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Networks Make Nice, Not War

With everything from the cable box to the Xbox attacking their business, broadcast networks have had a sort of revelation: They're more interested in selling their collective product than in kicking the daylights out of each other. It's the most peaceful period—or at least the one with the fewest street brawls—in broadcasting that I've ever seen.

Take last Tuesday's annual International Radio & Television Society breakfast chitchat with the entertainment chiefs of the six broadcast networks. The next day's stories from the IRTS affair were mostly about a reality-TV writer who stormed the stage and made a plea for better pay for her comrades.

Once upon a time, that might have been one of the more-civilized moments of the panel discussion. But on this day, it was striking how subdued and gentle the panelists were. These IRTS affairs used to play out like an Armani-clad, trash-talking Smackdown: The Networks. A Leslie Moonves, a Jeff Zucker or a Warren Littlefield came locked and loaded. Barbs flew and tempers flared.

But these are dramatically different times, and the jobs of broadcast-entertainment presidents have been transformed over the last few years. None of the assembled (ABC's Steve McPherson, CBS' Nina Tassler, NBC's Kevin Reilly, Fox' Peter Liguori, UPN's Dawn Ostroff and The WB's David Janollari) has the kind of freedom that was once enjoyed by their impresario predecessors.

With the competition so much fiercer and executive autonomy so much reduced, these industry events start feeling more like support groups than verbal death-matches.

“The stakes are so much higher,” says Jordan Levin, who was replaced by Janollari at The WB about 18 months ago. “It would be myopic to see things like you're in this four-way or six-way horserace and your only purpose is to take down the other guy. Instead you're up there with the only other people who really know what it's like and feel each other's pain.”

Indeed, the exchanges facilitated by CNN's ever-emo Anderson Cooper were so civilized that you could have been lulled into thinking everyone on the stage was working for the same company. Nobody bragged about how great their network was, and nobody tossed even the tiniest dart at the competition. Instead, everyone stayed on-message: The technologies the networks once feared—from video-on-demand to TiVo—are really their friends.

The takeaway, for me, was that these folks have realized taking swipes at each other only weakens the network-television brand. Not surprising, then, that they were more interested in talking about recent video-on-demand alli-ances such as CBS/Comcast and NBC/DirecTV and how more and better permutations on those deals only “increase the pie and aren't killing anything off,” as Ligouri said—to the nodding agreement of every fellow support-group member. Lends a whole new meaning to network share.

The next day, it was hardly a surprise when veteran re­searchers David Poltrack of CBS and Alan Wurtzel of NBC held a press conference to deflate the notion that TiVo and other digital video recorders were destroying the value of network advertising. The session could have been titled: “Network Spin Doctors' Strangelove or How We Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the DVR.”

To hear these guys tell it, DVRs just make people watch more TV, which adds value for advertisers. One proprietary study they touted claimed DVR impact on commercial recall was “minimal.” Oh, and you know those other studies that show that upwards of 90% of DVR users skip commercials? Don't trust them because those studies were based on “earliest adopters,” Wurtzel told my colleague, Allison Romano. When DVRs move from upper class to mass, everything will change—supposedly.

To me, that's just wishful thinking. But if the current broadcast-network group hug extends to embracing technology, that's a good sign.

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