The Future Of Television: Network Programming Will Die

By Adam Hartung

  • 02 Feb 2011

NBC Universal is changing owners, from General Electric to Comcast. The former NBC President, Jeff Zucker, is being replaced by Steve Burke. Stylistically, it's hard to imagine two fellas less alike. Mr. Burke, portraited in the New York Times "A Little Less Drama at NBC," is a mild-mannered, quiet, self-effacing executive who almost attended divinity school. He avoids the limelight as much as he avoids being abrasive with colleagues. The outgoing Mr. Zucker is by all accounts brash,abrasive and quick to make decisions, as he was portraited in PaidContent.org "Was Jeff Zucker Really So Bad For NBC Universal?"

But it isn't executive style that will determine whether Mr. Burke succeeds. Although NBCU just returned its highest profits since 2004, the television and media industries are in dramatic transition. Things aren't like they used to be, and they will never be that way again. Growing revenues, and profits, at the combined NBCU/Comcast will require Mr. Burke quickly move both companies into a different kind of competitor focused on the changed market of 2015 - when media customers and suppliers will both be very different, with quite different demands.

Although Mr. Zucker is blasted for allowing NBC's ratings to fall to last among the Big 3 networks (including CBS and ABC), it's not at all clear why that wasn't a smart move. What has grown NBC's profits has been far removed from network programming. It was the acquisition of cable channels USA and Sci Fi (now Syfy) via Universal, and later Bravo, Oxygen and The Weather Channel that contributed greatly to NBC's revenue and profit growth. These were also enhanced by building, from scratch, the #1 business-content television channel at CNBC, and the profitable, somewhat populist counter-channel to powerhouse conservative Fox News with MSNBC. Despite what the critics (who are largely interested in programs rather than profits) have said, it may have been an act of brilliance to avoid investing in the declining business that is prime time network programming.


What anyone thinks about the brouhaha over Jay Leno's attempt at prime time, and Conan O'Brien's stint leading The Today Show, is immaterial to revenue growth and profits. I'm a late boomer, so I remember when there were only 3 stations, and Johny Carson dominated the post-news late evening. But now I have college age sons that don't even own televisions, have almost no idea who Jay Leno is (other than know of him as a car and motorcycle collector) and find all interview programs boring. "Network" TV is something they don't quite understand - since their tolerance for watching entertainment on someone else's pre-determined schedule is non-existent, and their patience for sitting through commercials of real-time programming is even lower. In other words, what happens in the "prime time" race, or with network celebrities, really doesn't matter any more. And if NBCU can't grow viewers it can't grow ad revenues - so why should it invest in the prime time business? Just because it used to? Or started that way?

While lots of media "experts" are screaming for Mr. Burke to "fix" NBC, that business is already well into the hospice. Network share of entertainment interest is falling rapidly as boomers die, dozens of new offerings are micro-targeting across the channel spectrum, and we all turn to the internet for downloads, ignoring the TV for news or entertainment several additional hours each year. Meanwhile, people under the age of 30 aren't even watching much television any more. They just pretend to watch while sitting with their parents as they text, check Facebook or watch a downloaded program on their iPhone.

"Network" programming is a business which is not going to grow again. Given how costs are increasing for traditional shows, and the over-explosion of inexpensive "reality" or "news" shows, and fragmentation and decline of advertising why would anyone ever expect this to be a profitable business? Being last in that 3 horse race is about as interesting as tracking share of market for printed phone directories. Probably the first to quit ist he big winner. So why should Mr. Burke spend much time, or money, fighting the last war? "Fixing" that outdated business model is fraught with high risk, and low return. Now that tthe artificial limits on news and entertainment programming have been removed (thanks to the internet) isn't it time to let go of that historial artifact and focus on the future?


We know the future will be a mix of traditional TV (at least for a while, but don't make any bets on it being too long), as well as targeted channels we now refer to as "cable" (even though that moniker is clearly losing meaning in a WiFi world.) Some of these will be free access, and some will be paid content. But all of that now must compete with downloads from Netfilx, Hulu (in which NBCU is a part owner) and YouTube (partially owned by Google.) People can create and post their own programs, and even do their own marketing. Instant availability, reviews and promotion will be couresy of Twitter and Facebook. This is a lot more complex than just ordering a new crime drama series, or situation comedy, and foisting it on a market with only a handful of channel options.

Viewership will range from 50" panels, to 2" hand-held screens - with a plethora of optional sizes in between. Program length will be infinitely variable from hours of non-stop viewing to constantly interrupted sound bites, no longer proscribed by 30 minute increments. Traditional programming, like local or national "news" will have little meaning, or value, in 2020 (or maybe 2015) when we will be receiving instant updates several times each day on our mobile device.

Mr. Zucker did a yeoman's job of steering NBCU toward the future. He was smart enough to understand that only historians, locked-in media critics and old farts in Lay-Z-Boys care about what's happening on The Tonight Show or the NBC News. His primary investments were oriented toward understanding the future, and getting NBCU's toes into that rapidly churning water where future growth lies. But he's leaving just as the stream is turning into a torrent. Even what he did could well be out of date within a few years - or months!


Now it is Mr. Burke's turn. The very pleasant fellow has a daunting challenge. If he isn't supposed to "double down" his bets in network TV, and traditional "cable," what is he supposed to do? In a dramatically changing advertising world, where Google, Facebook and mobile device ads are now becoming the hot markets, what is the role for NBCU/Comcast? If we no longer need the physucal cable (say in 2020), won't Comcast lose subscribers for cable access just like we're seeing declines in subscribers for newspapers, DVD subscriptions, land-line telephones and land-line long distance? What is the role of a "programmer" like NBCU if viewers all have unlimited access to everything, anytime, anywhere, in any format? And what is the value of a content provider if self-published content streams onto the web by the terabyte daily? And is sorted by engines like Google and YouTube?

What Mr. Burke must do, regardless of style, is develop some scenarios about the future, and understand the much more complex playing field that is today's media business. He has to find the holes in competition, and learn how to leverage what the "fringe" competitors are doing that drives all that usage, and viewership. And, most importantly, he has to keep experimenting - just as Mr. Zucker did. He has to create opportunities to test the newly developing markets, figure out who will buy, and what they will buy. He has to set up white space teams who have permission to be experimental, even if they attack the old businesses like "network" TV - even cannibalizing the historical viewr base as they transition toward future media markets. If he can create these teams, give them the right permission and resources, NBCU/Comcast could be the next great media company.

We'll have to wait and see. Will the sirens of the past, looking backward, pull the company into gladiator battles with old foes trying to hold share in narrowing, declining markets? That path looks like a sure disaster. Despite being an early leader with satellite TV and MySpace that approach has not helped NewsCorp. But betting on the future is more a bet on the journey, and finding the right path, than betting on any particular destination. The future-based approach takes a lot of faith in company leadership, and the company management team. It will be interesting to see which way Mr. Burke goes.


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