“The problem,” a network president said to me when he was explaining why he was about to cancel my show, “is this: I can’t go to New York with your show on the schedule.”
In the television business, “going to New York” is shorthand for appearing at sales presentations in New York in early May. At the “upfronts,” as they’re called, television networks have traditionally unveiled their autumn schedules for hundreds of advertising executives—people tasked with buying commercial time for their clients—amid a lot of optimistic hoopla and fanfare and tent-revival-style enthusiasm. The goal is to entice advertisers to pay cash for commercial spots up front, before the shows have actually premiered, at which point the (few) hits and the (mostly) bombs are apparent.
The trick is to promise enough success to get the money up front, but not too much to get into trouble later when it all turns out to have been lies. This is also the trick to most of life, when you think about it.
The network president who was about to cancel my show couldn’t go in front of the advertising community in New York with my show on the schedule because my show was guilty of a capital crime in the broadcast television business. We had a lot of 50- and 60-year-olds tuning in each week. “You skew old,” is how the chief programmer put it to me, in a tone so disgusted and repelled that I instinctively checked the soles of my shoes for dog poop—and advertisers didn’t want that.
What they wanted then were shows about young people, preferably single and promiscuous, living in urban locations, acting out the fantasy of their young-skewing audience. Although our show had a lot of eyeballs, they were of the wrong kind, the kind with maybe a cataract. The network president was trying to paint a picture to the ad buyers of a network that was getting younger and hipper, and having our show on the schedule was ruining the vibe. “The combined ages of your two stars,” he said, “is greater than all of the Friends put together.” Which wasn’t strictly true, but was, as they say in advertising, true enough.
When the television industry began, all eyeballs were equal, and what you wanted was a lot of them staring at your show. Eventually, as audience research and marketing science became more sophisticated, eyeballs became divided into a lot of different sorts—young eyeballs, urban eyeballs, 18–35 eyeballs, 25–54 eyeballs, female eyeballs, male-skewing eyeballs, you get the picture. Advertisers paid more for some eyeballs and less for others, and the programming decisions of each network reflected the complicated marketplace of who wanted to sell what to whom.
For instance, when I was developing a series in the early 1990s, I was told that the show’s cast was too young! Imagine! What I needed to do, I was informed, was put a middle-aged woman somewhere in the ensemble—they were the key decisionmakers in every household, they chose what products the household would buy, and they decided which shows the household was going to watch. Barely two years later—roughly around the time NBC premiered Friends—the eyeballs of middle-aged women were tossed aside. Advertisers wanted newer, less sunken eyeballs.
That’s roughly when television comedies started to be about young, sexy people being young and sexy in the city in young, sexy apartments instead of about middle-aged people being middle-aged in the suburbs with precocious teen kids in overfurnished living rooms. And that’s also when the median age of a detective on a cop show went from 56 to 19. A lot of us remember that as the first time we noticed that everyone on television was younger than we were.
It was a dark time. The good news is, it’s about to be over.
As subscription services like Netflix and Hulu—and the soon-to-debut Disney+ and HBO Max, as well as a half-dozen others—start to get bigger, the brain trusts who run Hollywood will suddenly rethink the whole eyeball thing. By eliminating advertising from its business model, a subscription service charges for the entertainment product itself. Depending on your plan, Netflix charges about $11 a month. Disney+, the new service from Disney, plans to launch in November at about $6 a month, going to about $11 if you add Hulu and ESPN to the mix.
It doesn’t matter at all if the $11 comes from a wrinkled, decrepit pair of eyeballs with the Angel of Death knocking at the door, or from gender-fluid hipster eyeballs in skinny jeans making latte art. Eleven bones is 11 bones.
In the same way, it doesn’t matter at all anymore if the $11 is coming from a sophisticated media consumer in a plugged-in elite enclave or from a poorly dressed rube heading to a mega-church off the interstate. Eleven clams is 11 clams. Red States and Blue States use identical Green Money.
The problem, as my network executive friend might have put it, is this: The sophisticated media consumer in the Blue Zone is already the target of every major media company in the business. That consumer is already bombarded with messages to subscribe to Hulu and HBO and Netflix and Disney+ and Amazon Prime and Apple Television. He/him or she/her has been targeted with shows that push traditional boundaries of language, sexual acts on screen, religious sensibilities, even basic patriotism. The result has been a lot of really creative and brilliant television, of course, but it’s also turned off a lot of people.
Which means there are lots and lots of eyeballs in Red America desperate for something to watch. The television industry, which has spent the past 25 years ignoring huge portions of the American audience thanks to the advertising marketplace, is about to discover that there are millions of churchgoing people with $11 burning a hole in the pockets of their plus-sized pants. Time to load up the production schedule with some patriotic, Christian, sexually modest fare! An underserved audience is an audience ready to subscribe. Over the next few years, the phrase “I can’t go to New York with your show on the schedule” will be replaced by “I can’t go to Oklahoma City with your show on the schedule.”
What’s coming is the End of the Tyranny of Demographics. All eyeballs will once again be the same. For a while, anyway.
The problem is: Hollywood always needs more money. The feature-film business model is a mix of ticket sales (a huge portion of which goes to the theater owners), ancillary markets (toys, games), and the lifetime value of the movie in the library. The television business model is a mix of advertising, subscriptions, and reruns.
The key is the word “mix.” The subscription model of the streaming services is clean and efficient, but there’s only one source of revenue. What’s the lifetime value of a Netflix series? Where does Hulu wring more cash from its past series? Which is just a fancy way of asking the essential question for every business everywhere: How do we get more money?
What Hollywood will rediscover, eventually, is advertising. What will emerge is what looks like the television business of the 1980s—a blend of pay-TV with no commercials and television with commercials and a monthly fee to enjoy both. It will feel new and old at the same time, which is really what Hollywood is all about.
And we’ll be back to eyeballs.