Letter From New York 08 14 15 The Way It Was Is The Way It Is…

A couple of generations ago, when I was a young man out of Minnesota, freshly burped up on the sunny shores of a foreign country called southern California, I found myself working at KMPC Radio in Los Angeles, then a powerhouse, now long gone, gobbled up by the Disney Empire.

I was Assistant Director of Advertising and Promotions and was well liked by the sales department, having done them a couple of good turns along the way.

One of the sales people, Al Gottfried, invited me out to his house one holiday season. His brother-in-law was a big muckety muck in television movies at the time. Over crudité he and I talked about how he got started in television movies.

He told me that when he was younger and had ideas for television movies, he thought he could go pitch the networks directly. Nope, not the case, he quickly learned. Because he had never done it, he therefore couldn’t do it. It was a Catch-22. He learned his ideas weren’t bad but he just couldn’t get access.

His solution was to marry himself to an established production company for TV movies. Eventually, people got to know him, trust him and he could launch his own company.

A few years later, I was lucky enough to open the West Coast office for A&E and I entered the world of cable, which I had wanted to find my way into for three years. I learned a lot during the six years I ran advertising sales for A&E on the West Coast, followed by a stint with Discovery.

Cable was the new technology. We were gnats to the broadcast networks, annoying but not to be taken seriously, even if their parent companies were big investors in cable networks. No one worried about us.

But it became a world in which creators found new canvases; producers shut out from the broadcast networks found homes in the world of cable. Movie channels like HBO and Showtime had time between movies that needed filling. There was a busy business in programming those empty spaces. Odd programming that would never have had a chance in “television” found homes on cable – and audiences.

An example of this is “Mystery Science Theater 3000”, a delirious hoot of a program that began on a local station in Minneapolis, moved to The Comedy Channel, which morphed into Comedy Central, ending its run on SciFi, now called SyFy.

Branded entertainment is the catchword of the day, when it’s not being called “native advertising.” Cable was doing that in the 1980’s and ‘90’s. Bob Bolte of Clorox’s Media Department had a program running on USA for years that was the harbinger of things to come. A&E was doing “promercials.”

When I said that cable would one day have as much viewing as the broadcast networks, I was laughed out of the room. Then the day happened, sooner than I thought. Cable grew up.

It began to need ratings to feed the financial expectations of their owners. Cable is part of the “television” business now, no longer derogatorily called “cable.”

It has major businesses to protect. Cable needs big hits. No more “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Cable needs hits as much as broadcast networks. And in needing those hits, cable has followed the lead of its broadcast brothers. If you haven’t already done it, you can’t do it. So producers wanting to break into cable now have to partner with established producers until they make their own name. The lively, sometimes crazy kids, who produced for cable in the early days, became grown-ups but there are still wild, crazy kids who want to create content.

They turned to YouTube and Vimeo, Instagram and Vine. Suddenly you had Michelle Phan and PewDiePie, who have millions of viewers and helped spawn MCN’s [Multi Channel Networks]. Digital is the new cable and as companies who owned broadcast networks invested in the upstart cable networks, the established cable networks are investing in the upstart digital companies. A&E has put $250,000,000 into Vice, the upstart digital news service, and is giving them H2 to program.

The way it was is the way it is. We just have different upstarts this go round; as there will be other upstarts in the next go round.

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