There Isn’t Enough Good Entertainment to Go Around
Buried not far beneath the surface of Tuesday’s media merger announcements was an acknowledgment of two facts of life well understood by oil drillers, pro sports managers, and landfill operators: There are finite riches in the world to be mined, and limited room to dump your garbage.
The UPN and WB, which will be folded into a single television network, foundered on the reality that, just as a sports league’s aggressive expansion often dilutes the talent on its rosters, there simply isn’t enough compelling entertainment material to go around. (Alternatively, there hasn’t been enough savvy managerial talent to go around.) The same can be said for the animation business, which saw two of its most significant players, Disney and Pixar, walk down the aisle.
The proliferation of new cable channels, entertainment devices and production studios during the last decade was rationalized partially by the notion that the availability of audience-grabbing content would expand in lock-step with the opportunities to see and hear it.
UPN and the WB both debuted in 1995 with the expectation that, after a ramping-up period, they would have enough solid programming to compete with the existing four broadcast networks on prime time all week long. The same year saw Pixar’s initial public stock offering and the release of its first feature, the monster hit “Toy Story” -- an event that led its management to believe it could hold its own as an independent studio indefinitely.
A similar theory animated the 1994 founding of DreamWorks SKG: that there was sufficient creative talent uncommitted and available in Hollywood, and enough demand, to generate new revenue from movies, television, video games, music, and Internet content. The day the venture was launched, one of its founders, Steven Spielberg, told The Times that he didn’t expect to cannibalize customers from the other studios so much as expand the pie. “The market can expand if the movies are there and people want to see them,” he said. “The notion of ‘competition’ doesn’t apply.”
Yet, despite the allure of Spielberg and the two other founders, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks never found a formula for lasting success on its own. Last month it agreed to be acquired by Paramount Pictures Corp. (itself a founder of UPN), in a deal that reflects Paramount’s recognition that the fastest way to turbocharge its lackluster roster of projects is to buy an existing pipeline. In much the same way, Disney’s acquisition of Pixar will enable it to revivify its stumbling animation unit by importing a boatload of new blood all at once.
As for UPN and the WB, neither of the upstart networks has been able to program a consistently profitable prime-time slate. UPN has lost $1 billion since 1995; now owned by CBS Inc., it has never had a profitable year. The WB, a venture of Time Warner, has had two profitable years in its history, but is expected to lose about $35 million this year.
That’s not to say that either network has been without what passes for a hit in this age of diluted TV audiences. The series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was launched in 1997 on the WB -- from which it was raided in 2001 by UPN. The former also had a hit in the teen demographic in “Dawson’s Creek” for several years, starting in 1998. At this moment, its top-rated show is “Gilmore Girls,” ranked 77th by Nielsen; UPN’s highest-ranked program other than pro wrestling was “Everybody Hates Chris,” a critical favorite produced by Chris Rock, mired last week at No. 109. (One of the network’s more popular shows, “America’s Next Top Model,” is currently on hiatus and therefore not ranked.) Of the 20 lowest-rated shows in prime time last week, 15 were on WB or UPN.
The expanding availability of entertainment in myriad new formats has made it even harder for also-rans to stay in the race, but the phenomenon works differently on different companies. New formats such as iPods, webcasts and video game consoles make inroads against traditional media such as broadcast TV; but they haven’t yet presented many opportunities for the sale of new material by content providers like Pixar and DreamWorks.
Rather than expanding the market for novel, niche or unheralded material, the new tend to load up on material that has already proven its popularity on the old. Currently, the top 10 TV downloads from Apple’s iTunes Music Store for the new video iPod include three episodes of ABC’s “Lost” (which was ranked No. 9 on the Nielsen ratings last week), two of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” (Nielsen No. 5), and three of NBC’s “The Office” (No. 44, but with desirably youthful and improving demographics).
Interestingly, the networks say that the on-air ratings of these shows improve as downloads increase, more evidence that as new viewing modes proliferate, the rich merely get richer. (It’s worth noting that one of the few moguls well-positioned to profit no matter how media content gets viewed is Steve Jobs, the chairman of Apple and Pixar and soon to be the largest shareholder of Disney, the parent of ABC.)
As for the Internet, as a breeding ground of new entertainment talent, so far it’s largely barren. Companies from Ifilm to Amazon.com have tried to make a commercial mark with Web-only film clips, but it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that the most popular downloaded moving pictures on the Web (outside of pornography) are snippets from “The Daily Show” or “Saturday Night Live.”
The ever-receding horizon has made media investors very skittish. The resounding critical and commercial success of every feature film Pixar has ever made tends to obscure the reality that it has released only six full-length films in 10 years, and faces more competition in the computer-animated feature market every year from full-service studios.
A craft that flies on one engine, no matter how swift, can give its passengers a bumpy ride; when Pixar announced last June that DVD sales of “The Incredibles” had fallen short of expectations, its shares fell more than 15% in two days. Nor can an independent studio such as DreamWorks sustain many flops like “The Island,” a would-be blockbuster that cost an estimated $126 million to produce and returned a paltry $36 million at the U.S. box office last year.
All this helps account for the alacrity with which media companies founded in an era of lavish expectations have lately gone looking for shelter. To paraphrase Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard,” their dreams were big; it’s the reality that stayed small.
Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. You can reach Michael Hiltzik at firstname.lastname@example.org and view his weblog at latimes.com/goldenstateblog.