In Depth

Column: Rest Assured, TV Will Survive Tough Times

I love this stuff.

That, in five words or less, sums up why I consider myself beyond blessed to have spent virtually the whole of my adult life getting paid to write about television.

True: At this very moment, things are glum in the land of make-believe and fairy dust. Business models that for decades reliably churned out billions in profits are evaporating with alarming speed. Many who work in the TV industry have no idea if they’ll still have jobs in five years, or even five weeks.

You won’t hear whining about that here.

Even now, at its nadir, the TV business is still vibrant and exciting and bursting with creative energy. Walk on the lot of any studio or stroll through the hallways of networks massive or tiny, and you’ll hear the sound of smart, savvy souls striving to summon all of their creative energies to entertain a population that needs diverting more than at any time in at least 30 years.

You’ll also probably run across folks in ridiculously priced casual wear or $2,000 power suits (depends on which coast) deviously plotting to take down their bosses, or blindly hoping to squeeze one more penny out of a production budget in order to please the folks at 30 Rock or Black Rock.

I do not deny the mustache-twirling ways of many in TV land, even among those who can’t grow mustaches.

Yet I love television, and the process of producing it. I don’t think it makes me any less objective a reporter to admit that.

I get psyched seeing CBS Entertainment boss Nina Tassler’s eyes light up when she waxes rhapsodic about shows in development, or dim when she ponders the fate of a show such as “Swingtown” or “The Class.”

I get a kick listening to Peter Roth of Warner Bros. talk up his next passion project, and watching as he becomes almost as animated as one of the cartoon characters he used to “work” with back in the 1970s. (Two words: Captain Caveman.)

FX chief John Landgraf constantly floors me with his quiet intellect and the respect he shows for his producers. The brave souls who oversee network schedules never fail to wow me with their three-steps-ahead plotting. And, like just about every reporter who covers television, I’m powerless to resist the manic energy of Bravo’s Lauren Zalaznick, CBS News executive Susan Zirinsky or Fox’s reality ringmaster Mike Darnell.

Sure, it’s a shame that so many producers these days have to spend so much of their time lobbying to save shows that 10 years ago would have easily been hits.

There was something infectious about observing the parent-like love Carter Bays and Craig Thomas demonstrated early on in the life of “How I Met Your Mother,” when their show’s survival was in doubt every May. Or, back in 1994, listening to Conan O’Brien make the case for himself when so many inside his own network wanted to cut bait.

It’s the same passion you hear now in the e-mail voice of producer Josh Schwartz as he summons his legion of nerds to rally behind the awesomeness that is “Chuck.” Or from Glenn Gordon Caron, who brought cult TV into the modern era with “Moonlighting” and still pours his heart into every episode of “Medium.”

All this creative energy sometimes seems for naught when the morning Nielsen numbers come in. Every day now seems to bring word of another series low, or of a promising newcomer failing to find an audience.

And yet, this medium remains vital.

Anyone in the TV business depressed about smaller ratings or higher production costs—OK, basically anyone in the TV business—should make it a habit to check out social media sites like Twitter at least once a day. As much as new media challenges the business models of the small screen, it’s also fueling a surge in passion and enthusiasm for the medium.

Hundreds of thousands (maybe millions?) of die-hard fans now spend primetime watching TV and Tweeting about it at the same time. The living room viewing of days gone by has been replaced by a massive virtual family room in which fans praise and pan shows as they air, and for hours afterward.

Nielsen might not know how to measure it, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest Americans have never been as madly in love with the small screen as they are right now.
We may not all watch the same 50 shows anymore, and we may not all even watch TV programs on TV.

But—and this is no slam against Jack Klugman, a true TV icon—I can’t imagine anyone ever cared for “Quincy, M.E.” the way the Twitterati worships at the altar of “Lost” and “Chuck.”

With the movie business left creatively bankrupt by its lust for the blockbuster, and musicians struggling to stay afloat in the era of free downloads, the one-time idiot box has never been more central to the global culture.

Once again, I feel the need to state that I’m really not as naive and star-struck as the paragraphs above might make me sound.

There’s a small part of me that fears the TV business may never find a way to monetize all the viewing going on outside of live television, causing the whole business model that has made great programming possible to simply collapse.

And my eye muscles (and, quite frankly, only my eye muscles) are as strong as steel thanks to years of repeated rolling toward the back of my head as one “TV industry insider” after another bravely attempted to spin me on how much they love a show, or how everything is swell on the set or in the executive suites.

What’s more, I believe those who control the public airwaves and spend the money of shareholders should be held to account. They need to be called out when they screw up.

That doesn’t mean there’s not also room for some well-reasoned, and perhaps even a bit wide-eyed, exploration of the endless content that now fills our TV universe.

After all, this is still an amazing industry populated with passionate people. Why so serious?

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On a related note, this week marks the launch of TVMoJoe, my long-gestating blog, which I hope will provide a forum to celebrate, critique and comment on the people and programs millions of us obsess about on a nightly basis. Feel free to drop by anytime via TVWeek.com.