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The Emmys Revealed The Gap Between TV’s Two Competing Universes

The Television Academy did a yeoman’s job with the Emmys last night. Yes, there were things you could criticize and as always many of the comedy bits fell flat, but given the massive tech challenges and absurd times we live in, the show was a massive success.

And as a way of highlighting just how bifurcated the TV universe had become, it was a massive success too.

We are in the middle of a massive shift in the way people watch TV, moving from a primarily time-based broadcast and cable system to a digital system that is based on a system of Flixes (multibillion dollar subscription services) and FASTs (free ad-supported streaming TV services.)

As with many seismic changes, we are temporarily at that midway point where we have two separate-and-unequal universes, which was driven home by the fact that all of the winners came from the world of streaming TV.

I’d say this was a blow for the broadcast networks, but all of the broadcast networks are heavily invested in streaming TV and, with the exception of FOX, they all have their own Flixes. Instead, it’s a blow for the people who have not yet made the leap to streaming and who are still wedded to the networks prime time schedules as they are watching programming that is different than the programming on the streaming services.

Note that I said “different than” and not “better than” for I suspect that for many of those broadcast viewers, shows like Schitts Creek, Watchmen and Succession that cleaned up at the Emmys this year, would not in fact be considered “good TV.”

Which is why the industry’s dirty little secret right now is that the two-tier system we’ve got going on is very much split across class lines, with streaming reserved for the younger, better educated and more affluent and broadcast reserved for the older, less educated and less affluent.

Now that’s a sweeping generalization (albeit one made by a number of people in the industry) and it overlooks the fact that the vast majority of viewers are not solely in one camp or the other. But as it is frequently the conventional wisdom, it influences where dollars are spent both for production and for advertising and it raises the question of what will become of those broadcast viewers and broadcast programming in the years to come?

Unlike the music industry, where the same songs were being produced whether you bought them as CDs or MP3s, legally or illegally, the TV programming that is on broadcast is different from the TV that is on streaming and that is soon going to become an issue for two key reasons: quality and quantity.

The Issues Of Quality And Quantity

Quality will become an issue when the money to fund broadcast TV shows starts drying up. This won’t happen in the next year or two, but at some point, the ad revenue and retrans fee revenue from the shrinking broadcast TV market is not going to justify spending millions to produce sitcoms and dramas. The better shows will likely migrate to their networks own Flixes and/or be available in both places–at some point, it won’t be worth it for NBC, ABC and CBS to keep two different slates of programming going. 

Moving shows from broadcast to streaming should be easy enough as the perceived value of the streaming services will be higher, but moving shows from streaming to broadcast will be a lot tougher and it may just be that the broadcast networks get older seasons of streaming series as a way to entice viewers to make the move and sign up. 

Which then brings up issue number two, Quantity.

Broadcast series traditionally produce as many as 25 episodes each season, so that a series like Friends or Modern Family will end its run with over 200 episodes, which is why successful network sitcoms have proven so popular on streaming–viewers can watch the series over and over all year without seeing the same episodes.

Contrast that with streaming services where most series are somewhere between eight and 12 episodes— even sitcoms— and so the potential for that type of syndication becomes much slimmer.

That’s why I suspect that as streaming becomes the norm, so will longer seasons.

There are business reasons and creative reasons for shorter seasons (most viewers would not be any more likely to continue to subscribe to Netflix if Stranger Things had 22 episodes each season versus the current eight) but the other business reason–the ability to entertain viewers with a broad array of library “comfort food” content, what PeerLogix CEO Will Gorfein refers to as “churn reducers” for their ability to keep viewers watching, may weigh in favor of longer seasons.

There’s another reason to relook at longer seasons too, and that is the benefit to the creative community. Actors, writers, showrunners and producers all benefited from the nine-month seasons that allowed them to just have one job, with summers off. It also allowed many of them to see massive rewards when the series went into syndication. Both of those incentives are lost with eIght-episode seasons and the people making the show are left scrambling to find work the rest of the year (or longer) until the next season of the series can get made.

And while the twenty-five episode season won’t become standard for streaming TV, I do suspect many of the Flixes will make it a part of their mix.

What’s Next

It seems unlikely that the trend towards “lean in” TV, e.g., shows that demand your full and undivided attention will stop. There’s a market for it and it will be how the various Flixes make a name for themselves, creating shows that generate buzz, if not necessarily audiences.

But there’s a broad range within the “lean in” genre. 

To wit, The Morning Show on Apple TV+ was dinged by many critics for not being artsy enough, for seeming too much like something that a broadcast network might produce.

Only viewers didn’t really seem to care. They liked a show that didn’t require them to think very deeply about it but rather just feel. And the Academy was clearly feeling it too, as it awarded a Best Supporting Actor award to Billy Cruddup for his role in the series. 

As all nine Flixes figure out what they want to be when they grow up and what their value proposition to consumers will be, we will see a broader range of options than what we have now. Like the Oscars, there will be years when the broad, appeal-to-everyone shows are hot and years when the more thought provoking critical darling shows win.

That’s just a guess of course, but there is one thing I am fairly certain of: the year after the broad-based shows win, all the Flixes will be looking for broad-based series and the year after the “indie” shows win, all the Flixes will be looking for artsy.

Because some things never change.

Even in 2020.