The future of broadcast television is everywhere on the minds of television and media executives across the industry.
Even Emmy host Seth Meyers opened the awards show on Monday with a well-aimed shot at the elephant in the room, skewering a certain absurdity to broadcast television holding an awards ceremony and “giving all the awards to cable shows and Netflix.”
See video: Seth Meyers’ Best Emmy Monologue Jokes
As it turned out, the television academy gave broadcast TV enough statues to save face in a world where AMC’s “Breaking Bad” gets the most love and Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” has all the sexy media mojo.
But despite the umpteenth Emmy for ABC’s “Modern Family,” network television is most definitively under the microscope as a business. Compared to movie studios, television divisions still produce significant revenue, but that’s only because they have cable networks to lean on.
The conclusion emerging is that over the long-term network television is challenged – declining ratings, viewers’ ability to zap away commercials, Netflix fees on the decline and retransmission fees propping this up for who knows how long?
“Everyone in the TV business should be reevaluating how important the broadcast business is,” media analyst Rich Greenfield told me this week in a post-Emmys discussion. “Everyone sees that behavior is changing. Either you should be exiting the TV business, or driving reverse retrans fees dramatically higher – taking dollars from the TV stations.”
Over at Disney, insiders tell me that the performance of ABC is driving conversations around selling the network or parts of it. Ben Sherwood, new co-chairman and president of Disney/ABC Television Group, can only hope this is not imminent since he has just moved his family across the country to try and turn things in an upward direction.
But the numbers are clear: ABC is contributing less and less to Disney’s bottom line (see chart), down to 12 percent this year from 15 percent a few years ago.
Greenfield sees the move of Monday Night Football to ESPN off ABC in 2006 as a bellwether.
“In no way is ABC core to Disney,” said Greenfield. “Bob Iger has no love for the TV stations. You could keep the network and sell the stations, or sell them both.”
Meanwhile at Comcast and its NBCU division, top executives are also rethinking the network television business models, another insider told me.
NBC is performing better than a few years ago, but the trends are not favorable overall. USA makes far more money off of “Law and Order” reruns than NBC is able to make off of it on first-run programming. Netflix, which a couple of years ago was spending hundreds of millions a year on programming, is continually cutting back on content buying as it ramps up its own development. The ability to skip advertising is a long-term threat that has not yet completed its erosion of Madison Avenue dollars.
Premium cable is a killer in terms of programming. Because of standards and practices, “broadcast TV is really constrained in terms of what it can do in terms of a creative standpoint,” says Greenfield, making it increasingly difficult to compete for viewers. (See Emmys chart.)
The limitations are clear at the Fox network, which is struggling to find its programming voice and were partly reflected in the decision to combine the network with the television production studio earlier this year under Dana Walden and Gary Newman.
Greenfield is one who does not believe that you need a network to be a global media brand anymore.
“Retrans can mask some of the troubles, but the ratings trends are not fixable,” he said. “So for Disney, taking advantage of a frothy market for TV stations – it’d be a great time to sell the business.”