In Depth

Unanswered Questions: How Tough Is TV?

30 Questions the Industry Must Answer as a Challenging 2009 Looms

For television, there seem to be more questions than answers as 2008 comes to a close: How many industry pros will lose their jobs? How long will the recession last? How badly will the advertising market that is TV’s lifeblood falter?

Wave after wave of anxiety-provoking headlines don’t help matters. If TV executives were sticking to their blood-pressure meds before the October stock-market dive, now they’re washing back handfuls of Valiums with double gins and tonic.

In the midst of this maelstrom, the TelevisionWeek staff endeavored to analyze the zeitgeist with bite-sized queries that are easily digestible. And while not every question will light the right path to take in 2009, they may make 2008 more comprehensible.

How you perceive a problem often has a lot to do with how you frame it. So as we look into 2009, the reflexive question might be, “How low can we go?” TelevisionWeek prefers a formulation with a little more fight in it: “How tough is TV?”

Either way, we’re about to find out.

Unanswered Questions

Can Sumner Redstone hang on to CBS and Viacom?

Even if Sumner Redstone can satisfy lenders without giving up control of his baby Viacom and CBS, too, the media mogul can’t live forever. At some point soon, a serious succession plan is going to have to be made and executed, or else uncertainty over the boss will continue to depress both companies’ stocks.

Can NBC survive another round of executive turmoil with Ben Silverman remaining at the top?

Mr. Silverman didn’t just survive last week’s massive restructuring; he played a key role in determining who stayed and who went. Boss Jeff Zucker has made it clear that he wants Mr. Silverman to stay, and NBC insiders suggest Mr. Silverman has been acting like someone who wants to keep his job. And yet the headline-making co-chairman of NBC Entertainment has been coy about his intentions lately, fueling continued speculation that he’s uncertain about committing. Odds are Mr. Silverman will stay through 2009—unless, of course, he gets a better offer.

Will the deepening financial crisis alter how networks program? Will there be fewer original shows and more repeats?

NBC began to answer that question last week with its groundbreaking deal to strip Jay Leno at 10 p.m. weeknights. Industry observers believe other networks will look to find ways to scale back their programming costs. Ironically, while there might be fewer expensive dramas and comedies on the air, audiences might end up with more first-run fare overall. With ratings for repeats sinking, networks are scrambling to find ways to fill time slots with new shows year-round. Look for more experiments such as CBS’ decision to import Canadian crime drama “Flashpoint.”

Will anyone have money to buy TV ads in scatter?

Network advertising sales executives are still crossing their fingers that the ads they sold in last year’s upfront don’t get returned to them in the second and third quarters. Meanwhile, even though scatter has slowed to a crawl, the networks can’t afford to cut prices at a time when their ratings also are declining.

Will Google take over TV ad sales?

Embraced by NBC Universal, Hallmark Channel and Bloomberg TV, revenues generated by Google ad sales are found money for the networks. And as more data comes online from set-top boxes, Google’s ability to analyze connections between marketers and targets will have Google collecting a bigger share of the pie, if not eating the network’s lunch.

Will the digital transition help cable or broadcasters?

Millions of people now using rabbit ears will discover that USA Network, CNN and the Discovery Channel are far more interesting than the old shows and weather updates most local broadcasters will be slapping up on their new digital channels, because the cable guys are offering to hook you up for free.

Who will hire Kevin Martin now that he’s ticked off 90% of Washington?

Some suggest that Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin might not leave the commission when President-elect Barack Obama replaces him because, well, he’s got nowhere else to go. If he does depart, the only certainty is that he isn’t very likely to get a job with a cable operator—or any of several consumer groups.

Will more cable and satellite subscribers cut the cord in 2009?
Chance to save $100 a month? You betcha. Cord-cutting will be the hip thing for early adopters to do in 2009; they’ll rely on AppleTV, Hulu, Netflix, Xbox and the Internet to power their entertainment. Cord-cutting is hard at first. But once you kick the habit, you feel healthier.

When will subchannels show stations the money?

For television stations bracing for advertising revenue declines to extend into 2010, the subchannels they can carve out of their digital spectrum look less like moneymakers and more like money pits that could cannibalize their belt-tightening core businesses. It takes money and precious energy to program subchannels, to sell and track ad time and to meet regulatory requirements and restrictions. Stations are short of both for the foreseeable future.

Can YouTube make money?

This won’t come as a surprise to anyone in traditional television, but YouTube needs more premium programming to make some bucks. Advertisers want safer environments. But YouTube knows that and will bring more studios and networks into the fold while also pushing e-commerce, sponsored videos and search advertising.

Are networks generating meaningful revenue from digital media?

Broadcasters aren’t making enough money online yet to make up for lost audiences on-air. But online viewers and ad dollars are growing. The recession will force networks to deliver a bigger bang for the online buck with better metrics and social media elements. The upshot: Online cost-per-thousand (CPM) rates rise.

If stations can’t cover license fees in full, what’s going to happen to the quality of shows in syndication?

Stations strapped for cash that can’t pony up for license fees put syndicators in a rough predicament: Downgrade the quality of syndicated product or don’t provide the content to begin with. License fees in part cover production costs, so lower fees equal lower production expenditure. If syndicator higher-ups are any indication, they’d rather avoid putting out substandard product than deal with lower production budgets. For example, a shadow has been cast on CBS Television Distribution’s Tribune-sold T.D. Jakes talker after Tribune filed for bankruptcy last week. Expect to see station programmers double down on off-net offerings, which could migrate back into daytime as distributors avoid production on underfunded original programming.

What will John Roberts and the Supremes do to broadcast-indecency regulation?

The justices of the Supreme Court could make a broad decision on indecency that could end or severely limit FCC enforcement of broadcast indecency rules. Or they could do the expected and punt: Instead of making any sweeping decision, the court could refer a case about the FCC’s indecency rules back to lower courts on procedural grounds, saving the indecency fight for another day.

How solid is Katie Couric at “The CBS Evening News”?

The most expensive flagship anchor in television history is pretty solid. The perception of her has dramatically improved since her interviews turned the media tide against Sarah Palin. While “Evening News” remains in third place, the ratings have stabilized—even hitting eight-month highs in total viewers (6.8 million) and viewers 25-54 (2.1 million) this month. Also auguring against CBS News making another wrenching change: CBS is not in the mood to pay off her $15 million-a-year contract when there is no viable alternative in-house—or in sight.

How long can CNN prop up King Larry?

MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” is only 3 months old and already it’s steadily running ratings rings around “Larry King Live,” the signature show that sits smack in the middle of CNN’s prime-time lineup and has recently fallen to third place in the nightly cable news battle for the time slot’s audience. But CNN executives, who pride themselves on having the money and the moxie to move quickly with programming ideas, are not contemplating a move for Mr. King. They like him. They consider his interview format and persona as valuable alternatives at 9 p.m. He may occupy that chair as long as he can be propped up in it.

Will network reality shake off its creative recession and begin to impact pop culture and ratings as strongly as it did five years ago?

Although “Wipeout” was a modest success for ABC, 2008 saw the networks once again unable to launch any noisy unscripted hits in the vein of “American Idol” or “Dancing With the Stars.” It’s no surprise, then, that 2009 begins with new reality chiefs at CBS, NBC and The CW. The infusion of new blood could lead to the networks’ abandoning their recent caution when it comes to reality in order to try some truly alternative ideas.

Will CBS finally launch a hit drama that doesn’t have crime or criminals at its center?

The bigger question might be, does it matter? After all, CBS managed to dominate a tough fall for all the networks with a lineup built around its signature law-and-order dramas. The one non-mystery show it launched, “The Ex List,” quickly fizzled. But as successful as the CBS formula has been, even some network insiders believe viewers crave more variety. And some of its longest-running crime shows, including “Without a Trace” and “CSI,” are starting to show their age. Look for CBS to keep trying.

Can “American Idol” avoid a ratings slump?

Rival networks pray each January that this will be the year Fox’s Nielsen locomotive finally derails—and each time, they’re disappointed. Last season, however, the series did show some signs of aging, prompting all sorts of frenzied speculation about whether viewers were finally tiring of the “Idol” formula. And with numbers for most TV shows down this fall, it wouldn’t be a shock if “Idol” suffered as well. Fox is taking no chances, mounting an aggressive marketing push for the new season and promising a back-to-basics approach to storytelling. Bottom line: Even if “Idol” does take a hit, it will remain the biggest show on TV by a mile.

Can the Emmys, Grammys and Oscars reverse their creative—and Nielsen—declines?

All three big kudos shows turned in lackluster ratings in 2008, with critics savaging them as boring, irrelevant … or worse. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has taken steps to shake up its ceremony, naming filmmakers Laurence Mark and Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls”) as executive producers and bringing in celebrity architect David Rockwell as set designer. It’s unclear if the music or TV academies will be so bold, though the Grammy folks tried to shake things up by mounting a concert special on CBS to announce their nominees earlier this month.

Whither “Project Runway”?

Harvey Weinstein and Jeff Zucker are fighting over this show as if it was the last piece of organza and they each have a party to go to. Odds are the show will be out of fashion by the time the lawyers are done making their suits.

Will Oprah move to cable?

How badly did Discovery’s David Zaslav piss off the most important woman in television when he said she was leaving syndie in 2011? Oprah will do what she wants to do, naturally. If she craves the spotlight, syndication may still be the way to go. Ask Howard Stern about moving to a smaller but potentially more lucrative outlet—if you can find him.

Will anyone watch “Friday Night Lights”?

Although little-watched in past seasons on NBC, it’s the most-watched show on DirecTV’s original programming channel The 101, with about 650,000 viewers tuning in. Those early viewers have created little additional buzz for the critical darling and can only spell lower ratings for NBC, which can console itself with DirecTV cash in its pocket.

Can Ellen make ratings inroads and position herself as the heir to Oprah?

Ms. DeGeneres made strides during 2008 to close the gap between her show and perennial third-place talker “Live With Regis and Kelly,” coming within three-tenths of a ratings point. She’s one of the only major players in the syndie talk-show genre to show year-to-year growth. However, she has quite a stellar distance to go in order to reach Oprah’s ratings plateau, as “Oprah” more than doubles “Ellen’s” ratings. But Ms. DeGeneres’ popularity will continue to grow in 2009 and ratings are sure to follow.

Can “Dr. Phil” engineer a ratings rise?

While most of syndication is down year-to-year, CBS Television Distribution’s “Dr. Phil” is off a hefty 28% from 2007. Executive producer Carla Pennington said she’s not going to sweat day-to-day numbers and will continue producing the show as normal. Ms. Pennington said the tone of “Phil” this season is going to be a focus on handling stress at home, something that viewers are dealing with in the midst of a rocky economy. “Phil’s” ratings decline, while worrisome, is more a snapshot of the industry, as other talkers like “Live With Regis and Kelly” and “Jerry Springer” are off by double digits from last year. Despite the dip, “Phil” continues, very handily, to hold second place in the talk show genre, something the show has done for the past 323 weeks.

Can “The Doctors” grow enough to withstand competition from “Dr. Oz”?

If recent weeks are any indication, CBS Television Distribution’s just-renewed “The Doctors” should continue to grow this season. Sony Pictures Television’s incoming medical talker, “Dr. Oz,” isn’t a lock to open huge, as “The Doctors’” slow ratings gain from its launch illustrates. “Doctors” has laid the groundwork in building interest in the genre, which is in the interests of “Oz.” But “Oz’s” launch on Fox stations in major markets could hamper the program, as some insiders believe they’re not the right fit for the show. Knowing this, “The Doctors” should be in a competitive position come September with a full season under its belt before “Oz’s” launch.

Can Harvey Levin topple the newsmag kings?

Warner Bros.’ and Harvey Levin’s “TMZ” has cracked the tough newsmagazine genre with surprising swiftness, settling in toward the front of the pack in the ratings in only its second season. “TMZ’s” success comes partially from focusing on an underrepresented demographic in newsmags, young males, while the rest of the genre mainly fights over women 25-54. “Entertainment Tonight” isn’t going anywhere any time soon, but “TMZ” appears to have carte blanche with a rare syndication audience, a huge selling point in terms of advertisers.

Will Chris Matthews run or stay at MSNBC?

Garrulous “Hardball” host Chris Matthews has been not-so-coyly exploring the idea of becoming one of the elected politicians he loves to talk about. MSNBC is on a ratings roll and would rather not lose Mr. Matthews. But Mr. Matthews, inspired by Keith Olbermann’s new $7.5 million-a-year contract, and MSNBC are said to be very far apart in the renegotiations. This game of hardball is not nearly over.

Will Bill O’Reilly’s ratings rise as disaffected conservatives rush to him in the Obama era?

The Barack Obama honeymoon hasn’t officially begun—the inauguration isn’t for another five weeks—but “The O’Reilly Factor” since the historic election is averaging 3.5 million viewers, a 48% increase from the same period in 2007. In addition, Mr. O’Reilly recently made it official that he’s giving up his popular syndicated radio show in order to focus more intently on the cable show that has helped Fox News Channel remain one of the five most-watched prime-time lineups in basic cable for 17 of the last 18 weeks.

Is there enough advertiser interest to sustain Web studios?

Independent producers have always worn their belts tight and kept their costs low, so they are in the cat-bird seat in 2009. Indie Web shows “DadLabs” and “The Guild” recently inked big sponsorship deals, evidence that Web series that deliver targeted audiences will be coveted by advertisers.

Will the variety format survive the disaster that was “Rosie Live”?

Despite lots of good intentions, Rosie O’Donnell’s pre-Thanksgiving hour on NBC attracted critical scorn—and very few viewers. But it’s unlikely to stop other networks from trying to revive a genre whose low price point and DVR-busting potential offer so much upside in success. Fox is moving forward with a series of variety specials starring Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne, while CBS has been talking to singer John Mayer about fronting a special. And while NBC isn’t calling Jay Leno’s new 10 p.m. show a variety hour, don’t be surprised if it starts shaping up that way.