Quality Shows And Ratings: A Delicate Balance For Advertisers

Despite what may be ongoing prevalent thinking, not everyone knows how to produce real quality TV shows. Who does that kind of work? The best TV creative minds, of course. Now go figure out how to get them.

What’s preventing more quality work is feeble-minded TV executives.

The ideas above were in a recent speech that Kevin Spacey, star of Netflix’s “House of Cards,” gave at an industry event in Europe. “Cards” is an Emmy-nominated political drama -- groundbreaking to some – that Netflix viewers can binge-watch if they chose.

Back in the ‘80s, NBC executives initially moaned about the shifting plotlines of shows such as in the then-revolutionary cop show “Hill Street Blues.”  Turns out that show brought in decent audiences and a bucket full of Emmy awards.

 “If those executives had had their way,” Spacey said, “The road would have never been paved for ‘The Sopranos,’ ‘Rescue Me,’ ‘Weeds,’  ‘Homeland, ‘Dexter,’ ‘Six Feet Under,’ ‘Deadwood,’ ‘Damages,’ ‘Sons of Anarchy,’ ‘Oz,’ ‘The Wire,’ ‘True Blood,’ ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ ‘Mad Men,’ ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘House of Cards.’”



Interestingly, those are all cable shows, a fact that’s not highlighted in Spacey’s remarks. Do cable executives give producers more free rein to produce how they like, with little in the way of “notes” or unnecessary cast or plot changes? Yes, it has been that way for some time.  It started a long way back with HBO and is now evident at basic cable productions.

Broadcast network executives say they have more worries, especially in giving the green light to shows, designed to bring in the widest possible of viewers, which in turn pull in high advertising revenue.

Cable networks still have less to worry about in this arena, especially with their historical business formula in which they receive 50% or more of their revenues from carriage fees, with the remaining coming from advertising sales.

Broadcast networks are increasingly looking to get more of that kind of revenue split (this is a major focus in CBS’ heated carriage battle with Time Warner) but are still way behind cable networks in that regard. Advertising revenue still rules the day with broadcasters by a wide margin.

Still, can broadcast networks save money -- and alter the model? Yes, by cutting down on the pilot season extravaganza. "The cost of these pilots was somewhere between $300 million and $400 million each year,” said Spacey.

"Now, of course, we went to all the major networks with ‘House of Cards,’ and every single one was very interested in the idea, but every one of them wanted us to do a pilot first." That didn’t happen with Netflix.

Still except for one or two select shows, like AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” none can compete with broadca in the still-important metric: a larger audience.

With no pilot, Netflix took a chance -- but it was a good creative chance since the series came from producer David Fincher, with a major star like Spacey in tow: “It makes our ‘House of Cards’ deal for two seasons look really cost-effective," Spacey concluded.

Right now, TV marketers don’t have much play with Netflix content. Maybe that will happen in the future. Despite long-term media goals, the advertising-supported TV world will exist for some time. Traditional TV advertisers still need to buy scores of networks these days. It’s not an easy job, and something of a necessary evil.

Good creative ultimately makes good TV financial business –but sometimes lower ratings. For advertisers, do better quality shows always mean better engagement with their brands? Seems like it should.

2 comments about "Quality Shows And Ratings: A Delicate Balance For Advertisers".
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  1. Michael Kaplan from Blue Sky Creative, August 26, 2013 at 2:41 p.m.

    I'm the first to criticize network programming execs for their timidity (and did so when I worked there, too). But I don't understand the reluctance to do a pilot. Maybe I'm missing something, but it doesn't seem that onerous a burden to overcome.

    Based on the first episode of House of Cards, it's likely some of the broadcast networks might have jumped at the chance.

    Can someone explain why Fincher and Spacey objected so much? Or is it like a big star who doesn't feel like they have to read for parts in new movies -- more of an ego thing??

  2. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, August 26, 2013 at 4:47 p.m.

    House of Cards didn't need a pilot. The miniseries had already been done successfully in the UK. Even the series Orange is the New Black had a producer with a track record. In fairness to the broadcasters, sometimes they do stick out their necks for an idea without a pilot. Steven Spielberg's "Amazing Stories" in the 1980s was a dud. Everyone can spot a hit after the money is spent. It's tricky to spot a dud before the money is spent.

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