Deadline hell -TV Guide editors slam networks.
Exclusive: Frustrated TV Guide editors and reviewers let fly at TV network scheduling, finding it impossible to collate an accurate guide, dumping reviews and even copping angry calls from readers.
EXCLUSIVE: How are the constant changes to TV schedules impacting on television print guides?
According to editors, reviewers and critics they are making life a nightmare. The changes are so frequent that editors are dumping feature articles, asking staff to write last minute reviews, copping angry calls from the public.
In a special investigation TV Tonight has spoken to TV journalists to learn how they are coping with incessant changes.
All of them spoke on the proviso of anonymity.
In the print world preparing a weekly TV Guide can begin up to three weeks in advance as critics view preview disks, and the final deadline for print may be as early as ten days ahead of a TV week.
“This year in general has been the worst for guides going out with wrong timeslots and TBAs. This is through no fault of ours, as we chase the networks right up until our very latest print deadline for times, dates, changes. But most of the time anything we’re told appears just to get us off their backs until they work out their schedule. Programmers are changing schedules regularly and almost right up until the day before, which used to be a very rare occurrence,” said one insider.
Another said, “Reviewers can have no confidence that the programs that they are told are screening will actually appear on the day and at the time indicated. Viewers can’t be sure that a series they’re trying to follow will screen at the same time next week, whether there will be a single episode or a double, or if something new and unexpected might suddenly pop up in that timeslot. Programs that are hastily shuffled into the schedule appear without proper promotion.
“I was given a double-episode of Law & Order: Los Angeles for my Guide preview night of Thursday September 8. The two episodes actually sat quite well together as a double, with the first featuring a shock killing of one of the main characters and the second the aftermath of the shooting.
“My copy deadline is first thing Monday, so I email Channel 7 to check nothing’s changed. No reply. I open the Guide to find that the scheduled double episode has been cut back to a single so that Seven can instead run a repeat of The Truth Behind … The Ark. Grrrr.”
One Editor noted how freelance reviewers were under the hammer.
“Pretty much every week at least one busy writer has to file at a filler after a show they reviewed was pulled at the last moment. Given they actually feel obliged to watch the shows first, this is a huge imposition on their time,” they said.
“Why do networks do it? Ratings, of course. Programmers are so obsessed with trying to squeeze every last ratings point out of their inventory they lose sight of the importance of a stable schedule. Programming has become increasingly reactive, with programmers dropping shows or shifting them based on overnight figures rather than giving a show time to bed in.”
Another said entire stories had to be pulled shortly before a deadline.
“Take Network TEN for example the other day, Criminal Intent finale, which we had a story for, was out of the schedule completely at the beginning of the week and by mid-week it was back in and showing the very next week. Rushed into the schedule and moved forward,” they said.
“I can’t remember the last time I put through the reviews (which span a seven day period and have two to three a day) and it actually didn’t change. These days, a typical week would include wasting precious/valuable time to fix up the guide to coincide with the endless amendments, but even then there is no guarantee shows won’t be dumped or episodes changed around for the hell of it. Usually every week there is a show reviewed that is wrong due to erratic programming.
“Let’s just say there have been plenty of times we’ve gone to print and had to scramble last minute to change things and having a Mentalist finale story was also another example of this. They changed the finale date because it clashed with a big Seven show going to air (think it was DWTS finale).”
Another said: “In regards to last-minute programming, it means increasingly we’re wasting time on interviews that can’t be run to coincide with the launch of a show, and obviously their news interest declines once it’s launched. But it’s TBAs and amendments that are my big bug bear. Seriously – you can’t tell me what movie is going into a 7.30pm Saturday night schedule yet?”
The worst nightmare for an editor is losing a cover because of a last-minute change. But there are consequences.
“You only have to have it happen a couple of times before you start a self-preservation system where unless the show is either a proven performer, or shows promise, you tend to put it to the back of the line as a prospective cover. If launch dates are hazy, it’s at the bottom of my list. Frankly, I’m interested in covers for launch – not two weeks in. And certainly, you remember who’s let you down at the last minute. If I lose a cover from one network it’s unlikely I’ll take up their replacement – I’ll be looking to their rivals to fill it,” one editor warned.
All journalists indicated that several networks had increasingly pushed out the delivery of their Amendments, seemingly nervous that rivals would counter-programme against them. But some claimed kneejerk moves for short-term gain would impact on the long-term trust with viewers.
“The skittishness by the networks points to a lack of confidence in their line-ups, a self-destructive paranoia and a nervous second-guessing of what their opposition might be doing,” said one.
Another said, “The paranoid secrecy with which Seven in particular guard their scheduling can be just as frustrating. Sometimes an official notice of a show premiering arrives days before the TX (telecast); sometimes the official publicity material goes out AFTER the TX is being advertised on the actual channel. Often these are programmes we’d like to give publicity to but this cloak and dagger stuff makes it impossible. On the upside, I expect this drives the actual Publicity people nuts too, and many of them are very good about providing advanced unofficial notice in order to make deadline.”
But one believes networks have their eyes on each other and not the customer.
“I don’t think networks care how much viewers hate it. They spend so much time trying to second-guess and one-up their competitors, they’re forgetting their customers. You only have to look at the results of your recent viewer survey to see that. I think viewers would appreciate a network having the balls to declare they’re programming something at a certain time and leave it there.
“The chopping and changing of shows only damages them further in viewers’ eyes – it smacks of a lack of confidence in content, and the viewers see that.”
It’s not just receptionists at TV networks that hear complaints. Guide editors cop phone calls from angry readers too.
“We cop the brunt of their endless complaints, mainly about programs running over time and shows not being on when they’re in guide and they are ropeable about it, often saying they will switch off from the station. I don’t blame them and it is interesting to see when shows don’t work like Camelot etc that networks are surprised. What’s there to be surprised about? There was hardly any promo for it, so of course it’s not going to work,” said one insider.
Another nearly didn’t even meet the deadline for this story they were so tied up with checking Amendments and answering irate calls.
“I’ve just taken the third phone call for the day from an angry reader, upset that my guide isn’t correct,” they sighed.
Several felt their Guides offered free promotion for networks but were being too-readily overlooked.
“When it comes to our TV guides we are the key holders to the TV viewers’ week. When they pay good money for our guide they want to know it’s right, no TBAs (something which Nine has become particularly accustomed to) and shows in the right slots,” said one.
Another agreed: “The thing that continues to confound me about both these practices is that we’re here to help. We want to provide accurate information. We want to promote the networks and their shows. Viewers want to know what’s on and while channel flicking and a last minute check of an EPG might let them find shows it just seems very poor business practice – especially in such a competitive environment – to (a) not make use of an incredible – free! – publicity tool like a printed guide and (b) p*ss off every reviewer and editor in the country.”
A third editor said, “I think networks take publicity from TV guides for granted because they’re not paying for it. And I get that inconveniencing a TV guide editor is the least of their concerns. But if ratings is their main concern, they should think about giving every show the best chance of success and not alienating viewers by moving shows around and pulling them from the schedule after a few episodes.”
A number of journalists pointed to Nine as the worst offender for changes.
“In one day I was rung nearly every five minutes for half-an-hour about the same change which was shifting so radically in a timeslot and day it was staggering. I don’t blame the publicists here, they must be pulling their hair out too,” said one.
A second editor agreed Nine topped the list: “In regard to being told of amendments, Channel Nine is the worst. I have just been added again to their email alerts after ‘dropping off.'”
“Channel TEN publicity is good at dropping an email or phone call letting you know something has been pulled, as is Seven (who incidentally has the best track record for sticking with stuff, in my opinion). Sadly the news that something has been pulled is invariably a day or two after my Guide’s been printed, or results in a rush of couriered discs to find replacements.”
Another said, “The worst offenders are the commercial networks and Nine is the worst of those, although TEN’s not much better. Foxtel is generally very good, although it has the advantage of being less driven by ratings. Interestingly, the ABC has been guilty of making late schedule changes recently – despite not having the same commercial imperative to chase ratings – which is an unwelcome development.”
Indeed, several pointed to the ABC for joining a commercial broadcasting habit, and not just because it was relying on the BBC to confirm a new season of Doctor Who. In recent weeks it has moved Qi, renamed Grand Designs Revisited and announced a later starting time for Crownies.
“The ABC is well and truly in the mix now. Recently the whole Saturday night lineup changed 10 days out because someone realised it was time to screen Doctor Who. It’s possible they didn’t know how soon they’d get their hands on it but they must have known it was imminent – in this situation a TBA is preferable to launching a new series (Monroe) then pulling it at the last minute. Midsomer Murders was also bumped recently because it would have been in conflict/competition with Downton Abbey. A: they should have known this in advance and B: when there’s no revenue at stake, this twitchiness is really irritating.”
Some acknowledged tha networks had to respond to low ratings on primary channels but questioned whether they were also sabotaging digital channels.
“I have some sympathy with changes to prime time scheduling on the main commercial channels – if you have something that’s tanking that’s potentially costing you money, tweaking the mix once a show has gone to air is annoying but justifiable,” said one.
“But the constant f***ing about with the digital channels is another matter. Nine is a particularly grievous offender – even quality shows like Weeds and The Big C which I know viewers are waiting on and wanting to watch are pulled unceremoniously. And it’s not like they’re replaced with some fabulous new product. Why you’d drop Big C and replace it with Sex Education is utterly beyond me. No network is exempt.
“TEN’s digital channels actually seem pretty stable at the moment but my response to preview materials for Seven and Nine’s second channels now is just to ignore it.”
As for a solution, journalists say Programmers need more faith in their product and their audience.
“Program proactively. Back your product. Stop taking into consideration only what rival networks are or might be doing – your viewers will appreciate it. Let your publicity department know what’s going on. If you are moving something to a secondary digital channel, tell your viewers (the recent Camelot debacle was a case in point),” said one.
“The solution is that they stop acting like paranoid children and show some confidence in their programs, promote them properly and stop stuffing everyone around,” agreed one reviewer.
“This behaviour is not helping anyone.”