Adalian Column: Learning the Lesson of ‘Less Is More’

May 1, 2009  •  Post A Comment

The TV business could learn a lot from Justin Timberlake.
Mr. Timberlake, who became famous as part of the boy band *NSYNC, has gone on to become one of the best-known musicians and celebrities in the world. Whether he’s promoting his new MTV reality show “The Phone,” hosting “Saturday Night Live” or being plastered all over the covers of celebrity magazines, Mr. Timberlake is an unavoidable presence in the pop culture landscape.
And yet, for all his success, Mr. Timberlake has released exactly two solo albums during his nearly decadelong career outside of *NSYNC. And he recently told Entertainment Weekly that he has no plans to release a new disc any time soon.
“Right now, I like the idea that things can just kind of pop up and if they feel right I can do them,” he said.
But just because Mr. Timberlake hasn’t put out an entire collection of new tunes doesn’t mean he’s coasting on the vapors of his last CD.
Nor is he simply playing the part of a Very Famous Person, taking advantage of the modern media’s thirst to turn even the most untalented and unproductive members of our society—from Paris Hilton to anyone associated with “The Hills”—into self-contained gossip generators.
Instead, Mr. Timberlake has kept up his cultural relevance by becoming the king of collaborations. In the last two years alone, he’s teamed up to produce major hits with Madonna (“4 Minutes”), 50 Cent (“Ayo Technology”), Rihanna (“Rehab”), TI (“Dead and Gone”) and, most recently, Ciara (“Love Sex Magic”).
Rather than accepting the traditional music industry business model that calls for a new album every couple of years, Mr. Timberlake has decided to limit his musical output to only those projects that make creative or commercial sense. He doesn’t try to fill some predetermined quota for creativity.
TV networks, particularly those on the broadcast side of the business, would be smart to learn from the Timberlake model: Less is clearly more.
Truth is, there’s simply too much original content on TV these days. The explosion of quality scripted dramas on cable, combined with the Tribble-like multiplication of reality projects, has created an impossibly overcrowded environment for entertainment-seeking consumers.
Sure, the era of DVRs has allowed viewers to watch more TV than ever. But no machine yet invented has given audiences the power to add more hours to the day.
And yet this month in New York, most networks will continue to behave as if nothing has changed. They’ll announce schedules packed with very expensive programming, most of which will disappear in less than a year.
Even cable has been infected with the must-have-more disease.
Networks including A&E, TNT and USA seem to be in a race to see who can have a primetime schedule that looks more like that of one of the old Big Three broadcasters. Every day seems to bring news of another scripted cable drama getting ordered.
But where cable once seemed invincible, lately the flops have been piling up. TNT’s splashy failure with “Trust Me,” USA’s inability to keep “The Starter Wife” alive and the collapse of A&E’s “The Beast” should be taken as warning signs that viewers can handle only so many new shows, even by the lower-audience-level standards of the cable world.
And yet, networks can’t help themselves. TNT’s Web site is currently hyping no less than seven premieres of new and returning dramas between June 8 and July 15—a network-style rollout I fear has little chance of working.
Perhaps I’m just a sucker for the professorial-like passion FX President John Landgraf brings to a discussion. But his comments to my TelevisionWeek colleague Jon Lafayette last month rang true.
“When was the last time you had a broadcast network that had eight original dramas on the air and you thought they were all good?” he said. “If a broadcast network can’t do it, then I think a basic-cable network’s never going to be able to do it.”
Mr. Landgraf’s comments underline why NBC, which has taken a lot of heat for abandoning 10 p.m. dramas in favor of stripping Jay Leno, might actually be on the right path.
Mr. Leno’s show might not get huge ratings. And a number of knowledgeable industry insiders insist that the short-term cost savings associated with Mr. Leno’s broadcast won’t be nearly enough to offset the advertising revenue NBC will lose by not running advertiser-friendly, high-quality scripted shows at 10.
But even if stripping Mr. Leno turns out to be a bad idea, the notion of cutting back on original scripted programming is one that just makes sense.
Series have become so expensive and ubiquitous across the TV landscape, why should networks continue to operate as if the old three-hours-per-night model is the only one that works? Why assume that viewers want such an abundance of first-run fare?
Showtime recently seemed to cast a vote in favor of programming (and fiscal) discipline when it opted not to greenlight any of its most recent batch of pilots to series. Maybe none of the shows were that great—or perhaps Showtime executives decided they have enough good shows on their schedule right now. Why rush more on?
I’m not suggesting a one-size-fits-all solution. CBS, with its broad demographics and strong sense of identity, seems to be having little trouble competing three hours a night, seven nights a week. If the old model is still working for it, God bless.
Networks need to get out of the mindset that churning out the same amount of programming each year is the only way to succeed. They ought to take a cue from Mr. Timberlake and realize that sometimes you can accomplish more by producing less.

58 Comments

  1. Great column! And since you bring up JT, he, in my opinion, is the one guy a network should pony up money for a “variety” show. He can do it all!

  2. Nicely stated. So true that quantity rather than quality is plaguing television. I can’t even keep track of all the mediocre shows they keep pumping out. JT, on the other hand, is all quality! Definitely looking forward to his SNL appearance next week.

  3. Although I wish Mr Timberlake would put out another album, I can understand why he chooses not to but I think he will at some point and it will be good music after all you are right there are too many shows on TV that end being cancelled many of which I never watch so sometimes less is more I think.

  4. The key word here is “quality.”
    There isn’t too much quality programming.
    There’s too much crap claimed as “quality.”
    Mediocre me-too series, series based on a title with nothing much to back it up, series whose titles are even careworn (“Starter Wife”):
    The problem is that programming execs operate inside their own beltway, are too busy looking for lowest common denominator, or to pick off a highly defined demographic segment, not realizing that said segment has moved on months ago from the program’s hook.
    Most nights, there’s still 120 channels with “nothing on,” in terms of shows really worth the time and investment.
    My goodness: the NFL draft draws over 30mm viewers!
    The peoples is hungry for what they want, and network programming execs, in particular, haven’t got a clue.
    Series that present real quality find an audience, and there ain’t nearly enough of them shows to go around.

  5. TV is scrambling to mimic the Internet as its ad revenues further decline: Appeal to as many niche markets as possible. While all video entertainment transitions to streaming on demand, we should all be patient. Once to scale, the choices will be better and will resemble a more traditional, albeit better, lineup.

  6. I have been running an informal cost-benefit analysis of cable. Out of the several hundred channels available to me, fewer than ten (including the broadcast nets) have anything worth watching on a regular basis. The absence of quality is bad and getting worse as execs try to deliver less material for more profit. As a result, I am about to kill cable and use a combination of off-the-air and Netflix. Only the addicted would find much to praise about today’s ‘vast wasteland,’ even bigger than when the phrase was coined, and growing fast. Soon: All reruns, all he time. Of wrestling.

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