Top TV Stories of 2008: The economy's effect on the TV industry
Um, I don't know if anyone has told you yet, but the economy of the United States, and the world, is in the crapper. Seriously, I saw it one day while doing my business. It was just floating there ... one step away from being flushed into the world of depression. I had to get it out with a piece of toilet paper, and it's now drying on my bathtub ledge. Gosh, I hope it's okay.
Anyhoo, things are bad out there. And, not just for us working peons. This recession is affecting everyone, from the muckity-muck CEOs of the soon-to-be bankrupt corporations, to the hot dog vendor outside of Penn Station whose wieners are spending longer and longer amounts of time in their hot water bath. Somewhere in the middle of this are the television networks. Buffeted by both good and bad news, these former stalwarts of the economy are getting knocked around, as well. The meaning, for us poor schlubs, is a restructuring of television as we know it.
With ad revenues down across the board, everything television is being pinched. The biggest cuts are showing up in the amount of money the networks are willing to spend for the development of new programs. Because they are predicting lower than average profits for 2009, the networks are ordering fewer and fewer pilots. Instead, they are going back to the tried-and-true staple of reality programming or spin-offs to fill the primetime gaps. However, even the reality programs, which have been recession-proof up to this time, are feeling the bite, as well.
You can blame, or thank, the Internet for some of this financial trouble. As the writers' strike of 2007-08 wore on earlier this year, more and more talent decided to take their wares and promote them on another platform. The World Wide Web seemed the most logical, and convenient, platform to use. With ad revenues being slightly more reliable around the Internet, and overhead costs much lower due to lack of network interference, many of these creations flourished both creatively and financially on the Web.
The major networks aren't the only ones feeling the effects of the recession. In fact, it's hitting even harder on your local network affiliates, particularly if your affiliate is owned and operated (O&O) by its corporate parent. You'd notice this as your favorite anchors and reporters continue to disappear from your favorite local newscasts. That's because many of the high-paying contracts of these professionals are not being renewed.
It's gotten so bad that local networks are beginning to pool their news-gathering efforts to save money. Here in beautiful Philadelphia, the FOX and NBC outlets have pooled their resources in order to eliminate extra camera people and helicopters that swarm around the City of Brotherly Love. In other cities, station executives are considering training and hiring professionals who can do their own reporting, camera work, and editing. In other words, what many correspondents on the Internet do on a daily basis.
How bad things are getting for television can be seen in the fates of NBC and Tribune. Tribune Corporation, which not only owns a number of television stations across the country but a number of prominent newspapers as well, recently declared bankruptcy in order to avoid paying its increasing debts. NBC, while not declaring bankruptcy just yet, tried to save itself by eliminating all original scripted programming in the 10:00 pm slot in favor of a Monday-Friday talk fest featuring the once fired-now hired Jay Leno.
If there is any good news to come out of the television world during this monetary crisis, it's the huge increase in popularity of business networks like Bloomberg, Fox Business and, most dramatic, CNBC. While many viewers in the past just glanced at these channels on the way to something light and entertaining, they have now become staples of their daily routine. Personalities like FOX's Neil Cavuto and the gang from CNBC's Squawk Box have become household names as the financial crisis has continued to evolve. As a new administration moves into the White House in January, along with a proposed stimulus package, more viewers will probably end up tuning in just to see how everything is going.
The fate of television, especially the fate of the legacy broadcast networks, is currently up in the air. With talk of the recession continuing well into the next year (and possibly beyond), media outlets may take this opportunity to change the structure of their organizations, or say good-bye forever. This, in turn, may affect the way we watch television in the future. Whether we come back to this new TV world is another question entirely.