Jeff Zucker: All of our TV pilots suck

Jeff Zucker, CEO of NBC Universal, did the opening keynote at the National Association of Television Program Executives in Las Vegas and talked about how — surprise, surprise — the industry is “under pressure.” I’ll bet that got some big laughs. It’s probably also not that surprising that he didn’t spend much time talking about the writers’ strike and its effect on the industry, although he did drop in that old line about “trading analog dollars for digital pennies,” just for good measure.

The part that I found really striking, though, was near the end, where Zucker starts talking about how he thinks the system of making dozens of expensive — and ultimately futile — TV pilots is a dumb way to do things. And when you listen to the numbers involved, it’s hard not to agree: The big five networks spent $500-million last year on about 80 pilots, he says, of which only eight were brought back for a second season. And even among those, “none could be considered a big success.”

What kind of crazy business spends a half a billion dollars on 80 prototypes, and gets less than 10 per cent that actually work? That might make sense if you’re an experimental research lab — preferably government funded, so that your success rate doesn’t actually matter — but shouldn’t the mass-market TV business have a bit better idea of what it’s doing than that? I assume that every one of those was greenlighted by someone who hoped they would get a monster hit like CSI or Law & Order, and then they could afford to write off all the other losers.

If I were a TV executive, I would put down the crack pipe or whatever they’re smoking over there and put some small amounts of money into a few Webisodes, or maybe look around at what’s catching the eye of my target market at FunnyorDie.com or Break.com or places like that. Finance some things on the cheap and then turn them into something when they take off — flushing billions of dollars down the drain on pilots in hope that you’ll magically hit the CSI jackpot is insane.

20 thoughts on “Jeff Zucker: All of our TV pilots suck

  1. You can add big pharma to that list of industries pouring billions of dollars into R&D, looking for that “pipeline” of wonder drugs. If you look at pilots as samples or prototypes of new products (which makes me very sad, but nonetheless I think it's a valid comparison), the success rate of new product introduction is usually quite low when compared to all of the tries.

    Your idea about quick-and-dirty pilots is worth considering, especially since webisodes and YouTube vids have done so well. Viewers are becoming used to shorter videos.

  2. It would be refreshing if the executives reponsible for network programming
    came and said we're clueless as to what's going to be at hit show or not. oh wait, such an admission might put their jobs at risk and the millions of dollars they command from the corporations they report to. It's easier just to blame the system than hold themselves accountable for making poor decisions. No one knows what is going to stick, thats why making shows is like throwing spaghetti against a wall.

  3. Mathew, Mathew, Mathew.

    If you were a TV executive, you would not have such hair-brained ideas as developing webisodes and embracing new content delivery and business models. You would be smoking your cigars, enjoying some “flowers and fruit”, and talking to your lawyers (if you weren't one already) about suing those punk downloaders who don't respect or value the hard work you are doing at your studio.

    Plus, you'd have to pay writers for that, and lord knows that's not going to be good for your bottom line.

  4. I've often wondered if the woes of the TV/music/film industries can't be easily explained by “You're making a lot of really shit content in the hope that some sucker will buy it. Make something good, you idiots”. Sounds more plausible than “the internet stole my lunch money”.

    • The music industry (which is thriving) is not the same as the recording industry (which the RIAA keeps telling is not well these days).

      I disagree that fortunes would reverse if the quality of shows would improve. What makes a show good or bad is subjective. While some would argue that shows, movies and music suck today, others would argue the opposite.

      The woes can be blamed on increased competition for the almighty spending dollar and the failure of record companies, movie studios and TV networks to adapt to that additional competition.

      • Simply because what people enjoy is subjective doesn't make it impossible to make good or bad content. Creating content is a mixtures of talent, craft, understanding what people in a particular market like, and talent management. Talent management is important, because it's all about being able to take risks – and risks are what drives innovation in content.

        Looking at today's BBC 1 morning programmes, we have “Homes under the hammer” (a programme about auctioning houses), “To buy or not to buy” (a programme about selling houses), “Car Booty” (about selling bric a brac from your house) and “Bargain hunt” (a game show about selling at auction). Can you see why I might suspect that poor quality content is a MASSIVE issue for the big media companies? And the BBC is nowhere near the worst offender.

        Content companies have thrived for years on rehashing the same formats, over and over again. The problem is that people are bored to death of them. Is it any wonder that people would rather play scrabble online with their friends than watch yet another programme about doing up your house? Or that millions of people worldwide would follow something like Ford's innovative “Where are the Jones?” interactive comedy (http://wherearethejoneses.com/ – created by an independent production company in collaboration with an ad agency).

        You're right that there's increased competition. And in a landscape of increased competition for people's time, if you want to win their attention, you had better start producing the best, most inventive and well-produced work you've ever done if you want to be in business.

  5. I've often wondered if the woes of the TV/music/film industries can't be easily explained by “You're making a lot of really shit content in the hope that some sucker will buy it. Make something good, you idiots”. Sounds more plausible than “the internet stole my lunch money”.

  6. The music industry (which is thriving) is not the same as the recording industry (which the RIAA keeps telling is not well these days).

    I disagree that fortunes would reverse if the quality of shows would improve. What makes a show good or bad is subjective. While some would argue that shows, movies and music suck today, others would argue the opposite.

    The woes can be blamed on increased competition for the almighty spending dollar and the failure of record companies, movie studios and TV networks to adapt to that additional competition.

  7. Simply because what people enjoy is subjective doesn't make it impossible to make good or bad content. Creating content is a mixtures of talent, craft, understanding what people in a particular market like, and talent management. Talent management is important, because it's all about being able to take risks – and risks are what drives innovation in content.

    Looking at today's BBC 1 morning programmes, we have “Homes under the hammer” (a programme about auctioning houses), “To buy or not to buy” (a programme about selling houses), “Car Booty” (about selling bric a brac from your house) and “Bargain hunt” (a game show about selling at auction). Can you see why I might suspect that poor quality content is a MASSIVE issue for the big media companies? And the BBC is nowhere near the worst offender.

    Content companies have thrived for years on rehashing the same formats, over and over again. The problem is that people are bored to death of them. Is it any wonder that people would rather play scrabble online with their friends than watch yet another programme about doing up your house? Or that millions of people worldwide would follow something like Ford's innovative “Where are the Jones?” interactive comedy (http://wherearethejoneses.com/ – created by an independent production company in collaboration with an ad agency).

    You're right that there's increased competition. And in a landscape of increased competition for people's time, if you want to win their attention, you had better start producing the best, most inventive and well-produced work you've ever done if you want to be in business.

  8. Good TV is art (or something close to it). The creative process getting hacked into profitability involves an inverse relationship between quality and (initial) cost effectiveness. The sci-fi channel could put up Galactica, AMC is doing Mad Men. Strong story telling on fewer resources is possible, but it takes a lot of sifting. The industry needs better scouts.

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