Failures of TV

We’ve occasionally talked on this blog (and its predecessor) about how great the last decade of TV has been. Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Mad Men: that’s a remarkable string of thoughtful, engaging, original drama. I’m sure there are a lot of reasons why it’s happening now, and I imagine luck plays a role as well. But I’ve always thought that one factor is simply the expansion in the number of channels producing TV content. When it was just the big three networks, there was a strong market incentive to play it safe, to aim for broad appeal, to dumb it down a little. Things are different now. We have far more viewing options, and a channel like AMC has to be edgy just to get our attention. So, a thousand flowers have bloomed, and that’s a good thing.

But then I was watching TV this morning, waiting for the first set of football games to start, and I flipped through a few of the pregame shows. I know better than to do this, but I did anyway. They’re just awful: thoroughly, excruciatingly awful. Inane commentary by stupid ex-coaches and even stupider ex-athletes; the triumph of self-help clichés  (apparently it’s important to believe in yourself) over serious analysis; displays of bravado over actual, honest debate. None of this will surprise the readers of this blog. But what I don’t get is why it’s all so bad. There are lots of channels doing pregame shows, but they’re all virtually identical. Shouldn’t there be a market incentive for some small channel (Versus, I’m looking at you!) to provide smart sport shows? There’s a ton of interesting baseball commentary on the internet, and I assume this is also true of other sports. So why does almost none of it make it to TV?

Everything I’m saying here about sports also applies to TV news. CNN’s ratings have tanked in the last few years, and their solution is to give Eliot Spitzer a show? What a failure of the imagination! For a free market industry, there seems to be a remarkable aversion to risk that leaves us with no channels willing to try something different. Any sense of what the economic or sociological explanation for this might be?

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3 Responses to Failures of TV

  1. Josh says:

    I don’t purport to have a master “theory of everything” as regards the vast swaths of terrible television available at any given point… but one problem I think may have a significant effect is the fact that so many of the channels are owned by huge media conglomerates which have little concern but the bottom line. So while there may be some – like AMC – that choose to be “edgy” as you put it, in order to get our attention – there are others that would prefer simply to have a predictable, even if small profit stream.

    They’d rather know they’re going to make X amount, than risk making changes that might bring them X+ amounts, especially if that change also has the possibility of bringing in X-. Some stations are managed and owned by people who are intrinsically interested in making good television; others are simple interested in generating predictable profits. Those latter might as well be making widgets, and I think that’s really the best way to look at them.

  2. Nates says:

    Yeah, I see what you’re saying, Josh. It just seems odd to me that the invisible hand has produced a good result in TV drama, but not sports analysis. It seems like the incentive structures are similar in the two cases.

  3. Robin says:

    I too agree that most sport shows on TV are very poor. Interestingly enough I do think that Hockey Night in Canada on CBC has the best pre-game, in-game and post-game analysis and commentary in all of sports. They aren’t a cliche and seem to do a very good job of actually breaking down the action and providing value. Too bad it happens to be for hockey. I think that occasionally TNT does a good job with Barkley and Kenny, but unfortunately more often than not there is no content there either, just chatter. I’m willing to bet that NFL is as bad is it gets. I agree Nathan, they just seem to pander to the masses and are looking for hype and brand name recognition, rather than content and value. I haven’t checked recently but aren’t their ratings over the top? Don’t they have the highest rated pre-game shows? SNL did a great skit a couple weeks back about the Monday Night Football theme song. That skit pretty much summed up your points. I actually don’t think it’s because they are playing it safe or going with the sure thing. I think, they think that it works and that it’s what people want. I don’t think that there is an assumption that thought provoking content and sports go hand in hand. And that’s why you see these same networks produce good dramas but poor sports shows – they aren’t going after thought provoking because they don’t think that’s what people want. And I bet they’re right. But I’d have to check the ratings to see for sure.

    Another really good sports show is on the Score (yes, we have all the best sports content, it’s true) with their soccer coverage. They do a great job and definitely challenge the status quo.

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