The five ways American TV has changed forever

Few things in life are as sure as the NFL.
Few things in life are as sure as the NFL.
Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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LOS ANGELES—For the past two weeks at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour, network execs have trotted out the shows they hope will connect with audiences during the upcoming season. These series are trying to gain traction as TV’s viewing landscape has shifted rapidly—viewers increasingly watch shows on their own timetables, and less when networks tell them to—and the industry is dotted with many more questions than answers. That said, several new truths about the TV industry have emerged over these last couple weeks:

1. Nothing is a ratings guarantee—except football

Somewhere in the vicinity of 100 shows were paneled at press tour, but as CBS president and CEO Les Moonves pointed out, “When you come back next year, not all of them are still going to be on the air. Even ours. However, this is a sure thing.” He was referring to Thursday Night Football, which is moving to CBS for the first eight weeks of the NFL season (after which it will return to NFL Network, where it has aired since 2006).

As NFL commissioner Roger Goodell noted, “Sunday Night Football is now the number one franchise in all of television. Not just in sports, but in all of television.” Sunday Night Football was indeed the top-rated show on TV last season, averaging 21.5 million viewers. CBS and Fox’s Sunday afternoon broadcasts draw a similarly-sized audience, while ESPN’s Monday Night Football averaged 13.7 million viewers. And the Super Bowl is always the most-watched program each year, with a record 112.2 million viewers tuning in last February. As such, Goodell expects that Thursday Night Football will be “the biggest thing” to happen on TV this season.

Why is football so popular with viewers? “It’s the greatest unscripted reality television ever,” said Sunday Night Football announcer Al Michaels. And there’s no indication of overexposure yet for TV audiences, even as football has expanded to these additional days of the week. “Look at the ratings,” said Michaels. “Yes, it will have to get to that point someday, but I don’t think we’re there yet.”

2. RIP 3D TV broadcasts, long live 4K

A year after ESPN ended its 3D channel, CBS confirms it has also thrown in the towel on its own 3D coverage of sporting events like the Masters and NCAA tournament. “It looked brilliant for about 15 minutes, and then what we found out was it’s really not a very good way to watch a sporting event, with the camera moving back and forth quickly. The reception that we got was very lukewarm,” said CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus. “So I don’t think you’ll see anybody in the near future, or perhaps the distant future, really pursuing 3D coverage.”

Instead, it’s now about 4K, which delivers four times as much detail as 1080p HDTV broadcasts. “What we’re all pursuing now is 4K, which is super-high-definition,” said McManus. Thursday Night Football will include a 4K camera suspended over the sidelines and goal lines “for a look that’s never before been seen on network or cable television,” said McManus. “So if a player steps out of bounds or he’s inbounds, you’ll see an incredibly high-definition look.”

3. To compete with Netflix, you have to become Netflix

As Amazon and Hulu look to close their streaming-video gap with Netflix, they are attempting their most Netflix-like moves yet. Hulu announced an $80 million-plus deal to be the exclusive home to all 17 seasons of South Park, in the hope that the show entices viewers to sample the site’s original content as well.

The deal will result in all episodes of South Park being available on Hulu Plus, with a selection of episodes offered on the free Hulu site. While South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone had long taken pride in offering all episodes of their show for free online, “the exclusivity, I think, is just is something that reflects the business reality of what’s going on,” said Stone. “What worked six years ago doesn’t work as much as well now.”

Meanwhile, Amazon, which had resisted the Netflix model of releasing all episodes of its original series seasons at once, announced that it will reverse course for at least one of its new fall shows: Transparent, which is already garnering more critical acclaim than any Amazon show to date. “We are binging,” said Transparent creator Jill Soloway, who approached her season as “a five-hour movie” instead of 10 half-hour episodes. “We had some great conversations about what it means to end an episode not with, ‘We’ll see you in a week,’ but ‘we want you to keep going right now.’”

For his part, Amazon Studios’ head of original programming Joe Lewis, acknowledged, “we are looking forward to the future and trying to figure out what that new form of storytelling is. That new form is novelistic, and it’s not episodic … So it’s not, I don’t think of it as binging. I just think of it as a five-hour story, and we just have to figure out a word for it because it’s not a movie, and it’s not TV.” Hmm, I think the word he’s looking for is “Netflix.”

4. The staid late-night landscape could finally get shaken up

The rigid late-night show format, featuring a middle-aged white man delivering a monologue and then interviewing celebrities, could finally be transforming next year as CBS looks to replace Craig Ferguson in its 12:30am Late Late Show slot. “We’re looking at it through a very different
 lens,” said CBS Entertainment chief Nina Tassler. “There is certainly a knee-jerk 
reaction to go for a more traditional behind-the-desk
 interview format, but who knows.” That could mean other formats, or a choosing a host with a political background instead of a comedic one. “We’re just keeping a very open
 mind, and we want to be very thorough,” said Tassler, acknowledging that the new program “might not” even be considered a talk show. “But it also might be.”

No matter what happens at 12:30, Stephen Colbert will stick to a traditional talk show when he takes over for a retiring David Letterman early next year. “He does want an interview format,” said Tassler, but Colbert will be “retiring” his Colbert Report persona when he makes the move from Comedy Central to CBS.

5. You can never make too many shows from comic books

The two comic behemoths, DC and Marvel, are adding five new comic-book-themed series to TV lineups this season, joining the returning Arrow and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but no one is worried about cannibalizing the comic book audience. “As long as they’re good, and as long as they’re different, we’re excited,” said DC’s chief creative officer Geoff Johns of the shows, pointing out that all these characters’ different comic books peacefully co-exist already. “As long as everything finds its own niche and we don’t get repetitive on what we do, there’s room for everything.”

That includes DC and Marvel TV projects. “We love it when Marvel puts on more shows, because it’s good for everybody when they’re good and they do well,” said Johns. “It just helps everyone in this business that wants to bring comic books to life.”

That said, DC has decided against following Marvel’s lead in creating a singular universe that links its movie and TV projects. “No, we will not be integrating the film universe with the television universe,” said Johns. “It’s a separate universe than film, so the filmmakers can do the best version they want and tell the story that’s best for film, while we do something different in a different corner of the DC Universe on television.”