Outside New York's Beacon Theatre, it's starting to rain. The show will begin momentarily, and the rain is only exacerbating the crush of people trying to get through a too-limited set of doors. Everyone hustles to get under the theater's marquee, lest the light shower become a downpour.
Young women and a spattering of men dressed in bright pink shirts to promote Fox's upcoming slasher horror series Scream Queens yell cheers celebrating the sorority at the center of the show. Other folks hired by various publications hand out copies of magazines and show-business trade papers. And the knot of people — mostly advertisers, but some television executives and journalists — grows tighter and tighter, the air around us growing stickier by the second. If the clouds open up, nobody wants to be under them.
We're all here for Fox's upfront presentation, where the network will attempt to sell ad buyers on the notion that there's good reason to purchase commercial time on the channel during any show other than its breakout hit Empire.
Fox is currently in last place, after many, many years of ruling the roost with American Idol's help. (Idol will be ending after 2016, the network's presidents announced earlier in the day.) That lends the proceedings an added air of franticness. Everybody's trying to get inside, but nobody's precisely sure why anymore.
Even last year, it felt safe to say that broadcast network television was slowly dissipating and those presiding over it were guiding its decline. Then, in early 2015, Empire hit — on the last-place network, I'll remind you again — and changed the equation. It didn't behave like a network TV show was supposed to behave anymore. It debuted huge, but then its ratings kept increasing. It had the kind of impact that nowadays is usually reserved for cable shows like The Walking Dead, and it was right there on good old, reliable Fox. Network television wasn't just salvageable; it could maybe still thrive.
And yet Empire hit so late in the traditional development cycle that no one could copy it in upcoming pilots. As such, the new fall shows — at least based on their trailers — feel like they were made for that world where the business model was dying, where networks had to squeeze blood from a stone.
Television is an industry in which time passes quickly, where what's hot and new becomes outdated in a second. And now the networks are headed into the fall of 2015 with a bunch of shows constructed for the fall of 2014, for a pre-Empire world.
The traditional television model is practically a zombie
There's a good chance that you barely watch network television and all, and a very good chance that if you do, you primarily watch it hours or days later on DVR or a streaming service. Vox's audience skews young, and the younger you are, the less likely you are to be bound by the sorts of things network executives speak about at the upfronts, things like scheduling and flow between programs and time slots. These ideas, so important to the history of the medium, increasingly feel meaningless.
Indeed, the odds are good that you, youthful reader, likely don't consume television as it has been consumed for decades — as a series of programs that air at set times, on set nights, on set networks — but instead as a series of discrete shows whose origins don't matter to you.
Or perhaps you know that Breaking Bad was a show on AMC but watched most of it on Netflix. (This is true of almost everybody — Breaking Bad took years to attain any sort of ratings stability, and it only did so because people caught up via streaming.) Maybe you're totally fine waiting a day or two to watch How to Get Away with Murder — or even waiting until a year later, so you can binge on the entire season at once. To you, television is less about episodes and more about seasons or even series. It fits perfectly into a mass-consumption culture because it can now be mass-consumed.
Essentially, the way we think about television is evolving. When I first started writing criticism, one of my mentors was fond of saying that for many people, the TV set was a piece of furniture. You turned it on, and shows came out of it, and maybe they were entertaining and maybe they weren't, but the point was that the TV was there to provide company and add a little color or warmth to a dark room. It sort of didn't matter what emerged from it. You might have had a favorite show. You might have had multiple favorite shows. But your relationship to television depended on its physicality, on the fact that it occupied a concrete place in your living room.
Now, however, television isn't television. We talk about shows like Transparent and Orange Is the New Black as if they're TV, but (in the United States, at least) they don't even air on television in any way that would feel familiar to broadcast legends of the past. Television is all around us. You might download an episode of your favorite show to your phone to watch it during your subway commute. You might stay up too late binge-watching Friday Night Lights years after it left the air. You might watch a favorite Leave It to Beaver, completely devoid of context, on a Sunday afternoon in a cabin in the woods.
Television doesn't mean "a box" any more. It means "a way of telling stories." And if streaming services are perfectly positioned to take advantage of that shift, and cable networks are only sort of positioned to do so, then the broadcast networks are running scared by default.
Networks are stuck chasing a viewership that's disappearing
The following two things are simultaneously true:
- The network television audience is still, in general, the largest possible audience out there, and advertisers appreciate both its size and its (relative) consistency.
- The network television audience is shrinking rapidly — especially in the demographics advertisers most care about.
Network TV — watched in its proper time slot with all the ad breaks — remains enormously popular with people older than 49. Live viewership regularly hits levels over 90 percent at the Spanish-language Univision. And it's still big among Americans in lower economic classes.
Here's the problem, though: network television makes its money from advertising, and the demographics advertisers are most interested in — young and male and rich and (all too often) white — are precisely the demographics that are running away from live network television. If you're wondering, for instance, why sports have become so important to networks, there are few better places to start when it comes to courting advertisers' most coveted viewers.
The simple fact of the matter is that networks are built for an era that no longer exists. They have to commission — and pay for — so much programming that their business model is (and always has been) incredibly expensive. And in a world where it's only becoming more difficult to attract viewers to network programming, to say nothing of monetizing the viewers who do show up, the margins get tighter and tighter.
"It's hard to justify spending $40 to $50 million on a show that people write nice things about but nobody watches," Cougar Town and Enlisted creator Kevin Biegel told me, when I interviewed him for an article about cancellations.
It's easier for cable networks to absorb those costs, because they only program a handful of series at a time — and with their smaller episode orders (typically 13 or fewer, instead of the networks' traditional 22), they don't have to spend as much overall. Plus cable networks are subsidized by carriage fees paid to them by your cable company, on top of whatever advertising dollars they bring in. Yes, HBO's Game of Thrones is hugely expensive, but it's a decided exception (and it airs on a network that has tons of money, thanks to its subscription model). Streaming services operate under similar auspices, and also have direct subscription costs to prop them up.
But none of this is true of network TV, which is caught between a rock and a hard place. In truth, most broadcast networks will probably become glorified programming brands in the quickly approaching future where TV is no longer attached to TV. You can already see this happening, on Hulu and elsewhere, when networks emblazon "ABC" or "Fox" onto their shows, as if that will hopefully mean something to viewers. (ABC, in particular, has gone all-in on branding and emphasized this strategy at its upfront.)
The problem is that abandoning the old television business model entirely still isn't lucrative enough for advertisers or for networks. For too many viewers, that TV is still a box in the corner, a piece of furniture worth congregating around. And to most networks, there's still money to be made in convincing advertisers to support them — even if that money is dissipating.
The networks say they want a revolution...
There's no easy fix for dwindling viewership. It's one thing to say you're going to try to persuade advertisers to look outside the "key demo" (which is roughly defined as people between ages 18 and 49 — the richer the better). It's quite another to actually convince them to value aging baby boomers or Spanish-language speakers or even everybody who watches on a DVR and fast-forwards through commercials.
More and more, the solution seems to be to emphasize the first syllable in "broadcast." Cable is a vast collection of networks aimed at carefully selected and pinpointed target audiences. Streaming services actively adapt themselves to your tastes often with an algorithmic boost — making every subscriber a niche of one. But a broadcast network is tied, inextricably, to the idea that what makes America America is the simple fact that we're all stuck here, between these two oceans, together, watching at 8 pm Eastern and Pacific, 7 pm Central.
And for the broadcast networks, what once was an opportunity to air programming that might have appealed to suburban moms in the '70s is increasingly a chance to appeal to demographics they've ignored for too long. The rise in diverse programming has been a bit overblown by critics like me — on average, TV was more diverse in the '70s and '80s — but the runaway success of Empire and even the milder success of Black-ish suggests that broadcast television may find its salvation in updating old formulas for new audiences.
Empire isn't doing anything particularly groundbreaking — unless you account for the fact that by setting its tale of soapy excess in the world of hip-hop, everything it does is groundbreaking. And its ratings among black viewers are huge — rivaling and even surpassing the Super Bowl. Whereas on cable, it's a common strategy to find a demographic that's not particularly well-served by the current broadcast landscape and do whatever you can to court that demographic, Empire has started from the same point but reached a different end. Empire's ratings are huge with black viewers, sure, but Fox built the show to a point where ratings were huge with every kind of viewer. It's the "broad" in broadcast.
But as we saw at the upfronts, the four major networks (save for ABC, which hopped on the diversity bandwagon early) are stuck with a bunch of shows about rich white people — the audience advertisers say they want, but that's sliced thinner and thinner and divided among more and more channels. The new wave of diversity on TV may have been discovered almost by accident, but it's the palliative the medium has been looking for.
Or, rather, it will be until it stops working, and then the broadcast networks will return to their bland baseline of trying to make shows for a viewer who no longer exists. Nearly every single presentation at the upfronts featured some variation on the theme that diversity is a great idea for network television — which is ostensibly meant to reflect all of America, after all — and it was never quite clear why the topic continued to come up, unless you believe maybe the networks are convinced diversity's worth a shot, but advertisers aren't so sure.
It's the end of the world as we know it. Let's throw a party.
At Fox's upfront party, ad buyers cluster around giant tables featuring some of the best food in New York. Bartenders serve up drinks celebrating the network's shows. Central Park's Wollman ice rink has been transformed into a massive, early summer extravaganza, a way for all of us to crowd into one space and hope this business model revives itself.
Against the back wall, the stars of Fox's shows stand on a stage and patiently pose with media buyers who've waited in line for their chance to snap a photo to show off to their friends at home. The line for the stars of Empire is deep and long, and the actors stare forward, clearly weary but resolving to get through this, no matter what.
Buyer after buyer clambers up on stage and takes his or her place beside the cast. Like everything else at the upfronts, it's a part of the spectacle left over from the days when broadcast TV was the only game in the universe. And like everything else at the upfronts, it's necessary to keep the spectacle going, because maintaining the illusion that everything is just fine, on into the unforeseeable future, is of paramount importance.
A buyer steps up beside the actors, leaning in a little toward them and flashing a thumbs up to the camera. The stars' lips flash a thin smile. The camera snaps, and the moment is captured.
The resulting image will definitely outlast Empire and maybe even the network and medium that air it. Maybe the buyer has a scrapbook full of photos like this, with so many cast members of so many shows, stretching back through his entire career.
But what we don't look at, as we pretend everything is just normal, is the fact that all of this is speeding toward something else, and nobody quite knows what that will be. So we smile and imagine that network TV, buoyed by this one new, massive hit, is going to be just fine. It has to be.