January's TV Leaders and Bleeders

It's almost five months before the major networks have their upfront presentations. Cable networks, of course, have increasingly taken the stage at alarmingly early dates, so perhaps VH1 will try and rekindle interest around Valentine's Day? Meantime, here are this month's Leaders and Bleeders rundown:Leaders

1) Hulu -- Talk about giving consumers what they want, this is nothing less than a gift from above. The Hulu menu is larger than a Greek diner -- and free. (The site is experimenting with a corollary pay model for $7.99 a month.) Hulu is benefiting from huge brand awareness and an understanding it offers enough content to avoid much traditional TV watching. Whether Hulu-accessible content ultimately makes financial sense for programmers is an open question. But Facebook focused religiously on building mass traffic before monetizing it.

2) Comcast -- No matter what restrictions the government places on its takeover of NBC Universal, the cable operator will outwit Washington and make the new asset a money motherlode. In conjunction with its cable business, control over NBCU's TV and movie content offers it the chance to experiment with VOD, Internet-enabled TV and early film releases. And NBCU itself is an asset even oracle John Malone said he would have jumped at the chance to acquire -- particularly at the discount GE is selling it for.



3) NFL -- Playoff ratings should set all-time highs, while networks acknowledge it is must-have programming. Advertisers love it, buying enough pricey Super Bowl spots to give Fox a remarkably early sellout. Also, the NFL is the one league that can withstand a nasty public spat between owners and players during labor negotiations, which is coming. Plus, the NFL is about to get its very own federal holiday. A new schedule is about to place the Super Bowl on the evening before Presidents' Day. So that becomes National Super Bowl Hangover Day.

4) "Glee" -- The Fox hit has rocketed up the charts to become nearly as popular as football. It gets the post-Super Bowl spot on Fox. Its contrast to the glut of law-and-order-style dramas; chance for family viewing; and endearing cast are some of the factors driving its rise. For those entranced with Hollywood politics, it's juicy that Fox's Kevin Reilly can take some credit after NBC showed him the door. We'll know the show is a blockbuster if ratings for CBS News improve after Kate Couric makes a guest appearance on the post-Super Bowl episode.

5) "Jersey Shore" -- Here's the situation: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie thinks it's a negative for his state's image. Contrast that with MTV, where the reality series has resuscitated a struggling network. Stars "The Situation" (Michael Sorrentino) and "Snooki" are household names, giving MTV opportunities for spinoffs. MTV, however, may suffer the fate of spending too much at an Atlantic City blackjack table if it does not give the audience the chance to miss the show. Season two ended in October and a third one starts this week.


1) Cord-Cutting -- Turner and ESPN now have gobs of research showing this is barely a threat. At least they have put their money where their mouths are, boldly offering top-notch programming for free on the Web. Recently, cable and satellite operators have argued that people could be dropping TV subscriptions because of economic -- not philosophical -- issues. But several months ago, Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg sagely said: "Young people are pretty smart. They're not going to pay for something they don't need to." He's seen people drop landlines for cell-only service.

2) "American Idol" -- Check out Kid Rock's comments on Steven Tyler becoming a judge: "It's the stupidest thing he's ever done in his life," he told EW. "He's a sacred American institution of rock 'n' roll, and he just threw it all out the window." How will Tyler play with "Idol" viewers starting in a few weeks? The bet is Rock is on to something. That leaves much of "Idol's" fate in new judge J. Lo's court. She should be great, but ratings declines -- understandable for an aging show -- will continue. Needed desperately is a contestant with the appeal -- or at least interest level -- of a Bristol Palin.

3) Carriage Disputes -- Time was the contentiousness in carriage negotiations rarely went beyond the conference rooms. Now, a month doesn't go by without a public fight. The sides accuse each other of wanting to fleece customers and charge them more. Broadcasters hungry for retrans consent dollars have heightened the public acrimony with operators. So far, there isn't much evidence that once a blacked-out channel goes back on the air, either side gets hurt. But will customers at some point vote with their remote controls?

4) Nascar -- Interest in the sport is waning after years of growth. Will sponsors look for other roads? Tellingly, Nascar mounted an aggressive push to reach potential new clients this fall at an industry event. The biggest losers could be Fox and ESPN, which spent fortunes for broadcast rights in 2005 when the sport and economy were booming. At Fox, buzz about the Daytona 500 could soon fade when the NFL expands into February. One problem: the season is too long.

5) Super Bowl Creative -- In recent games, the number of ads truly capturing the imagination of viewers seems to be fading. The Betty White Snickers ad last year was a hit. But the much-discussed Tim Tebow spot was kind of a dud. Dave, Leno and Oprah were tops, but that was a network promo. From a strategic standpoint, the best use of the airtime may have been Skechers touting its new Shape-Ups, but the spot felt like a direct-response ad in the wee hours. In retrospect, another dud was Brett Favre for Hyundai. Time for the ad community to up its game.

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