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STRUCK DUMB: THE PARTY’S OVER: There’s a concept in business called “creative destruction,” which was apparently coined by an economist named Joseph Schumpeter during World War Two, though, like most good ideas, people are still arguing about who came up with it in the first place. The nut of it is that no business, regardless of how successful or monolithic it might appear, is exempt from being transformed — even ruined — by some new change in technology, production, or even society that pushes for better, faster and cheaper access to goods or services. It’s a phrase brought out to describe what happened to department store dynasties in the last two decades of the 20th century, or what’s happening to the music industry right now.
It will probably be trotted out soon enough to describe the effects of the current Hollywood writers’ strike on the TV business, so I’d might as well get to the head of the line and do it now. It doesn’t appear in a piece in the New York Times business section yesterday, but it might as well, since the story about how the networks are openly considering scrapping the late-spring upfronts in the light of the likely lack of product to showcase is a perfect example of creative destruction in action.
Upfronts, for those of you unfamiliar with the rituals of the network year, are the glitzy presentations held every year in New York, where the big four and their various sibling networks and cable specialty competitors hold flashy stage shows to showcase their new shows, followed by expensive cocktail parties full of opportunities for celeb flesh-pressing, all in the service of getting the attention of advertisers and media buyers to buy commercial time in the upcoming fall season. Started in the late ’80s, they’ve become huge — and expensive — productions that the networks, in their perpetual game of one-upmanship, have been unable to walk away from or even ramp down.
“Every year there would be more stars walking across the stage telling us how excited they were to be on the network,” is how Betsy Frank, a longtime advertising executive who now is head of research for Time Inc., described them for the New York Times, with implied sarcasm that’s hard to miss.
NBC Universal president Jeff Zucker is leading the call for the overthrow of upfront tyranny, telling the Times that once they cancel the big stage show at Radio City Music Hall for lack of material to showcase, it’s unlikely they’ll revive it again in subsequent years. CBS spokesman Chris Ender echoed Zucker, saying “it is increasingly unlikely that we will do a traditional upfront presentation this year,” and talk is of smaller, more intimate, even regional presentations to advertisers and buyers — provided they have something to sell come May. There’s even talk of using this opportunity to finally abolish TV seasons in favour of a perpetual, year-round schedule of new shows and renewals, hitting the air whenever at the optimum junction of audience attention and advertiser support.
That the best likely outcome of this cycle of creative destruction is the end of network dominance and prime time itself remains unspoken, probably because the idea, if spoken aloud, would result in soiled trousers from coast to coast.