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Remote Control

Happy New Year, Happy Trails

It’s the start of another year and for those of us in the media industry, 2010 is likely to be better–and certainly, more exciting, than 2009. CES blew through Las Vegas last week, headlining the fact that mobile computing will be center stage all year. Mobile DTV had its coming out party and the Open Mobile Video Coalition is positioning for traction in 2010. In this smart-phone and app-crazy world, consumer demand for more and better “anywhere TV” will only increase.

3-D is another irresistible force. I know there are many skeptics out there. They may be right when they scoff at the prospects, but 3D-TV will have its day in the sun and it will happen in 2010. Industry leaders ESPN and Discovery are hedging their bets in a big way by launching programming in 3D–and set manufacturers are always looking for ways to create new markets, so keep an eye out. (If you haven’t seen it with your own eyes, hold your criticism/skepticism until you do. It’s remarkable, in the same way that HD when we first saw it a decade ago. Remember, there were doubters about HD too.)

On the deal side, 2010 will be definitively more active than 2009–for better or worse. All the big players kept their powder dry through most of the past two years (except for Google.) But with the Comcast-NBCU deal struck and awaiting approval, more action will be just around the corner. Also, our industry is all about growth–like any other–so after 18 months of hesitancy and inaction, there is sure to be a lot of movement in 2010. There is pressure to act and that will manifest itself in many interesting ways in the months ahead. Should be fun to watch and even more fun to take part in…

Finally, a personal note: after 2+ years at the helm of Shoptalk’s parent company–Vault.com– I am becoming non-executive Chairman and turning over the CEO reins to Claude Sheer, a publishing and internet veteran who many may remember from his days at Ziff-Davis. As of January 1, the editor of Shoptalk and the TVSpy franchise report to Claude. Therefore, this will be my last post for Shoptalk. In addition to consulting to Vault (and its majority owner, Veronis Suhler Stevenson) I will be doing some independent media consulting on my own, while keeping my eyes open for The Next Big Thing. Until we meet again, thanks for your support and loyalty, and have a terrific 2010!

If you would like to comment on Remote Control, or want to reach Erik, email remotecontrol@tvspy.

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Trying to Stay Positive Four Weeks in a Row

This month–in the spirit of the upcoming holidays–I committed to posting a series of positive blogs about the traditional network powers. To be honest, it was pretty easy to be positive for one day, but a whole month has been a different matter. Luckily, this is the last in the series – a bow to NBC–which takes a lot of abuse for being #4–or as Tina Fey joked last week, “actually, we’re in ninth place if you count the couple radio stations that are ahead of us right now.” I’ve been stalling on this traditional network all month, hoping that the Comcast deal would be announced by now, but alas, not as of this writing–though perhaps it will have been announced by the time you read this:

1) A New Parent – after more than two decades, the kids have figured out a way to divorce their parents. No, it’s not a new sitcom; it’s Jeff Zucker’s brilliant maneuver to swap GE for Comcast. GE’s corporate strategies didn’t always lend themselves to optimal conditions for a broadcast company and Comcast should provide more flexibility and creative support even though it isn’t a pure media company either. And though nothing has been formally announced, all the reporting on the new, Comcast-controlled entity indicates that Zucker will run it and report to Steve Burke and Brian Roberts. Not that Comcast doesn’t have its challenges, but it will be good for NBC to be away from GE.

2) Football Night America/Sunday Night Football – Zucker and Dick Ebersol have been playing beautiful music together for a long time and the deal to partner with the NFL is no exception. Jeff and Dick’s work with the NFL and GE to get the contract – and Dick’s execution of the programming and scheduling – have to led to higher ratings and more success than anyone predicted.

3) Today, Nightly, and Meet the Press – these three programs routinely clobber the competition and show no signs of slowing down. And these aren’t flashes in the pan. All of undergone serious transitions in the past five years (the departures of Couric, Brokaw and Russert) and yet the competition continues to flail.

4) 30 Rock & The Office – for sophisticated viewers, especially those of us in media, this is the best hour of comedy on television. For people who work at NBC, and those of us who used to, it’s roll-around-on-the-floor funny–except maybe when we see a little of ourselves in some of the characters.

Now, finally, it’s Thanksgiving–and next week, I can return to my more Grinch-like tendencies.

Erik Sorenson is chief executive officer of Vault.com, Inc. He oversees the strategic direction of the global, New York-based media company, including ShopTalk & TVSPY. If you would like to comment on Remote Control, or want to reach Erik, email remotecontrol@tvspy.

Giving Thanks at Fox & The CW

Bloggers, present company included, can be so negative. In the spirit of Thanksgiving–just days away–I have been dedicating the November editions of Remote Control to being, uh, positive. It’s so easy to bemoan the secular implosion of the media industry and its disintermediation by advances in technology and businesses on the internet. It’s easy to forget to be grateful and to show appreciation for quality and success within the struggling silos of the traditional media–especially Broadcasting.

The networks are easy targets. Through no great fault of their own, the five broadcast networks have been hammered by viewers with their 100+ channels and DVR remotes. Through regulation and affiliate agreements–and yes, a little bit of arrogance–the networks find themselves in a precarious position, with even their bosses pointing out their single-revenue-stream vulnerability to cable and other digital competition.

Already, I have seen the glass half full at CBS and ABC. I’m going to save NBC until next Tuesday, in hopes we’ll know more by then about a possible tie-up with Comcast, so this week we’ll look at the two “upstarts”–Fox and The CW–and mostly, Fox:

1) ‘American Idol’ on Fox – need I say more? It’s the most-watched program in prime time year-in and year-out with appeal across all demographics. Add Ellen Degeneres in 2010, stir slowly, and Mike Darnell’s baby should hold on to its #1 ranking for yet another season.

2) NFL & MLB on Fox – Rupert and company were smart to sign up the NFC back in their early days and baseball gave the network a way to blunt the competition and start the season each year despite (at the time) weaker programming. In the spirit of staying positive, I won’t comment on whether these money losers are still good for Fox. Rather, it is worth noting that Fox Sports has revolutionized broadcast sports coverage with graphics, audio stingers, brash music and new camera angles. What was daring and controversial a decade ago is now par for the course.

3) Edgy Dramas on Fox – Always a risk-taking network, Fox has brought us “24,” “House,” “Bones” and “Fringe.” This season, Fox introduced another new, inventive show that captured plenty of buzz in “Glee.” The innovation continues.

4) The CW – Most credit can be given for identifying an audience target and staying with it. While the network has had its challenges, kudos for inventing (and re-inventing) shows like “Gossip Girl,” “One Tree Hill,” “Vampire Diaries,” “Melrose Place” and “America’s Next Top Model” – especially: “Gossip Girl.”

Next week, I’ll take a look at NBC and try to continue the positive outlook.

Erik Sorenson is chief executive officer of Vault.com, Inc. He oversees the strategic direction of the global, New York-based media company, including ShopTalk & TVSPY. If you would like to comment on Remote Control, or want to reach Erik, email remotecontrol@tvspy.

Trying to Stay Positive

Last week – in the spirit of the upcoming holidays and year-end – I committed to posting a series of positive blogs about the traditional network powers. To be honest, it was pretty easy to be positive for one day, but a whole week is a different matter. By the time this is over, I’ll probably be a mess. But the response has been good so far, so I’ll keep soldiering on. This week, ABC is in the subject:

1) Prime-time 18-49 – even though Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy, and Brothers & Sisters are getting a little long in the tooth (see, I told you it’s hard to stay positive) ABC’s Prime Time programming continues to be innovative and popular in the key demographic. In the spirit of Lost, program chief Steve McPherson keeps putting it out there, adding V and Flash Forward this season. Like CBS, the alphabet network also features measured but strong reality, especially with the hit Dancing with the Stars;

2) Nightline – everyone dismissed David Westin when he unveiled a four-anchor, multi-topic version of Roone’s original killer app against Leno and Letterman, but Nightline has done well, especially on breaking news nights, and particularly this fall thanks to NBC’s shift of Leno to 10pm;

3) ESPN on ABC – the leader in sports programming, a cable channel, has been beautifully integrated on the broadcast platform. Along with MSNBC, this stands as a terrific example of how to synergize a cable property with a broadcast network. Whether college football, golf or the NBA, Disney makes certain that both brands benefit and that the audience is moved gracefully back and forth.

4) Oprah & Early News – after 25+ years, ABC continues to leverage the Oprah franchise in most major markets through their owned stations, which gives a back advantage to their early local news and the syndicated programming that follows. Cable and internet competition has siphoned off some of their ratings, to be sure, but in most markets early, ABC is still the king.

Next week – the “newcomers” – Fox and The CW.

Erik Sorenson is chief executive officer of Vault.com, Inc. He oversees the strategic direction of the global, New York-based media company, including ShopTalk & TVSPY. If you would like to comment on Remote Control, or want to reach Erik, email remotecontrol@tvspy.

Scrooge-Free Zone

Bloggers, present company included, can be so negative. In the spirit of Thanksgiving–suddenly just around the corner–I’d like to dedicate the next few editions of Remote Control to being, uh, positive. It’s so easy to bemoan the secular implosion of the media industry and its disintermediation by advances in technology and businesses on the internet. It’s easy to forget to be grateful and to show appreciation for quality and success within the struggling silos of the traditional media–especially Broadcasting.

The networks are easy targets. Through no great fault of their own, the five broadcast networks have been hammered by viewers with their 100+ channels and DVR remotes. Through regulation and affiliate agreements–and yes, a little bit of arrogance–the networks find themselves in a precarious position, with even their mogul bosses pointing out their single-revenue-stream vulnerability to cable and other digital competition.

We have four Tuesdays until Thanksgiving which is just enough time to give kudos to ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and the CW. While struggling, each is doing certain things well and those folks deserve recognition and appreciation. Let’s start with CBS, which among other things is #1 in many ratings categories for yet another season as we move deeper into sweeps month. I want to recognize three things in particular:

1) 60 Minutes – despite the deaths of Ed Bradley and Don Hewitt and the absence of Mike Wallace, the granddaddy of the news magazine shows is having a spectacular season with terrific pieces and strong interviews. Steve Croft has emerged as the next-generation Wallace with interviews this season of Barack Obama and mini-Madoff scammer Marc Dreier – and on the lighter side, his piece on human mountain jumpers flying at 140 mph. In the past month, the program has featured ground-breaking stories on Afghanistan, Iraq, sports concussions and epilepsy research. Executive Producer Jeff Fager has maintained the tradition of quality story-telling, while embracing a greater focus on topicality which provides traction and relevance almost every Sunday night. No reporting underscores that more than the program’s work on H1N1 over the past three weeks. First, a poignant and frightening look at the illness at its most destructive– up close and personal– followed by Sunday’s exclusive tour inside the nation’s top-secret vaccine factory in Pennsylvania. Fager has also been smart about leveraging his lead-in of football (and golf in the off-season) with pieces featuring Tom Brady, Michael Vick, etc.

2) NFL Football & Upscale Sports – CBS was smart to retrieve the NFL after losing it in the Tisch Era. While Fox has the stronger markets with its NFC package, CBS has done well with teams like the Jets, the Patriots, the Steelers and the Dolphins. CBS has also clung to golf and tennis, hanging on to many PGA events including The Masters – plus US Open Tennis. These may be loss leaders on paper, but they shore up prime time, give access to desirable demographics and serve as a marketing platform for other CBS programming.

3) Procedural Drama – Les Moonves wrestled away the criminal and courtroom crown from NBC a few years ago and hasn’t looked back. CBS’s ratings superiority is built on the back of terrific serials such as the CSI series, the Mentalist, NCIS, Cold Case and Criminal Minds. Add to that just enough reality with Survivor and The Amazing Race and it’s a blueprint for supremacy. Les has a formula based on superior actors, top-notch behind-the-scenes talent, and reliable formats–and it works!

Next Tuesday, I’ll take a look at ABC and try to continue the positive vibes.

Erik Sorenson is chief executive officer of Vault.com, Inc. He oversees the strategic direction of the global, New York-based media company, including ShopTalk & TVSPY. If you would like to comment on Remote Control, or want to reach Erik, email remotecontrol@tvspy.

The Push We Needed

I am always looking for a silver lining. To a fault, some say. And I’ll confess, it’s been hard to find anything “good” about the current economic conditions and the widespread carnage in the media industry. Revenues are down for virtually every company, print or electronic–and layoffs continue (The New York Times announced last week that one hundred more people will lose their jobs at the Gray Lady this quarter. Similar stories are coming from Conde Nast and Time Inc and most broadcasters.)

But here’s the silver lining: The Great Recession accelerated and intensified a secular problem in our industry and it’s forcing everyone to face up to it and, at least, try to address it. That secular problem is fragmentation and the related irritant of over-reliance on advertising revenue. Or–to put it another way–over-relying on the free-to-the-user, sponsored content business model.

Audiences for traditional media outlets have been declining for years. And there has been an ominous churn on Madison Avenue for some time too. But really, it was easier to “go with the flow” and keep floating down the river of Inertia than to sit up and really address the challenges at hand, so little or nothing was done to deal with the impending iceberg.

But now, the shriveled economy is putting a huge dent in ad dollars invested, which has accelerated the secular downturn and forced all of us to come to grips with the effects of fragmentation. And with the growing awareness of a “new normal” media execs realize they have to take action or they’ll wake up bankrupt and empty-handed. Hence, Fox says Hulu will start charging users in 2010; the WSJ continues to expand its product lines of paid subscriptions; Newsday announces that it will charge non-cable/non-print subscribers a few to read its news on line; Comcast says it will debut cable shows online this quarter for Comcast cable customers only; and the former executive editor of The Washington Post says the government should now subsidize journalism because free enterprise business models cannot.

Thanks for the push–we needed it.

Erik Sorenson is chief executive officer of Vault.com, Inc. He oversees the strategic direction of the global, New York-based media company, including ShopTalk & TVSPY. If you would like to comment on Remote Control, or want to reach Erik, email remotecontrol@tvspy.

Letterman’s Trials: Is the Worst Still Ahead?

Monday is media day for The New York Times business section, which prominently features the usually thoughtful and always clever David Carr and his column called “The Media Equation.” In the most recent edition, Carr’s headline was “The Big Tests for Letterman Are Still Ahead.” Carr makes the argument that two issues still loom: “the first having to do with media dynamics” and the “drip, drip, drip of coverage” which could “erode his standing.” Secondly, Carr wonders whether the story of his case could actually undercut his comedy.

Let’s take the second point first. While America’s new insight into the Real Dave will definitely affect everything from the stand-up jokes to casual guest remarks, it will only serve to make the comedy more complex, not less funny. Everyone likes self-deprecating humor, and some of Dave’s best jokes in recent memory have come the past few days at his own expense– such as the woman in his navigation device refusing to speak to him and his quip Friday: “Are you sure you want to be seen with me?” It also creates another layer of possibility and innuendo for every guest, including Larry David on the second night after the blackmail story broke and Steve Martin’s line last week: “It shows you are human. We weren’t sure before.” With time, the humor is only likely to improve.

On the first point, Carr points to the 24/7 digital media universe that does chew on scandal like a cow chews on cud. Carr suggests that Gawker, TMZ and ever-ravenous tabloids and cable channels will bark at every scrap of raw meat thrown them by Joe Halderman’s attorney, Gerald Shargel, a notorious scrap thrower.

While Carr is correct about Shargel and the tabloid piranha, I do not share his view that any of it will undermine Letterman, if indeed it is “more of the same.” Drip-dripping alone will not kill Dave– it won’t even hurt him. Bill Clinton– who it must be remembered was President of the United States, not a standup comedian and talk-show host–had extra-marital sex with an intern and emerged with his popularity largely intact. While most Americans said they disapproved of his behavior, a majority said it had nothing to do with job performance. And that was at the White House, not the Ed Sullivan Theater! Office romance and office sex are old hat to most observers – and while they may not condone the behavior, they are unlikely to condemn it. And the curiosity factor will only serve to increase ratings, which will help Dave’s career, not hurt it.

Like all scandals, eventually interest will subside and neither of Carr’s points will be relevant anymore. Unless, of course, there really is something more (uh, different) yet to come out. If there were accusations of non-consensual sexual behavior or a legitimate sex harassment claim, that could muddy the waters significantly for Letterman. But short of that, the “drip-drips” will become increasingly faint and–ironically for CBS–end a run of spiked ratings.

Erik Sorenson is chief executive officer of Vault.com, Inc. He oversees the strategic direction of the global, New York-based media company, including ShopTalk & TVSPY. If you would like to comment on Remote Control, or want to reach Erik, email remotecontrol@tvspy.

Distractions Everywhere

As if working at (or near) one of the Big Three traditional television companies wasn’t stressful enough, several Swords of Damocles have emerged recently to hang over the heads of the denizens at CBS, NBC and ABC. At ABC, it is the retirement of Charlie Gibson which triggered the ascension of Diane Sawyer which has left a huge question mark at “Good Morning America.” It has been suggested that Disney honchos may want a Hail Mary Solution to gobble up more of the lucrative morning TV pie, which might be a good call for the company but is distracting the hell out of Kremlinologist employees.

And ABC’s distraction is nothing compared to CBS’s. “The Late Show with David Letterman” is a big money-maker in its own right and Worldwide Pants adds to the pile. Now both are under scrutiny, along with CBS management, as the Letterman-Halderman saga plays out, everywhere from TMZ to the New York Post. If it were Letterman tangled up with an unknown, that would be distracting enough. However, Joe Halderman is no unknown. He is a veteran CBS News producer, well known to hundreds of current (and former) colleagues. And the story isn’t going away anytime soon.

But the Distraction Factor looms most large at the Peacock network. There it is not just one program or a couple divisions. At NBC, the whole company is up for grabs, thanks to the headline-driving news of talks between GE and Comcast to merge television assets. Will it actually happen? Will another player emerge to compete with Comcast for the company? What will happen to the NBC leadership if Comcast assumes control, as rumored? And will NBC News continue to shrink in importance as part of an even larger Cable Company?

For the veterans, these kinds of distractions are old hat. Morning Show shakeups, office sex and massive mergers have been around for decades. The challenge for employees, of course, is to concentrate on the job at hand–especially tricky when our industry is already suffering the dual curses of disintermediation and the worst recession in 75 years.

Erik Sorenson is chief executive officer of Vault.com, Inc. He oversees the strategic direction of the global, New York-based media company, including ShopTalk & TVSPY. If you would like to comment on Remote Control, or want to reach Erik, email remotecontrol@tvspy.

The Shrinking World of Broadcast Television

The new TV Season is just getting underway, but already there are perennial warning signs of further, potentially deep erosion in the audience watching the biggest network shows. Over the most recent weekend, “Desperate Housewives” attracted 5.5 million fewer viewers for its Season Debut than cued up for the 2008 opener–and “Saturday Night Live”s debut also bombed compared to last year. Now, NBC was quick to point out that last year’s debut was boosted by Tina Fey and the Presidential Campaign. And Hollywood wags will speculate that “Desperate” may have jumped the shark, causing its plunge.

Defenders of the flame will point to stronger critical reviews of network programming, and some ratings exceptions like “Flash Forward” and “Grey’s Anatomy” on the first real Thursday night, September 24th. They will tell you that CBS and Fox were up (slightly) versus 2008 for the first week in A1849 (even though NBC, ABC and the CW were way, way down.) They will tell you that some top shows haven’t even debuted yet. They’ll tell you the weather is still nice and the busier-than-ever Americans haven’t fully settled in, following a later-than-usual Labor Day.

But check out this handy chart compiled by our friends at TVByTheNumbers:

TVByTheNumbers Chart

But consider this final indicator: in the first couple weeks of September, the #1 programs on broadcast and cable were NFL football games. And all of The Big Three have benefited from games in Prime, or games that spilled into Prime. While still early in a long season, this supports the growing opinion that “event programming” is the only way to stem the loss of audience to cable, the DVR and the internet.

Erik Sorenson is chief executive officer of Vault.com, Inc. He oversees the strategic direction of the global, New York-based media company, including ShopTalk & TVSPY. If you would like to comment on Remote Control, or want to reach Erik, email remotecontrol@tvspy.

Reactions to Obama’s Saturation Strategy

Tuesday in this space we asked for feedback on the question of whether President Obama’s saturation bombing of the TV “air waves” is helpful to his agenda–or not. It is true that most of our emails–well, all but one–came from members of the community who seem to generally support the President. The one that didn’t was, ahem, un-publishable. Here are some that were:

I whole-heartedly agree with his strategy of appearing on as many TV shows as he can. One reason for the strategy is the splintering of the TV audience. You just can’t reach the numbers that you once could with an appearance on one show or one network. Heck, you can’t even reach that many anymore by appearing on ALL of them. Another reason, which is connected to the first, concerns the ability of even the most isolated, unaccredited person to reach an audience. Finally, this president–possibly more than any other president, even Ronald Regan–has a personality that shines on TV.
-from Michigan

I think Obama is doing the right thing to at least get his side of the story out to the people and hitting Letterman and the like, is a great option. Why not? He would be well served by hitting Fox as well, but I’m not sure it would be such a love fest, although I think he could handle it. I know Bill Clinton could and Obama is no slouch when it comes to public speaking.
-from Atlanta

As to whether or not it’s effective, I am struck by the fact that most of the people who say “He’s over exposing himself” are Republican pundits who, I am sure, have nothing but best wishes for Obama’s success.
-origin of email unknown

This last comment suggesting that Republicans cornered the market on criticism is not entirely true. In fact, just yesterday a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat gave me chapter and verse on why the President fouled up on Sunday because all the talk after his blanketing of the networks was how he–uh, blanketed the networks. (See the front page photo Monday in The New York Times). His message was also buried–or at least somewhat lost–in the course of a lengthy appearance Monday night on Letterman, according to my friend, who pointed out that healthcare and the economy lost out to jokes about the band, the audience and summer vacation.

Erik Sorenson is chief executive officer of Vault.com, Inc. He oversees the strategic direction of the global, New York-based media company, including ShopTalk & TVSPY. If you would like to comment on Remote Control, or want to reach Erik, email remotecontrol@tvspy.

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