Monday, November 12, 2012

There Is Always Money In Quality Programming

One wouldn't necessarily be remiss if it didn't seem like television had a nostalgic problem.

The long-cancelled Arrested Development is currently filming a new season of the show--over five years since it has been off the air, something nearly unheard of in the industry--and is possibly going to turn it into a movie. Meanwhile, yesterday an all-day marathon of the similarly missed Firefly was aired. Both of these shows have devoted fan bases and are often the prime example of quality television that people just flat-out refused to watch. The usually loud fans have made both of these things possible--along with solid DVD sales and the industry awards to validate their opinions.

That more or less begs the question: is this how television is going to be from now on, or has it always been this way?

The media landscape has certainly changed, of course. There are hundreds of channels all vying for the same number of viewers that four networks had exclusive control of not even two decades ago. (Actually, probably fewer viewers.) It's this terrible balancing act of how much to pay stars and how much to spend in production costs versus the actual amount of revenue you get from advertising--and if people aren't watching, there is no such revenue.

While we all like to complain about reality television, the proper answer is that it's saving quality television: it's allowing shows with higher production costs to even get to the pilot stage. Still, it can't really go on forever. At some point the viewers just aren't going to accumulate to one channel, and it's going to be very, very difficult for one show to get enough of a budget to produce something decent. And the cheap-but-profitable reality television trend will eventually diminish in its money-making status, and it will be difficult to find something to take its place.

Then again, who knows what all the variables are. There's a reason HBO has had so many quality programs--people are literally paying for those shows to air, and so those shows get the budget based on this response. The rise of the internet has allowed demographics to get winnowed down to its smallest fractions; fans of steampunk apocalypse shows can now support those shows actively, whereas fifteen years ago you could maybe catch it on TV and hope the ratings reflected it. Even places like Netflix and devices like TiVO are going to change the game: not only that, but it's getting increasingly easy (along with internet viewing) to get nearly fully accurate ratings (along with the appropriate demographics) on each and every show.

Personally, I suspect the Netflix model to be the future: on-demand viewing with no set schedule or dicking around with DVRs. Real, accurate numbers will determine whether shows live or die, and it will all be available instantly. The question will be whether this model will include an irritating tiered-price system (like cable and satellite providers do) or if they will anchor all these shows with advertising, effectively reducing what makes them useful to begin with.

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