A Modest Proposal

Martin Sorrell, the Sultan of WPP, has a pet peeve. He hates -- hates -- being told “No, we’ve tried that.” Whether it’s regarding an acquisition, a media strategy, a financial hedge, or a new-business pitch, he is uninterested in an objection to a given idea solely on the basis of a previous failure. 

Because conditions change.

The Newton PDA was an embarrassing bellyflop for Apple. It did not stop the development of the iPhone, because of the Internet, processor speed, wireless bandwidth and so on. Google Glass was a failure, but Augmented Reality will have its day…soon. The Cubs couldn’t possibly win a World Series until the farm system provided the talent.  

Jackie Mason had a comedy career. Then he didn’t. Then he was a Broadway sensation. Then he wasn’t.



Richard M. Nixon. Online retailing. Electric cars. Tattoos. White supremacy.

Conditions change. And as such, in view of recent events, I offer the broadcast networks a modest proposal. It was noted recently that the networks are evaluating programming with different eyes. Amid steep audience declines, prime-time shows that were deemed ratings failures a few years ago suddenly look like going propositions. "American Idol," for instance, had run out of steam at Fox. But ABC is trotting it out at the Upfronts.

Meh is the new wow.

Some certainties remain. Live is better than scripted for viewing in real-time. “Reality” is cheaper than scripted, because…duh. Yet the scripted stuff keeps coming, on a bet that increasingly looks like buying a Powerball ticket. Yet all of the networks save Fox own live, real, popular franchises that aren’t offered to prime-time audiences.

Late-night talk shows. Stephen Colbert. Jimmy Fallon. Jimmy Kimmel. Seth Meyers, even Conan O’Brien on TBS. Maybe it is time for them to be liberated from the late-night ghetto.

Yeah, yeah, I know. When NBC was stuck with its Jay Leno-Conan O’Brien dilemma, it stripped Leno at 10 p.m. in a ham-fisted attempt to save face for itself and its talent, block other nets from poaching Leno and going head-to-head and maybe even walk away with a win-win. What happened instead, of course, was a lose-lose.

But that was then. This is now. All that has changed since is how chat-shows are consumed, cross-promoted, nuggetized and creatively produced.  Not only have conditions changed, but all of the conditions have changed. Including the political ones, which have turned late-night comedians into oracles.

Consider "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee." She’s pulling 2.5 million viewers on TBS. That’s TBS, with a T. At 10:30 p.m. It also amounts to half of ABC’s prime-time average for last week. It is 20% higher than Fox’s prime-time average. 

Much of the talk-shows’ audience gains are directly attributable to the Trump presidency, who for topical comedy is the POTUS with the Mostest. And sure, he won’t be around forever. But 3 2/3 years is a long time. He could outlast broadcast altogether. To paraphrase Les Moonves, he may not be good for America. But he could be the savior of prime time.

3 comments about "A Modest Proposal".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics, May 15, 2017 at 9:07 a.m.

    Bob, as usual, you makeman interesting point. One might also consider variety formats like a new and more contemporary version of "Laugh-In" or the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour". The reason why the broadcast TV networks are wedded to scripted primetime sitcoms and dramas to the extent they are is not so much about ratings but, rather, the huge profits that are garnered when these shows go into the syndication rerun market---which the networks now share in. It has been demonstrated many times that dramas and sitcoms--given that they have enough episodes  "in the can"--- syndicate far more effectively in terms of audience and revenues than reality shows and the late night talk, variety stuff. This would probably be true of a modern day "Laugh-In" or a "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour". Also, the network programmers all want to wind up as TV series and movie producers and the best way to get there is to keep buing from those who will eventually hire them when their ratings really tank and they get fired.

  2. Dean Fox from ScreenTwo LLC, May 15, 2017 at 2:05 p.m.

    Maybe The Donald's next career will be as a late night TV host. He's got a loyal following who can't get enough of him, he loves performing for an audience and ratings are his obsession. Steve Bannon's got some showbiz experience, maybe he could produce?

    And at last, I could change the channel.

  3. Paul Van winkle from FUNCTION, May 22, 2017 at 5:25 p.m.

    Bob, I've read you for a long time, and I'm very sorry to see you go.  I've been in advertising and integrated communications for over 30 years. And seeing you -- and Barbara Lippert -- go makes me sick. And sad. And angry. And want to drink three martinis for lunch. (OK, well, so there's that return to MadMen normalcy, which is good...).

    The "content" people may kindly go F themselves. That insight, value, and erudite perspective is being stripped from everywhere while thinking is under full attack is no surprise.  These are the signs of giant corporations (whether media or otherwise) eating themselves, like meth-addicted maniacs refusing to see they're chomping on their own forearms.

    I've admired your keen writing style, your thoughtful takes, and your great perspective and articulations for years. Don't stop.

    +Thank you for a great send-off, which I've shared with many.

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