BOB GARFIELD: The major TV networks have seen their share of turmoil in the past year. The three nightly newscasts now sport new faces. NBC, the long-time ratings king, has slumped to fourth place behind Fox, while CBS, a decade-long loser, has taken the lead. Bill Carter covers television for The New York Times. In his new book, “Desperate Networks,” Carter writes about the quirks of coincidence that can turn a show that seems dead in the water into a – "Survivor."
BILL CARTER: They might as well put a blindfold on and throw a dart against a dartboard. In the case of "Survivor," this British producer named Mark Burnett goes all over Hollywood, pitches the show everywhere to everybody, including every cable network. It doesn't get anywhere. And his business manager knows not even an executive, but the executive assistant to an executive, so he calls that assistant on the phone and says, “Is there somebody around who would listen to this pitch?” And then the guy looks in the cubicle next to him, and he turns to the guy and he says, “You want to talk to this guy about this pitch?” And this executive's name is Ghen Maynard. He says, “Well, sure, ‘cause he's looking for anything that'll get him out of this little cubicle.” And the guy tells him about this show. It's about these people on an island. They pick who's going to get kicked off. And he's listening to this and he starts to think - when he went to Harvard, he majored in social psychology, and it sounds like a social psychology experiment to him. [SURVIVOR CLIP]
MAN: Shane thinks I'm his puppy dog. He thinks he can tell me to do this and I'll do it, because up until this point, I have, which really makes it easy for me to do things pretty inconspicuously. [END SURVIVOR CLIP]
BILL CARTER: So for the first time, just by happenstance, the guys hit the right [CHUCKLES] person to respond to this. Now again, Maynard has the impetus to go and try to sell this to Les Moonves, the head of CBS. So he makes an appointment, and Les says, “No offense, Ghen, but that's the stupidest idea I've ever heard in my life!”
BOB GARFIELD: Moonves eventually reconsidered, and the result of this little bit of cubicle happenstance is like a billion-dollar franchise.
BILL CARTER: It's more than the franchise. It's the transformation of CBS into a network that actually had people under the age of 50 watching it. It gets young people, it gets old people, it gets kids, it gets teenagers. He even got Walter Cronkite watching.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING]
BILL CARTER: Walter Cronkite stopped him in the hall and congratulated him for bringing back the luster of CBS. And he liked that - not as much as the call he got from his teenage daughter who said, “Dad, all my friends are watching a show on CBS.”
BOB GARFIELD: There's an anecdote in your book about a very critical scheduling meeting when the people at CBS were making their final decisions about what would live and what would die. And they were about to announce a new show starring Tony Danza. One guy says, [LAUGHS] “Isn't it enough with this guy?”
BILL CARTER: [LAUGHS] And I actually went and found that pilot, because I had to see exactly what it was he reacted to. And it was just a remarkably conventional, pedestrian television show about a guy who was a former New York cop who retires to the suburbs and then solves crimes with his kids. And it was just gratingly awful. And Les then is like, “Uh, I wonder if there's something else?” And he's almost like kicking the cassettes on the floor, like “what else have we got, what else is down here?” Oh, what about this thing? And he puts it in – it's "CSI." So from that moment, CBS gets at least two billion dollars' worth of revenue.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about the ecology of hits. We now can download hit TV shows on our video iPods. The phone and cable companies are making it possible to take the TV shows we love the most and see them on the third screen. In order to have that channel of revenue, the networks have to have hit TV shows.
BILL CARTER: Correct.
BOB GARFIELD: And as audiences shrink, where will the hit TV shows [LAUGHS] come from that will lead to the interest in downloading them on any of these portable devices?
BILL CARTER: That is really the critical question. I think the networks look to be moving toward a position of being like the movies first weekend box office. They're going to be still the launching place for a lot of these hit shows, and then they're going to try to exploit them across different platforms, but they are going to still try to aggregate a gigantic number of people at least once. I mean, the problem they're having is that the bottom ends of their schedule are just doing nothing for them. They have no appeal at all.
BOB GARFIELD: So it's a chicken-and-egg proposition. In order to sustain the iTunes business, you need a hit show, but in order to get a hit show you have to have a big audience, and in order to have a big audience, you have to try out a lot of shows, most of which are going to fail. Who's going to pay to finance [CHUCKLES] all of these shows in order to get the one hit so that you can watch it on your third screen in the subway car?
BILL CARTER: Yeah, that's a great question, because the advertisers have been paying, and it's been exclusively that single revenue stream. But obviously, they're trying to find revenue streams in those other platforms. So they charge $1.99 for the download on the iPod. And ABC is putting their shows on their own website a day later and selling separate advertising, and advertising that can't be skipped, which is kind of an interesting thought. But essentially, the advertising revenue is going to diminish, so they need another outlet. They need the DVD sales, you know, and that does work with certain shows. If you have a serialized show, like "Lost" or "24," they do great in the DVD sales.
BOB GARFIELD: The up-fronts are beginning. This is the period where advertisers make their bets up front on the coming fall seasons. And some have predicted, and I guess I'm pretty much one of them, that this is going to be a doomsday moment for the networks. What's your prediction?
BILL CARTER: Well, the insiders in TV think that the up front will actually be okay, because Fox, ABC and CBS are all in strong positions this year. Only NBC's in a terrible position. They all have hit shows that advertisers really want to be in, because if you go to Fox and you say, I got to be in "American Idol," and they say, fine, okay, but then you've got to buy, you know, two spots in "America's Most Wanted," and that's how they extract the money. So they've been able to do that. I think there is a crisis point coming. I'm not sure it'll be this year, but if another network starts to slump as badly as NBC has, and I think ABC has the potential, believe it or not, to be that network, it's almost like they're now on the precipice and they're holding on to these hits that are keeping them from falling over the precipice.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you've written a few books now, and, you know, they're all filled with all this great dish. And I wonder was there something you learned in this book that [LAUGHS] made you just go, whoa?
BILL CARTER: Well, I always knew that chance was the biggest player in all these guys' fates, but across the board, I mean, it's just incredible. There's an ABC executive named Lloyd Braun. He comes up with an idea about doing basically a fictionalized version of "Survivor." People crash on an island, they have to form a society, etc. He then decides to bring in writers. The writer comes in, writes a bad script. Everybody thinks that it should be dropped. But it's like his baby, he's got to pursue it. So he brings in a great writer named J.J. Abrams, and they come up with "Lost." And it is a brilliant [LAUGHS], fascinating idea, but ABC doesn't want to put it on because it's expensive, and it's attached to Lloyd Braun, who's now lost all his credibility at the network, so much so that they fire him. But he's so worried that this one show will die that he calls up NBC and tries to create a back channel to sell them the show that's still owned by ABC. And it didn't work, and he thought, “Oh, my gosh, there'll be no legacy of me left at ABC.” That doesn't happen. They do put it on ABC. It's a roaring, raging success. And the only thing that Lloyd Braun gets out of it is that very surreptitiously they allow him to go [LAUGHS] into a studio one day and record three words, "Previously on 'Lost'," and that's his voice on the show, and that's his legacy on that. Now, that story really fascinated me.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Previously on "Lost," currently the head of programming at Yahoo.
BILL CARTER: Correct.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well, Bill, thank you so much.
BILL CARTER: Thank you, Bob. I enjoyed it.
BOB GARFIELD: Bill Carter covers television for The New York Times. His new book is called “Desperate Networks”. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo and edited – by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Anni Katz and Mark Phillips. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
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