Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
December 31, 2004
POP CULTURE: Bust Cycle
For many years, the number of original prime-time TV programs (i.e., shows with actors and a script), or at least the number of hours of original prime-time TV programming, was basically fixed. There were three networks, and after the collapse of prime-time game shows in the 1950s, only a few hours of prime time were set aside for movies, newsmagazines, Monday Night Football, and other non-scripted programs like Candid Camera and That's Incredible! The main variable in the number of shows was how many 1-hour dramas would be on vs. how many half-hour sitcoms.
That started to change in the mid/late-1980s, with the arrival of the FOX network as the first credible fourth network. Over the following decade or so, the supply of original programming exploded, with a fifth and sixth network (The WB and UPN), as well as original programming on pay cable (HBO, Showtime) and basic cable (USA Network, Comedy Central).
Of course, expansion of the supply of shows can only mean one of two things on the supply end - expansion of the supply of good writers and good ideas, or dilution of quality. Rather obviously, it has meant the latter. Worse yet, I suspect that what results is less a sharp division between good ideas written well and bad ideas written poorly, but fewer shows being able to sustain a core of good writers, as writing talent gets dispersed more widely. And writing talent is the key variable: there's always more good actors and actresses than there are well-written TV shows and films for them to populate (it's far more common to see good actors struggling to save bad material than the other way around).
The other inevitable consequence of increased supply is that, in the absence of increased demand - and the evidence is that with the rise of movie rentals and the internet and the proliferation of other entertainment options, overall demand for original TV programs has dropped - the increased supply will be chasing a smaller and smaller audience.
The consequences of this should have been obvious, and they are being manifested today. "Reality TV" may be a fad as far as TV viewers are concerned. To network execs, though, reality shows, expanded newsmagazine lineups, and prime time game shows are a rational response of substituting cheap-to-produce substitutes (reality shows, with few writers, essentially volunteer casts, and often poor production values, are famously cheap). Another consequence is that networks are taking a harder line with replacement-level actors and actresses - witness ABC's attempt to save "The Practice" before its final season by firing everyone on the show who made decent money (i.e., everyone but the ugly people), or CSI's abrupt firing of two cast members (later re-hired) who wanted more money. Even USA took a hard line with Bitty Schram, now-former co-star of "Monk." "Frasier" went off the air in large part because its cast was so expensive.
Of course, it's not an anomaly that, in such an environment, as in the movie business or in pro sports, the elite who can guarantee big ratings get an even bigger salary - like Ray Romano, who's both a star and writer of his own show, or James Gandolfini on The Sopranos. But the overall dynamic of network TV is unmistakable: with more players and a shrinking pie, networks in the future will allot fewer prime-time hours to original programming, and will spend less money on all but the biggest stars of those programs.