Rick Bentley: With TV changing, I'm here to help guide the way

FresnoJuly 15, 2014 

LOS ANGELES — By my count, I'm attending my 50th TV critics tour in Los Angeles.

The 26 years it took to attend all those tours, I have seen an awful lot of TV shows come and go and actors go from unknowns to stars and back again.

The one thing that stands out as the biggest difference between that first tour and the one this week is options. Way back in the 1980s, the networks ruled the world with an upstart FOX trying to break their hold. PBS was a second cousin. Even cable wasn't the force it would become.

Now, the networks struggle to lure viewers. PBS would still be that same second cousin if not for Ken Burns and "Downton Abbey." Cable has exploded and digital options are growing at a rapid pace with Netflix, Hulu and Amazon producing original programming that is as good — or better — than competitors.

The TV world continues to change.

"Anytime somebody brings up the word 'change,' inevitably you hear the following cliches: It's transformative. It's disruptive. It's a paradigm shift," says NBC's chief statistical analyst Alan Wurtzel. "But sometimes the clichés are really true, and I don't think there's anybody in this room that would disagree that the media business is undergoing a profound change.

"The problem is that, because we're all a part of it and because we live it every day, it's sometimes hard to really appreciate the magnitude of the changes and the magnitude of their impact."

Leading the change are the growing number of diginets (digital networks). There are at least two dozen diginets that have joined the battle for viewers.

Amazon Studios launched a few years ago with a mission to develop original television series and movies. Roy Price, the man behind the studio, says the programs are aimed at the millions of film and TV fans around the world who come to Amazon.com daily.

The original programs are offered on Amazon Prime Instant Video, which also includes tens of thousands of titles such as HBO shows, the exclusive streaming of "Downton Abbey," "Orphan Black," "The Americans," "24" and "Extant."

These diginets are growing through hand-held devices. Research by NBC shows the number of people watching TV shows through devices other than TV sets is growing rapidly. In the 2012-13 TV season, there were 17 million digital views on digital platforms: 16% on a tablet, 6% on a smartphone, 78% on a desktop. This year the consumption of digital views on a tablet has doubled to 30%, while the smartphone tripled. The desktop declined by 30-31%.

"I am sometimes asked whether there are cultural differences between Hollywood and techland, but at the core, I think there aren't. Both communities want to take chances and create new things that people will love," Price says. "It's a new era in TV, and stories can be bigger, deeper, more involved, more serial. And there's never been a more welcoming time in television for serious creators who have a vision for a new show. It's a great time to be a writer, therefore, with something to say, the director with a vision, an actor who wants to explore multidimensional characters."

The ability to watch TV shows whenever and wherever you want makes more sense than the structured method that was the norm for decades.

"Just think of it this way: Nobody said that the way you watch television is you show up Monday at 10 o'clock," Wurtzel says. "We did that because it was the only way you could consume it. If you were a Martian that came down to the planet today, you'd sort of wonder, 'Why does anybody do that?'

"We certainly need the critical mass of people watching in large groups to get the buzz going and to get people knowing about programs. I think the linear schedule is hugely important in that regard, but what I am saying is we better realize that there are changes taking place that we have to take into account.

"We just can't fall back on the idea that 'We'll show it to them, and they'll come.' "

It will be my job — as it has been for 26 years — to help you navigate through this ever-expanding program maze.


TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at www.fresnobeehive.com.

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