Not all is gloom in the TV business lately.Fox is up. Many people in TV know that. So's the Food Network. So's Discovery. The Spanish-language networks are up a bit, too. A few station groups are holding their own. Some shows are very hot... not many, but some. A number of production facilities are doing darn good business with a rush of work pipelined by formerly striking writers. Several more are benefiting from nonbroadcast trends. The low dollar is certainly helping Hollywood, for one.
In any declining business, there will be some winners. In a declining overall market, of course, the winners may make things even harder for the losers. But still, it's inspirational to have some winners.
What can we learn from those winners? Are they serendipitous; simply due to a few people doing something special? Or are there business lessons to be learned?
Maybe the old TV dog can learn a few tricks. Let's have a look.
FOOD IS GOOD
Food Network is doing very, very well. Prime-time average audience increased 21 percent for people 25-to 54, or 15 percent across all demographics, season-to-date, (from last September). Strong growth in all other measures, too. Food shows are also pretty darn cheap to produce.
Lots of profits here.
Chef Robert Irvine (center) of the Food Network's "Dinner: Impossible" plates a meal Sept. 22 for more than 1,000 airmen with only 10 hours preparation. U.S. Air Force photo/Harry Tonemah
How are food shows doing in other network contexts? Also very well, and not only in the U.S. Audiences are aging a bit on average throughout the Americas and much of Asia., and a lot in Europe and Japan. People are naturally a bit more interested in the quality of what they put in their mouths as they get older, and going out to eat is getting expensive for Mr. and Mrs. Average in our lousy economy. But buying even an overpriced half-pound of cheese seen on a cooking show remains within most people's means. Food shows have legs. This is a big trend. Food Network will not be the only beneficiary.
What are we to learn from Discovery being strongly up (prime time 25-to-54s up 14 percent, and 8 percent across all demos), while sister channels Animal Planet and Learning Channel are down by even bigger percentages?
Quite a bit, I think. In fact, Discovery's numbers make me think back a decade or so in the history of Television Broadcast. Just like John Hendricks with his Discovery brand, many publishers in the 1990s were geniuses at splitting off new titles. They had a clear strategic vision that media were fragmenting, that technology allowed several niche publications where formerly more diverse audiences shared vehicles, and they ran with this vision faster and farther than the competition.
But when they got caught in an overall industry decline, the divide-and-conquer strategy left a lot of niche titles struggling for advertisers who were looking at a broader market. The less spun-off and spun apart competition found themselves better able to support themselves in that environment, even though it may, for example, force people interested in the technology of TV to see those articles next to stories about TV programming. Or, for another example, if the animal fans must sift through a few shows on astronauts before they get back to telephoto images of tigers having sex.
So reconsolidation is sometimes very logical, in multichannel TV now as in the magazine world a few years ago. Cable systems can't expand their channel lineups indefinitely, as they need bandwidth for digital broadcasters and for ever more broadband. Discovery's up partly because its brethren are down, as cablers either drop the spin-off channels or move them down on the dial.
Maybe this bespeaks renewed opportunity for the broadcast network generalists.
What's Fox doing right that the other networks are doing wrong? Or is their current dominance merely luck of the draw, as has often been the case in the ratings game?
Never underestimate luck in this game, but Fox has spent more on new shows than the other big networks for several years now. It took them a long time to get the payoff, but here it is. Meanwhile, NBC has retrenched big time on new pilots, and they have also suffered the most in the ratings. Could be luck, but maybe the old equation of throwing many, many shows at the screen to see if one may stick still works.
At May's NCTA cable convention, there was a lot of kvetching over the news that The Colbert Report, South Park, and Jon Stewart, among other MTV Networks shows, are now wholly available on MTV's various Web sites.
Cablers want to be charged less for shows if consumers are also able to see them for free on another medium; after all, they don't pay for the shows that broadcast channels carry for free.... Oh well, that logic breaks down a bit.
Get used to it. Shows will go wherever they can meet some eyeballs. They already are, illegally. If the content owner can actually sell a few ads into Internet distribution, rather than just use it as a loss leader, they must do so. And where South Park goes, the rest of TV follows. Expect to see all "your" content also on the Web, if you are a broadcaster or a rebroadcaster/cabler/satelliter.
Content owners will make a bit more money that way, and you will feel they are taking it away from you. But they're not, really. A broadcaster can boast being able to show the show in HD rather than lousy Web video, in those few years left before Web video is better than the piss-poor HD quality at your station. There's got to be a way to monetize that classier viewing window while you've still got it.
SPEAKING IN TONGUES
OK, no surprises, we all know the Hispanic population in the United States keeps growing faster than other demographics. So it makes sense that Spanish-language networks might see some growth, even as other networks decline in market share and ad revenue. And this has come to pass.
But I am going out on a limb here and will try to tie this trend to how light and insubstantial our wallets feel lately. This will be a logical stretch, but bear with me.
The dollar is down. This is mostly because of the sudden scarcity of oil, for one, and the collapse of our real-estate boom, for another. Now, everything in the world is linked somehow, but these phenomena are really more linked than most. Oil prices are up because China and India, and other developing economies (but those two alone comprise more than one-third of humanity), are suddenly huge industrial powers full of voracious consumers like ours and lots of need for petroleum.
American real estate was overvalued because we had super-low interest rates, and we had those for many years because we had very low inflation ... which was because China, India and other developing economies provided us with lots of goods at ever-lower prices. And then they needed to invest what we paid for that stuff in dollars, so they bought our real estate.
Now, any economist will tell you that big trading partners will tend towards economic parity. In other words, it is unsustainable for Americans with relatively high incomes to do lots of trading with Chinese with low incomes. We'll even out, like we did with Western Europe a couple of decades after World War II, and like a husband and wife who have lived together a long time.
Yes, we need to find sources of energy other than oil, and yes, global warming is a problem, and no, this column and magazine are really not a forum for all those issues. Point here is: the next stage of internationalization will see the dollar stay lower against Asian and Latin currencies for a very long time. What this means for the TV industry is already starting to be seen: renewed opportunities for program exports; stronger opportunities for the more international networks, as foreigners come to the United States, not only to be busboys and cab drivers and fruit pickers, but as people with incomes as high as most Americans; more opportunity to partner with TV in other countries as revenues there rise relative to U.S. TV. Univision and Fox's owner, News Corp., already are there more than other U.S. broadcasters. The results are starting to announce themselves.
Neal Weinstock is chairman/CEO of Kerner New York, a firm that does 3D over IPTV in out-of-home networks.