fall of 2007, the last time the entertainment industry’s biggest employers faced a work stoppage with the Writers Guild of America.
The guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the bargaining agent for Hollywood’s major studios, networks and streamers, face a May 1 deadline for setting a new Minimum Basic Agreement to succeed the current pact that governs most mainstream scripted TV and film production. SAG-AFTRA and the Directors Guild of America, meanwhile, have contracts that expire on June 30.
The expectations of writers back then were quite similar to those on the table now. An industry that historically fairly rewarded creators began to take advantage of loopholes that required lesser payouts for non-broadcast network work. Basic cable had seen great success with a model of shorter orders for shows previously deemed too daring or niche for broadcast TV, and once FX began to produce success after success competitors such as TNT, USA and Lifetime got on the bandwagon. “Peak TV” production began to accelerate.
But as competition grew, audiences splintered, and ratings guarantees were often not being met. A recession began to loom, one that ultimately produced the 2008 economic downturn. Studios saw this coming, and held their ground. Eventually, settlements did happen, and the economy did rebound. But that was then.
Streaming TV, both in the utility of content and how it is capable of being monetized, is at a crossroads. As Joel Davis recently wrote sympathetically on CultureSlate, the concerns of artists seeking what they believe is fair compensation, has been heighened due to the ongoing ambiguity of exactly what defines fair:
In the streaming era, the lines of credit and who gets paid for what have become quite muddied. A few years back, there was a dispute between Disney and Scarlett Johansson regarding royalties for the Black Widow movie due to how streaming is different from the theater experience. Contracts and the relationship between studios and those making the art are very much in flux. Streaming is a new frontier and no one knows quite how to compensate each other when it comes to this platform.
Many writers, especially those that work in streaming, are worried that they will not get residual checks because of the way these streaming shows are released. Considering that some streaming services, such as Netflix, tend to release everything all at once or worse, take away shows. No one is quite sure when to pay. Many are also concerned that this new method of releasing everything at once prevents new writers from learning the ropes of production. The amount of content being made exclusively for streaming platforms is also a worry.
But once again, a recession looms. There’s far tougher negotiators in charge now, especially at Warner Discovery, where dozens of projects and talents have already fallen by the wayside. And David Zaslav, who had a much more profitable template at his beckoning prior to his takeover of the Warner content and debt, is under even more intense pressure to try and make things work. So, too, are shrewd businesmen like Bob Iger, Jeff Shell and Bob Bakish. And, frankly, the streaming model is highly dispassionate toward the expectations of U.S. writers.
Netflix’s most successful series of all time is still a South Korean-produced series. Language barriers are easily overcome by dubbing or subtitles. And as Zaslav and company well know, the margins of unscripted TV production, not to mention their ability to be marketed as formats globally, are far more favorable.
And, TBH, when the central characters involved are earning interest on six, seven and even eight-figure salaries, it’s really difficult for a public challenged with affording even a second Netflix subscription in a household to be fully sympathetic.
So, yes, I expect a strike, though as someone who was forced to cross angry picket lines in 2007 while many of his friends marched in protest outside my office window, I sure hope cooler heads prevail–though I doubt it. And I do believe repercussions for the lack of it loom.
2–At Least One Significant Streaming Service Will Be Merged Or Shut Down In 2023
There’s simply too many of these things still out there for the average household to support, even with ads. Audiences are far more splintered, and at far lower levels, than they were in 2007-08. Measurement services continue to struggle with the ability to completely and accurately measure what audience there actually is, and continue to make ridiculous investments in buying their way into opportunities without the talent or acumen to meet the expectations of those who need them to be better in order to survive.
The smart money is that Zaslav and WBD are ripe for such an alliance, particularly as the details on what becomes of what we now knows as HBO Max are yet to be publicly revealed. Odds are they will push forward with a MAX-like name that removes the legacy appeal of HBO and Discovery in their respective scripted and unscripted areas. But they’ve already shown their vulnerability with the decisions made in their willingness to become arms dealers and streamline the platform of all but those who meet criteria of minimum consumption and profitability. And the likelihood of newer projects getting there diminish by the week.
Enter Shell and Comcast, whose own streaming effort, Peacock, is suffering through protracted growing pains, and is challenged with his own nomenclature issues. (I mean, is there a more challenging name to market without snark than one that evokes punch lines with its very mentioning?). But Peacock does have live sports, and currently retains streaming rights to globally popular content such as Premier League soccer which Zaslav is quite familiar via Eurosport. NBC News content is also highly profitable and, through Sky News, also has global appeal. And Peacock has already carved out a shrewd arrangement with Hallmark to broaden their portfolio and audience with their popular holiday-themed movies. Stepping up to the plate for some portion of what Zaslav is looking to unload is certainly not out of the question.
I strongly believe some alliance between Comcast and WBD lies ahead. Sadly, it will likely result in many more smart people losing their positions than those that were already collateral damage in 2022, especially on the WBD side. All in the name of progress, right?
3–NBC May Not Fully Get Out Of the 10 PM Hour Just Yet, But Many of Its Stations Will
For the time being, Shell and his network have vowed they will continue to program three hours of primetime programming per weeknight. Peacock’s struggles, and the need for enough inventory to make up for the misses of earlier hours’ content (remember, they RENEWED Lopez Vs. Lopez!) contributed to that decision.
But just as they did decades ago, major station groups fighting for their own survival don’t necessarily have to abide by those decisions. The current head of Hearst Broadcasting, Jordan Wertlieb, publicly expressed his support for the cessation of 10 PM ET programming when the decision was being considered last fall, and as someone who represents NBC affiliates in key markets such as Baltimore, Greensboro, Birmingham and New Orleans, he’s not an insignificant invested partner.
And historically, station groups like Hearst regularly delayed or pre-empted late night television for expanded local inventory, both with longer newscasts and syndicated hits such as reruns of CHEERS and ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT. Many of Wertlieb’s predecessors earned seven-figure bonuses doing just that. With that looming recession, executives like Wertlieb are under even greater pressure now than those ’80s executives were.
And from the NBC side of things, with the potential of Peacock Premium out there, there is always the thinly veiled but long-simmering threat that the need for traditional affiliates to air content is no longer as necessary as it was back then. If you’re among the dying breed that truly want to see Jimmy Fallon on over-the-air TV on the same night and time slot it was originally intended for, pay a fee to do so, much like uberfans of NFL Sunday Ticket have done. Shell and his team know those facts way better than most of us do.
Maybe Wertlieb might be savvy enough to not simply rely upon expanded local news, even if the options for syndicated originals currently aren’t as robust as they were back in the day. But could a group like his, perhaps with a consortium of similarly-minded stations, possibly bandy together to create a fiscally viable template for, say, a talk, magazine or game show that could successfully air in that time slot? Could some of the available executives who know how to do it perhaps be retained by such groups to provide counsel for how to best figure out those options?
And just as we saw in daytime, which NBC now ceases to populate with anything else but news content, is any daypart not pulling its weight actually free from the potential of becoming a footnote in history?
Might it take a group like Hearst, or Scripps, or AMG, or Nexstar or Grey, or maybe an alliance of several of them, to lead NBC and Comcast to doing what they sort of began to do in the first place–which was exactly what FOX did to them (successfully!) at the same time those station groups did indeed get richer with non-network content?
I’m predicting we’ll see someone smart try to do that.
4-23: At least 20 of us looking for new opportunties will find them in 2023, from companies that absolutely need people like us to do so.
Unlike Nostradamus, Nostra-doom-us or Nostra-dumb-ass, whatever monicker you believe is most befitting, I don’t make these dire predictions as a function of my essence. I make them based upon decades of experience, savvy and a lot of examination of the pros, cons, and rationales available because, darn it, I’ve got a lot of time on my hands to do so these days. An awful lot of less experienced. overworked executives too busy to even text many of us back to consider us seem not to have it.
And they’re the ones that are faced with the decisions ahead to make 2023 a better year than the one we just ended.
It is abundantly clear that any perceived beliefs that only a certain demographic, ethnicity, or group of diversity tick marks be the primary arbiters of who and why people are given the chance to work is both outdated and corporately irresponsible. If not to the disemboweled hiring executives who are simply following edicts to bring in faces that look like they’re representative, it should be apparent to those who they report to, or the boards of directors those bosses answer into.
Well, we’re out there. We’re smart, dammit. And so ready to work, frankly, you haven’t seen energy and appetite like this in decades.
Because, ya know, that recession thing is hurting us most of all.
So these last 20 are perhaps more desires and wishes than predictions. And yes, I’m exceptionally biased and will freely admit I desperately want to be one of the at least 20 who wind up with new business cards (or even a Tappy–they’re very cool, BTW–I even have one).
As I promised, that link I’ve added to the last couple of weeks’ previous posts is gone–for now. It still exists, if you ever want to visit that page.
I’d MUCH rather be of service to those of you who need to be more correct in 2023 than you were in 2022 and before.
It’s a new year. Let’s make a mutual resolution to at least find a second or two to discuss things in person. I’ll make the reservation under Nostradamus.
Or perhaps we can meet up at a Barry Manilow concert. You might like it.
Until next time…