The Sports Guy on TV, and Faith in the Industry

18Nov06

One of my favorite writers on the internets – and let me pause to rhapsodise how wonderful it is that a simple plural has become recognized techno-hipster slang for “I think our President is a moron” – is Bill Simmons, the Sports Guy on ESPN.com. Simmons is a pioneer of online journalism, starting a website in the mid-90s when he couldn’t break into professional sportswriting. Partly due to lack of access and partly for self-differentiation, he wrote about Boston sports from fan’s perspective, generating a following that countered the conventional wisdom of sports journalism. He’s parlayed that success into a hugely successful column on ESPN.com and in ESPN the Magazine, as well as a stint writing for Jimmy Kimmel Live and a book about the Red Sox, charting a path for the “journa-fan” hybrid. Simmons is a clever & often hilarious writer, and I share his sports fandoms, as we both grew up in the Boston area in the same era – but I think the element of Simmons’s writing I most enjoy is his willingness to take popular culture seriously. He spends almost as much time talking about movies, pop music, videogames, and especially television programs as he does writing about sports, and nearly always has something interesting to say about every topic.

In a recent mailbag feature, Simmons answered a reader’s letter praising the new show Friday Night Lights:

I’m sure you’re right. Here’s the problem: I bailed after one episode because the ratings were so low that I assumed the show was getting canceled. After the Sports Gal’s experiences with “Reunion” and “Love Monkey” last year, I didn’t want to get sucked into a show, get attached to the characters, then have it get yanked after seven episodes. So I bailed. Naturally, NBC decided to stick with the show because it built a small but rabid fan base, and now there’s no way to catch up on old episodes because it would be too logical for them to either rerun them two at a time on Saturday nights or on the USA Network so latecomers could catch up (or people like me who gave up because they thought they show would get axed). Now I have to wait to spend $30 on the Season 1 DVD to come out next summer, which is ridiculous because I never wanted to stop watching the show in the first place.

The larger issue: TV networks spend so many time/money/energy pushing their new shows (look at the “Day Break” commercials over the past few weeks), lack the patience to stick with those same shows once they’re on … and then they wonder why we aren’t watching as much TV anymore. I mean, why would I start watching a serial show like “Kidnapped” or “The Nine” when I know there’s a 90 percent chance it’s going to be gone within four weeks, or even within a year? Would you buy a book in the store if you could only read one chapter a week and knew there was a chance the last 20 chapters would disintegrate within six weeks if there weren’t enough people that bought the book? These stupid TV networks blame DVDs, video games, Internet, iPod downloads and everything else for declining ratings, but the real reason more people aren’t watching them is because nobody trusts free networks to keep their shows on the air. At least with HBO, if they’re launching a season of “The Wire” or “Rome,” I know that I’m getting every episode from that season if I start watching. Like with “Friday Night Lights” — if that was an HBO show, I never would have stopped watching after one episode. Since it was an NBC show, I bailed. What does that tell you?


As I have posted before concerning Lost, one important issue for viewers of narratively complex television is having faith in the creators of a show to deliver the storytelling goods. But television authorship is much more than the vision of the showrunners – the network controls our access to the show and ultimately determines the longevity and shape of the program. On Alias, ABC repeatedly urged J.J. Abrams to make the show more accessible, leading to the show’s narrative breakdown over its final two seasons. Many shows that do generate a dedicated fanbase but mediocre ratings get yanked around and cancelled by networks before they really have a chance to show what they’re made of (insert your favorite example here).

This season, Kidnapped was my favorite new show, combining a great cast, solid writing, effective balancing of long-term mysteries with episodic resolution, and a sense that the creators knew what they were doing. But NBC didn’t, giving up after lackluster initial ratings – even their attempt to put the remaining episodes on NBC.com has been mismanaged, running only one episode at a time with unclear windows of availability.

So as Simmons suggests, today we expect more of our television programs, and often the shows deliver – but without faith in the network’s ability to deliver the shows, viewers are gunshy and fear commitment. He uses HBO as an alternate model, but could have pointed to British broadcasting, where shows typically get short season commitments with no definite expectation to return for future seasons (or as they call it, “series”). Or FX, which uses HBO’s 13 episode model, but also showed the excellent Thief this summer as a 6-episode series – if it did well, it could return, but if not (and it didn’t, according to Nielsen) it would stand-alone as a strong miniseries & eventual DVD.

The important factor to realize is that viewers are thinking about the mechanics of the machinery producing & airing their shows – this is the “operational aesthetic” I’ve discussed elsewhere, but the gears are not just the storytelling techniques within a show itself, but the network practices that bring them to the air. If you’re watching a show as Simmons does, thinking that poor ratings will force NBC to pull the plug, the narrative experience is completely transformed. Likewise, even after the show gets a season commitment, the distribution model prevents viewers to return from the start, driving us to illicit means of viewing.

I’m waiting for a clever network to rethink distribution more broadly, using the conglomerated system more like baseball farm teams, an analogy I hope Simmons might appreciate – commit to a new show for a limited run on a minor league cable channel, allow buzz to grow amongst fans for the shows that prove promising, and then call them up to the majors for a network run. If NBC was so uncertain about Kidnapped that they pulled the plug after 4 episodes, they could have built up the buzz on Bravo first, and let fans drive enthusiasm to gather steam for a shift to NBC. Since these shows are nearly all produced by the studios owned by the network’s parent company, the financial risk doesn’t seem too onerous – but seemingly the media conglomerates refuse to think of their broadcast networks as operating any differently than they did when 90% of all TV viewers were watching.

The industry’s lack of creativity leaves viewers like me & Simmons without faith in the network’s ability to deliver programs – which in turn makes viewers less likely to tune in. I generally think the TV industry has been less hostile to its consumers than the music industry’s outright assault over file sharing, but in this instance, the system works against the viewers it’s trying to entice to watch (and ultimately trying to sell to advertisers). Will they learn this lesson before it’s too late?



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