When the editors of TelevisionWeek were analyzing the best the medium has to offer to create this week’s Emmy issue, they had an opportunity to reflect on the health of the television business. It struck us that although today’s TV landscape features more celebrities than existed when there were just three networks, fewer leading men and women exhibit the kind of staying power that will make us want to watch them decades down the line.
We believe this represents a trend that is not particularly good for the future of the medium. We also understand why it is happening. Viewers’ interest in individual performers has been spread thinner and thinner in recent seasons as more shows quickly come and go. Reality programs offer up disposable personalities. Cable networks also continually add entries to the list of characters.
As production costs escalate and ratings data becomes more precise and immediately delivered, networks have found it ever more difficult to justify keeping shows in consistent time slots or letting them stay on the air unless they are instantly successful. The result is that viewers may be momentarily gratified by the latest “Survivor,” “Bachelor” or fearless “Fear Factor” contestant, but they will find them difficult to recall years down the line. It seems, in other words, that while more TV stars go up to bat now than ever before, there are fewer hits. And the swings that do connect rarely hit it out of the park.
Indeed, we are living in a time that values instant gratification and quick fixes, and as always the tube is a reflection of that-which is fine for now. But what about 20, 30 or 50 years from now? Who on today’s TV schedule is tomorrow’s Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, Raymond Burr or Bill Cosby?
This isn’t just a philosophical question. There are real, tangible economic implications. Serious money is at stake over many years to come. Library product remains vital in the marketplace. Take Paramount’s “I Love Lucy,” a show that last produced an original episode in 1957. Besides its Monday-through-Friday national berth on cable’s TV Land, it continues to be important to local stations in 43 markets representing 36.16 percent of the United States. On Fox-owned KTTV in Los Angeles, for instance, “Lucy” repeats often run during high-profile time periods against tough competition. Few if any of today’s shows can expect to approach that kind of staying power.
Stations and syndicators in recent years have begun scrambling to scrape together contingency plans for the day that the pipeline of A-list sitcoms dries up, leaving them to pay for the quick fixes of today. It is incumbent on television’s creative community to do a better job developing and selling signature stars. They are the future, not just leverage for the next contract negotiation.