As a consumer of media and news about the media, it’s disconcerting when a voice like former NBC executive Warren Littlefield still carries significant weight. Deadline reported in a fluff piece Friday how Littlefield is rounding up his former colleagues at The Sarnoff Creation to discuss the network’s “worst rating performance ever”.

Yes, the network has been abysmal the last six years. I’m not denying shows like “The Playboy Club” or “The Event” were god-awful or didn’t have enough time to find their groove. But the mindset of Littlefield’s era has become horribly antiquated in the last decade.

To review, Littlefield left NBC in the 2000-01 season. The fact the network was struggling on nights that weren’t Wednesday or Thursday notwithstanding, (some of) the television landscape facets of the time include:

  1. Cable, whose programming output was a fraction of what it is today. Neither AMC nor TNT was producing drama, USA was presenting mostly sci-fi and game shows, and FX’s signature show was “Son of the Beach”. Even HBO was not scheduling the amount of original programming it does now, to say nothing of Starz or Showtime.
  2. Neither Hulu nor Netflix existed. For that matter, network websites only housed information.
  3. DVR was in its infancy, and was more novel than practical.
  4. DVDs hadn’t proliferated.

And in a decade’s time, some of these have been incorporated (DVR being counted as a “Live +3 days” rating) while others are already obsolete (the collapse of the DVD market ensures there won’t be many more “Family Guy”-like revivals). Yet the fact remains that Littlefield’s notion of “Must-See TV” has been crushed with this generation, and the next decade’s promise of completing the most seismic shift in programming since the medium was introduced will render it a footnote.

Moonves, currently sleeping with Julie Chen while determining the disability he wants his next TV detective to have.

It’s a good thing people like Littlefield aren’t the only ones running the show now- if they were, television would be in the same predicament as the music industry. However, some of Littlefield’s generation still run things. To wit, Les Moonves of CBS.

To his credit, Moonves made CBS hot shit, and he can’t be blamed for sticking with what works. However he’s been running it since 1995. The network still wins in the aggregate numbers game and keeps a decent hold on the value-added 18-49 shows. But think of our generation. Do blogging, fairly educated twentysomethings watch anything outside of “How I Met Your Mother” or “The Big Bang Theory” (when you should really watch “Community”)? The network schedule is now a repository of nearly-indistinguishable crime procedurals and “60 Minutes”. They win that old-money title of Nielsen ratings, but they skew older and poorer.

Now, it may look as though the formula will bite them in the ass. While 2012 looks to be a grace year for CBS, and indeed all of big media, 2013 is projected to see them take a significant hit in revenues. Deadline reports fewer cable subscribers and unwilling parties in satellite providers will make competing for viewers a “zero-sum game” as aggregate numbers look to further erode.

The article comes as hardly a surprise, and it fails to account for other media networks can pursue, but the pair of stories separated by a weekend further presses the question of how we statistically define a television program as popular in an era where sports might be the only “appointment viewing”. Internet viewing is only counted in generic web traffic and offers no nuance. We can’t calculate how many of the 3 million or so people who watched “Chuck” (on its first airing) last week were interested in one of its bizarre product placements. And for that matter, maybe being popular is just becoming hurtful. In a society where people and tasks are more specialized than ever, should we continue to count on repackaged shows of yesteryear like “The Cosby Show” or “Friends” to appeal to wide segments of the population?

That isn’t an argument of choosing quality over quantity. It’s an argument of shifting expectations, programming based on what your targeting (e.g. cable) and getting the same number of excellent and awful shows under different calculations. The numbers would be lower, and patience over a week’s time with watching shows on new media would be crucial, but it might save television in the face of crumbling present revenues.

Or, you know. We could just produce a sexy, feminist, affluent, trashy, old-school appealing hour like “The Playboy Club” again and go for broke.

Other Items of Note 

The NBA strike has taken its stalemate to the next level, so let’s talk about baseball’s labor relations for a moment. MLB and the Players Association has agreed to restrain signing bonuses for draft picks, as well as a restructuring of free agent compensation to eliminate early round picks to teams on the losing end. The baseball draft is in many ways a crapshoot, but I still see this as a setback for smaller market clubs who put significant stock in the draft. They’d still have the same number of opportunities, but not as many quality opportunities. This is in the name of veteran free agents, where the norm is less Albert Pujols negotiating a new contract and more Travis Buck signing a minor league deal with Houston and definitely not Jamie Moyer working out at age 49.

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If anyone is interested in the cause of this blog’s 13-month sabbatical, the team went on Hajj. A. Really. Long. Hajj. Also, I’m in the midst of an arduous, frustrating novel (maybe?) writing experience. If I keep at it, there may be updates. But for now, and without spoilers, I’ll throw out some details.

  1. It is set in this blog’s native Youngstown, circa the mid-1980s.
  2. Microfiche has been viewed, archived news clips have been watched, and scholarly articles have been read. In other words research has been done in an effort to not simply pull things out of my ass.
  3. It will not be a coming-of-age story.
  4. A reference to Family Ties will be made, if I remember it.

Does that quartet suck or what? Someone encourage me, and maybe something substantive will arise.

OK Confucius is out of rehab. Hold your breath in ten second increments.

Marc

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