Help! I'm Being Asphyxiated (Possibly Literally) By the TV Industry's Business Model!

Networks Insist on Clinging to the Old Ways of Developing and Producing Shows. Good Luck with That

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I never have to go far to examine the TV industry's bloated, dated business model. Sometimes I can just look out the window and spot it. Or even just sniff the air and breathe it right in.

I live in downtown Manhattan, which is one of the more popular areas in New York City for location shoots. Over the years, I've come across shoots-in-progress for at least a few dozen TV shows, not to mention another dozen or two film shoots.

Credit: Illustration by Kelsey Dake

We're all used to the idea of huge budgets for major motion pictures, but what's really astonishing is how much is still spent, in 2013, to shoot episodic TV, even as the industry's business model continues to come apart at the seams.

On the one hand, as a New Yorker, I'm happy about this. If the TV industry wants to throw money at my town and my fellow citizens, hey, great!

On the other hand, sometimes watching, firsthand, how TV shows blow through cash makes me feel pessimistic -- depressed, even -- about the industry's ability to adapt to changing times.

The Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting says more than 30 network and cable series currently shoot in the city, along with another 20 daytime, late-night, news and talk shows (from "The Colbert Report" to "Saturday Night Live"). But it seems like the dramas shot here -- including "The Americans," "Blue Bloods," "Boardwalk Empire," "The Carrie Diaries," "The Following," "The Good Wife," "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "Smash" -- particularly adore doing insanely elaborate location shoots.

The last show on that list earns special mention because of its bull-in-a-china-shop approach to production, which I've personally witnessed. "Smash," a drama about a bunch of drama queens working to create a Broadway musical, was, of course, one of NBC's most hyped new shows when it premiered in February 2012; Steven Spielberg was one of the executive producers and it kicked off with 11.4 million viewers, before falling to the 6-million, then 5-million, range for the rest of its first season.

For a couple days last year, "Smash" took over my entire East Village block to do a location shoot at a small Indian restaurant a few doors down from my apartment. Semi-trailer trucks lined both sides of the street and I had to dodge dozens of crew members and step over giant power cables to get to my door.

Perhaps this restaurant had just exactly the right look needed for a particular scene? Uh, no. I've eaten dinner there, and its aging, somewhat shabby d├ęcor is rather unremarkable; it's nothing that couldn't be cheaply simulated on a soundstage.

Perhaps the natural light in the restaurant was just right? Uh, also no. "Smash" shot there at night, so giant Klieg lights, with their own generators, were set up outside the restaurant to illuminate the place through its front windows.

Well, perhaps the "Smash" production team just likes the food there? That's possible, but then again, a food-service truck was parked down the block, and a couple folding tables with all the standard food-service glop -- crackers and cut-up fresh fruit and veggie sticks and dip -- were ostentatiously set up on the sidewalk just out the restaurant's doors.

All day and all night, "Smash" trucks up and down the street -- including massive semi-trailer dressing rooms -- were kept loudly idling, including directly below my fifth-floor windows. Even with my windows shut tight, diesel fumes seeped into my apartment.

For a while there, I thought, Am I going to die in my sleep for a cheesy NBC drama?

Here's the thing about "Smash": It was budgeted at a reported $3.5 million per episode, which would amount to more than $100 million for its combined first (15-episode) and second (17-episode) seasons. That sort of outlay seems extra breathtaking, of course, for a show that was less than ... a smash. But even if "Smash" had lived up to expectations, the numbers seem completely out of whack for an industry under siege.

Network shows like "Smash" are still typically produced at a deficit, with the expectation that syndication and DVD/Blu-ray sales will help make up the difference later on. But later on, the 88-episode runs typically needed for drama syndication will be harder to come by, more and more scrappy competitors will emerge both on low-budget cable channels and the streaming web, and the TV audience will only further fracture.

But instead of figuring out how to produce compelling programming more economically and efficiently, networks mostly cling to the old ways of developing, piloting and producing new shows. Of course, given how many TV careers are still based on profligate spending -- not to mention creative accounting -- why am I surprised?

Really, maybe I should shut up and just be grateful that I survived; the rumbling "Smash" trucks and their fumes may have given me a killer headache, but they didn't kill me.

Meanwhile, since returning for its second season in February, "Smash" has been limping along -- even falling below the 3-million-viewer mark a few times. Starting this past weekend, NBC moved the show to the Saturday-night ghetto (from its original Monday-night spot) to run out its remaining episodes. It won't be back for a third season.

The drama queen in me won't shed even a single tear.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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