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CABLE FACES A MEDIA BOTTLENECK

Jul 14, 2003  •  Post A Comment

One of my first jobs was as a movie and TV critic on a now defunct Florida newspaper. The pay wasn’t very good, but the editor assured me I could make up for it in free meals, parties, nightclub visits, gifts and favors as well as the annual free junket to the West Coast called the press tour.
For three weeks, twice a year, I traveled first class to Los Angeles at the expense of the three major TV networks then dominating the airwaves, with occasional side trips to places like Pebble Beach, Calif. I was one of several dozen TV writers and critics from around the country caught in a gilded cage as the networks presented programs, plans, promotions and executives. We had endless opportunities to rub elbows with famous faces. Most of the action took place in hotels, but several times during each tour a bus would truck us to the Playboy mansion or the home of a celebrity to spice up the setting and hopefully inspire more coverage in papers back home.
The newspaper I worked for is long gone, and major media organizations today consider highly unethical such junkets taken at the expense of the company being written about. This was the stuff of a “60 Minutes” investigation two decades ago. It began with The New York Times, L.A. Times and Chicago Tribune, but today most big-city papers insist on paying for their writers’ stay in L.A.
While I heard from three networks in three weeks, today seven over-the-air networks and more than 30 cable networks cram presentations into about 19 days and nights. And there would be even more if the critics would hang around to listen.
Instead, the number of days has been steadily eroding. It isn’t news judgment so much as media organizations facing budget crunches. While the journalists want less, the networks want and need more time. With the proliferation of media offering entertainment, news, sports and information, the need to get media attention has never been greater. For many emerging cable networks it is literally a matter of life or death.
When cable first exploded nationally in the 1980s, the big success stories were concept channels offering all news, all sports or all movies. They were easy to explain and understand. Today with nearly 72 million of the 106 million American TV homes wired for cable, channels from AOL Time Warner, Viacom, USA, Discovery and others need to bring attention to original movies, series and specials produced at enormous cost. According to a recent report by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, based on data from Kagan World Media, cable operators spent nearly $9.5 billion on programming in 2001 and $10.9 billion in 2002. And the proliferation of cable outlets continues, with numerous digital services ready to join the parade, even in the face of mounting evidence that the marketplace is becoming saturated.
That would come as no surprise to most of the critics in L.A. for this summer’s press tour. “Any interest that any person could conceivably have will soon have its own cable network, and I guess they will compete for attention on this tour,” said Tom Jicha, TV critic for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, attending his 23rd summer press tour. “I guess it’s the free enterprise system. There is literally a network for every niche. But that doesn’t mean they all deserve attention.”
It also doesn’t mean there is room for all of them. The seven broadcast networks (including PBS) command the lion’s share of time (12 of 19 days). At a time when there already are some 300 cable channels, all of cable gets fewer than four days.
Since the late 1980s the NCTA has managed the time. “Most of the networks have been gracious about taking spots that are maybe one-third or one-half of the time they would really like to have,” said Rob Stoddard, senior VP, communications and public affairs, for the NCTA. “Over the years, as a facilitator, we have had to say that there is simply no time to include some presentations. We understand the gravity of the situation. It’s always done in consultation with the critics and writers themselves.”
This year, by scheduling from early morning into late-night, the NCTA managed to squeeze in about 30 cable networks. “Some networks sponsor after-hours social events just to be represented on the tour,” Mr. Stoddard added.
There are success stories even in the face of such problems, and there are networks such as MTV, Discovery and Turner that find ways throughout the year to reach the media.
Nor do the obstacles, risks and dreadful odds against success seem to be stopping new players from plunging in. “There are not too many channels. I say bring them on,” said Dena Kaplan, senior VP of marketing for the Game Show Network. “It is more challenging, but it just raises the bar for more creativity in how you get the message out.”
Is there no limit? “I think there’s unlimited imagination, unlimited ideas,” said Ms. Kaplan. “If viewers support a business plan, then this industry will just keep reinventing itself.”
Don’t tell that to Mr. Jicha. The tour had barely started and he was already moaning about the parade of pitches. How did it make him feel? “Where was the gun with five bullets and one unloaded cylinder?” he replied. “What was it on `Saturday Night Live’? They had the scotch tape show. Well, if you want to open a scotch tape store, fine. But if we don’t want to pay attention, that should be fine too.”
So before you pitch another niche channel or relaunch with all original fare, remember that at some point you will face a bottleneck as you seek the promotion and publicity called the press tour. You can spend a fortune and do the best creative work possible, but it may not matter if no one knows you are out there in an ever more crowded media landscape.