Garwulf’s Corner #55: Useful Donkeys
Originally published September 14, 2017
A few years ago, one of the banes of my childhood resurfaced. I was watching the remastered Star Trek episodes premiere on CBS, but there was a problem — they were almost always scheduled behind a football game.
What this meant in practice was a frustration that I was all too familiar with — the already late episode start times were often delayed by up to three quarters of an hour, and in some cases episodes would be started in progress, losing more than half the episode. What made it particularly irksome was that sports in America have been televised nationally since 1951 — channels like CBS have no excuse not to know how long games are likely to run, and the fact that they were almost always going long suggests that they were being short-changed on the schedule.
This may seem petty for a Garwulf’s Corner installment, but it does matter. And the reason it matters all comes down to content, and who makes it.
Television networks — along with traditional media in general — are likely at the beginning of a struggle for survival. More people than ever are electing to replace their cable — according to Variety last year, the numbers may be as high as 25% of American households no longer having a cable subscription, with around 17% relying on broadcast television, and the rest using streaming services like Netflix. This number is only likely to increase over time, and streaming services — providing commercial-free content upon demand — have most of the advantages in this struggle.
They are, you see, “useful donkeys.”
It’s an old, but important, concept. So long as a donkey is useful, it doesn’t get put out to pasture or get otherwise disposed of. Likewise, the longevity of any service is entirely based on how useful it is to those it serves. Once it is no longer useful — once a less expensive option with fewer hassles becomes available — it, too, gets put out to pasture.
And this brings us back to televised sports and network programming. Traditionally, the costs of network programming are borne by the networks, who commission television shows and pay for their production. The money for this comes from advertisers (or, in the case of cable channels such as HBO, subscriber fees). These shows, however, are not cheap — an American television show costs an average of $3.5 million per episode. In the case of high-end genre television, such as Game of Thrones or Westworld, the budget per episode can be over $8 million.
(This picture is, of course, more complicated — added to the advertisers and subscriber fees are home video sales and profits from syndication — but in most cases, these revenue sources kick in long after production is finished and the season has aired.)
While streaming services such as Netflix have begun to produce their own television, the vast majority of the content we consume still comes from traditional sources. It is, for example, because of CBS that we have both Elementary and Star Trek Discovery. If CBS, or NBC, or any of the large broadcast or cable networks were to fail, they would take a lot of content with them.
And this is where sports scheduling becomes a concern. In the past, the traditional networks had a stranglehold on sports broadcasts — only strengthened over time by their ownership of the many sports speciality channels — and they had a large, steady and profitable fan base…a fan base that they assumed, and continue to assume, would not PVR the games, making the advertising time during a sports broadcast far more valuable than one during a regular television show. Further, there is a serious incentive to give priority to the sports: a disastrous set of circumstances in 1968 led to a football game between the Oakland Raiders and the New York Jets being cut short to start the children’s television show Heidi — which in turn was interrupted during an intense dramatic scene by a final football score — causing the alienation of almost all of NBC’s viewership at the time. This has left networks not caring if a football game runs longer than its time slot — after all, the audience for the sports broadcast would be larger than for what followed, the advertising time would be more profitable, and it would be paying the production costs of the following show that was delayed or joined in progress anyway. So why bother changing?
But many of these assumptions no longer apply — the idea that live sports is PVR-proof is undermined by the fact that 84% of sports fans with PVRs are PVRing the sports they watch, which will likely devalue the advertising over time. Sports organizations like the NFL are partnering with online companies such as Amazon and Twitter to stream content to their fans, side-stepping the networks in the process. Successful major network television shows, such as NCIS, can reach a comparable number of viewers as the average sports event. By continuing to short-change the scheduling for televised sports, the networks are placing themselves in a dangerous situation — over time, new media can become far more useful to their viewers when it comes to live sports, and the more they compromise the viewing experience of the fans of their other shows, the less useful they will become to them too.
We are in the middle of seeing a massive change to the media landscape, not just in terms of what content is produced, but in regards to where and how we watch it. If the major networks aren’t careful and fail to adjust to the new reality, they could find that, despite their current positions as media juggernauts, they are no longer the useful donkeys that they once were — and we could lose a lot of the entertainment we crave as they go down.