Broadcast networks facing talent shortage

The Wall Street Journal has a very interesting piece out today on how white-hot competition for creative talent right now is disrupting the traditional TV business. Long accustomed to being the first stop for writers and producers shopping new scripts and series, the Big Four broadcast networks now find themselves fighting for top talent’s attention with Netflix, HBO and other outlets, according to the report.

TV-show creators this year are taking their pitches far beyond the networks, says “They are taking [their pitches] to Netflix, they are going to HBO, they are hitting every cable outlet,” Jennifer Salke, president of NBC Entertainment, told the Journal. “It just puts you in the position of being even more of an underdog.”

According to Salke, NBC aggressively pursued one big comedy project from a major outside studio this season only to discover “the creators decided to negotiate with Netflix instead.”

The competition is forcing the networks to change how they have traditionally done business, including launching new series throughout the year, including in the summer, ordering more talent-friendly short-run series and picking up series without a pilot, as NBC recently did with the new sitcom The Michael J. Fox Show.

“We just jumped on board because we didn’t’ think we should be in a position to lose that project,” Salke said of that last one.

The report tracks closely with arguments made by House of Cards star and producer Kevin Spacey’s in his recent James MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival (and which I’ve touched on here and here). The greatest long term danger facing the traditional TV networks is not technological disruption, it’s competition. One of the specific reasons Spacey gave in that speech for doing House of Cards with Netflix, in fact, was that the over-the-top network did not ask to see a pilot first.

“Netflix was the only network that said, ‘we believe in you. We’ve run our data and it tells us our audience would watch this series. We don’t need to do a pilot. How many episodes do you want to do?'” Spacey recalled.

For all the focus on TV technology these days, it’s still a creative business. Viewers watch programming, not technology, and they will follow good programming to wherever it lives. Technology is just the means to get there.