And then, they came to the end.
After close to four months delving into the television industry, we complete our expansive survey with the networks owned by the Walt Disney Company, including the Disney Channel, ESPN, Freeform (formerly ABC Family), and the A+E Networks (History Channel, Lifetime, and, of course, A &E,), which it co-owns with the Hearst Corporation. As we have seen over the last three weeks, the cable business is in a bit of a precarious position these days, potentially on the verge of a complete free fall into something of an oblivion.
That’s not being hyperbolic, either, as viewer numbers continue to plummet and the networks in question scramble to retain their audiences, which these days is like trying to fill a reservoir with a soggy Dixie cup.
Now, unlike most other companies, Disney is so massive that it can afford the losses that its cable networks have recently encountered — the stock is currently sitting around $105 per share, not so far off its five year high of $120 and change, where it was 13 months ago, and far above the low of $35 on this date in 2011 — but that doesn’t mean it should. While ESPN doesn’t exactly fall under the purview of this publication, it is in truly dire shape and has proven to be an anchor to the company’s bottom line. The Disney Channels, too, have been suffering lately, and even though Freeform made some gains in the past year (after falling off by 14 percent from 2014 to 2015), it wasn’t enough to offset the larger losses of the others.
To wit, while the revenues for the year ending October 1 were roughly the same as they were the year before, fourth quarter numbers were off by a whopping seven percent, and the only reason why there was growth at Freeform was because of lowered costs and expenses, which came from fewer hours of original programming and launching fewer new series, and if that isn’t a perfect example of a pyrrhic victory, then I clearly don’t understand the term’s proper definition.
Leaving ESPN out of this, it’s still really hard to be too bullish on the others, especially when you factor in that the company’s broadcasting revenues were up six percent for the year and eight for the last quarter, which puts the cable television division’s struggles into a more stark relief.
Namely, no matter who you are or how big your corporation, no matter your resources or capabilities, it appears more and more like the fight to save cable television might be a losing effort. The fact that the increased quality of content certainly has served to stem this tide a bit, but it’s fairly evident that this isn’t nearly enough.
But since we mentioned this increase in quality programming, this is a good segue into what we’re seeing on these networks, what they have in store and how they’re each individually doing to keep the lights on.
First, there’s the Disney Channel and its various offshoots. There isn’t much to say about this that hasn’t already been said about Nickelodeon in a previous post. The truth is, the very young audience targeted isn’t tuning into Disney to get their entertainment, they’re getting it online in the various YouTube channels that cater to them. The plain truth of it is that, unless the powers that be can find a solution to this, the networks are dying faster than so many others.
More impressive, actually, is Freeform, which actually was the rare cable network to show signs of growth lately. While ABC Family was down 14 percent from 2014 to 2015, Freeform had the two highest-rated scripted shows on basic cable, with Pretty Little Liars and The Fosters, and has established an extremely impressive social media presence (thanks in no small part to the fanatical following of PLL). So that’s all good.
However, PLL is ending with season seven, another popular show, Switched at Birth, is ending after five, and new shows Dead of Summer, Recovery Road and Guilt were all canceled after a single season. On the bright side, another new show, Shadowhunters, averaged close to a million viewers per show and has been renewed for a second season, along with Stitchers for a second, Young & Hungry (the only show to actually increase in viewership this past year) for a fourth, and Baby Daddy for a fifth. They will be joined by the supernatural drama Beyond, debuting January 2nd, and an adaptation of the novel Famous in Love, in April.
Additionally, there are both dramas (Issues is based on the life of Cosmopolitan editor Joanna Coles, and The Deep follows the battle between humanity and vicious mermaids in a small coastal town), and comedies (the multi-camera sitcom Brown Girls about a mismatched pair of young Indian women, and Alone Together, about a platonic relationship between a man and a woman dealing with the status-obsessed culture of Los Angeles), that fit into the general mold of programming for millennials. This embrace of younger viewers and their methods of content consumption — along with the aforementioned cutting of costs — might just be the answer to the industry’s issues.
The A+E Networks provide a different example. Lifetime, for instance, has never been known for its progressive programming — on the contrary, the cliché of the Lifetime Original Movie exists for a reason — but there’s no denying the quality of an original drama like UnREAL, which earned its star Constance Zimmer an Emmy nomination for Supporting Actress in a Drama Series and the show a prestigious Peabody Award, a recognition that cannot be ignored or diminished. The fact that the second season was viewed as something of a creative step backward is not unusual for any successful new series (the cliché of the Sophomore Slump also exists for good reason), and Lifetime has enough confidence in it to have greenlit a third season, to premiere next summer.
They can’t all be like that, of course, which is why there is so much reality programming on the network, including the Project Runway and Little Women franchises, Dance Moms, Designing Spaces, Hoarders, and Bring It!, among plenty of others. At the moment, this is the extent of the network’s programming, since it recently canceled Devious Maids after four seasons, Drop Dead Diva after six, and such shows as The Lizzie Borden Chronicles and The Lottery after one.
Still, the fall-off in viewership is less than many of the others, with just a six percent drop from one year to the next (A&E, for instance, dropped 25 percent in the same time span, but we’ll get to that). With the idea of keeping people watching, there are a couple of items on the development roles that have potential, like the horror anthology A Midsummer’s Nightmare, which will put a modern spin on the Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Sea Change, about a 17-year-old girl who moves to a Nantucket-like town to be with her estranged mom after the death of her dad, and which sounds remarkably like a different take on the Gilmore Girls model. It would be hard to expect another show like UnREAL to come along any time soon, simply because if it was really so easy to create great television, everyone would be doing it, but it’s a nice precedent to set, and it brings a fair amount of prestige the network’s way.
Speaking of prestige, there’s a lot that comes along with being the History Channel. What with the documentaries it airs (it was, for a long time, known as The Hitler Channel, due to all of its World War Two programming), and its one scripted show, Vikings, which has been renewed for a fifth season, has earned nine Emmy Award nominations during its run, and has made a star of Travis Fimmel. Aside from the Hatfields & McCoys mini-series that ran four years ago (another Emmy winner, that starred Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton), as well as the three-part Revolutionary War epic Sons of Liberty and this year’s remake of Alex Haley’s Roots, there hasn’t been a lot of that kind of fare on the network — most of it is respected reality fare, such as American Pickers, Forged in Fire, Mountain Men and Pawn Stars, as well as the historical themed talk show Join or Die with Craig Ferguson — but that is not to say that there isn’t more coming.
Jeremy Renner is behind a new scripted series called Knightfall, which will follow the fate of the famed Knights Templar. There’s also a show in development about Navy SEAL Team Six, known appropriately enough as Six. The first series will have a 10-episode first season, while the latter will go eight episodes, and both will premiere in 2017 with high hopes for a network whose viewing numbers slid by 18 percent, but is still one of the most watched cable networks on television, with an average of over 1.5 million viewers.
One could say that this just gives History more viewers to lose, or it could mean that there is a larger base from which to rebuild and reestablish itself, depending on whether or not you’re an optimist. What is unavoidable, though, is the precipitous losses suffered from the flagship network, A&E itself. As mentioned above, losing 25 percent of your viewers isn’t the direction you generally want to travel, and the network’s decisions of late have reflected specific choices made in the executive suites to attract a younger demographic.
This was never more evident than when it canceled the most watched series in its history, Longmire, because the viewership numbers skewed too old. Netflix eventually picked up the series after its third season and, after airing seasons four and five, announced that a sixth and final season will air in 2017. What did A&E do in the meantime, in an effort to replace it? Well, aside from all the reality programming, such as the detective series The First 48, Intervention, Wahlburgers, the current mini, Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath and, of course, the soon-to-be-ending Duck Dynasty — a block of programming that makes up the bulk of the network’s original offerings, as it does on History and Lifetime, in case you hadn’t noticed a company-wide pattern — the network’s big gun is clearly Bates Motel, a show about to enter its fifth season, which gets plenty of viewers and has earned a trio of Emmy nods over its run.
Unfortunately, its other, most recent attempt at a scripted hit, The Returned, didn’t fare so well and was canceled after a single season. A drama about Los Angeles in the 1990s leading up to the riots, The Infamous, didn’t make it out of the development process, and there is precious little that could be on the way in its stead. That, obviously, has to change.
There have been plenty of arguments over the last few years that reality television has peaked and is now on the decline. I don’t necessarily believe this to be true, simply because we’ve been talking about it for too long. The truth of the matter is, just when you think the potential subjects of such series have been exhausted, along comes something like Duck Dynasty, and it becomes a sensation. All three of these networks have built themselves on the concept that people like watching these shows — each, obviously, with a different focus — and up until now, that philosophy has been successful.
Are the recent losses simply because of the natural attrition suffered by just about all of cable television? Or do the networks in question need to recalibrate what they’re doing and how they’re doing it? The feeling is that it’s more about the former than the latter, but it’s impossible to dismiss the latter out of hand. Like Comcast, Disney’s pockets are almost bottomless, and the enormous amounts of money made from other divisions cover anything lost by the cable networks, but it doesn’t really seem like that can last forever, does it?
What is incontrovertible is that the state of the television industry has never been stronger. The number of outlets, the amount of quality content, it’s all better than it has ever been in the history of the medium. That isn’t the issue. The issue is that, as the industry grows and as technology improves, the nature of what and how we watch changes.
The primary issue with cable television is that it has sort of eaten itself by its own size and scope. With so many other options, and with people increasingly making the choice to consume more and more of their content via the internet, the numbers have nowhere to go but down. As we have seen over, lo, these past 15 weeks, those properly equipped to adapt and survive will do so, and those that aren’t, won’t.
In January, we’ll be back with a brand new series of pieces analyzing different parts of the entertainment industry. Until then, enjoy the holiday season, however you celebrate it, and enjoy a happy, healthy, safe and successful new year.