Friday, September 26, 2008

Then and Now: Independent Television Production

In 1980, the business and technology of television was relatively uncomplicated. Major networks competed for ratings which translated into advertising dollars. Shows were produced for broadcast on one-inch videotape on reels the size of tire rims, and VHS was winning the home video format wars with Betamax.

Such were conditions when two local TV producers from Oregon convinced PBS to pony up $80,000 so they could recreate for television the American movie-going experiences of the first half of the twentieth century. The Matinee at the Bijou series made its PBS debut in September of 1980, when cable and satellite television were in their infancy. That same year, Ted Turner was busy launching CNN, and MTV, TNN and Bravo were waiting in the wings. Matinee was an instant hit with viewers and went on to become one of the most popular shows on PBS, often besting Masterpiece Theater, Sneak Previews, Mystery and Frontline in the national ratings.

Now, 30 years later, the business models for television are changing so rapidly that even seasoned veterans and masters of the medium are finding it hard to keep up. Today, networks and advertisers consider a worthy TV show as only part of a larger “Web 2.0 universe” populated with websites, blogs, YouTube channels, podcasts, vodcasts, ring tones, search engines and other emerging social networking concepts designed to stimulate “conversation” while flashing the sponsor brand as often as possible.

The Bijou Team spent our summer hiatus digesting all of what we have learned and conducting further research and consultation in preparation for our next big sponsorship push to bring back Matinee at the Bijou. As discussed in our July update, after much effort we have learned that PBS member stations alone do not constitute a sufficient size national audience to satisfy corporate sponsors.

Accordingly, we have concluded that to attract sponsorship we must increase our audience base beyond PBS member stations. By increasing the number of broadcast platforms on which Matinee at the Bijou airs, we effectively multiply the total audience size. We will mirror the industry trend in developing strategic broadcast and cable alliances. A prime example is Showtime’s Dexter series, which is first broadcast on the Showtime pay cable channel as an original series, and then later on the CBS commercial network as a CBS series. One show, two networks = expanded revenue and brand exposure.

The plan we have drafted for Matinee at the Bijou calls for one distinguished network to become the “anchor” network, with six months to a year of “original series” exclusivity prior to a subsequent run on two distinct broadcast platforms; one consisting of PBS member stations and the other a participating commercial network. Having additional broadcast outlets is essential to attract advertisers. Each sponsor then receives extended sponsorship recognition across multiple broadcast channels, as well as abundant brand exposure on the DVD versions. When all of the Web 2.0 bells and whistles are incorporated, here is a graphic illustration of how this will work:

We believe The Smithsonian HD Channel is a natural candidate to become the anchor network for Matinee at the Bijou, and are currently working on a major presentation later this fall with that goal in mind. A common thread connects The Smithsonian’s vast archive of American history with the wide variety of motion pictures presented in the series. In these films we witness the evolution of our cities, industries and modes of transportation, the changing American workforce, culture and lifestyles during the first half of the 20th century

For example, a Smithsonian exhibit showcasing artifacts from the life and career of Lou Gehrig, the iconic American baseball player, would be vastly enriched by our presentation of Lou Gehrig on film in a terrific little-known B-movie western called Rawhide. Gehrig plays himself ostensibly retiring from baseball to a cowboy’s life out west.

Audiences get to see and hear Gehrig and observe life in the American west of 1938, complete with vintage trains, autos, main streets, horse and buggies, a pool hall, fashions - and even bottles of Coca-Cola. Gehrig actually sings in this rare and delightful film, released to American movie theaters just a year prior to his terminal ALS diagnosis, later to become known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

The Smithsonian is indeed “America’s Attic,” and perhaps there’s room in that attic for a dusty crate full of vintage films just waiting to be projected and freshly rediscovered!

“Our film heritage is
America’s living past.”

- Dr. James H. Billington
Librarian of Congress

Following the Smithsonian HD Channel period of exclusivity, audience access would expand to include PBS member stations and one commercial network. We have established an interest at Retirement Living TV (RLTV), a fast growing commercial cable network with compatible demographics. RLTV has invited us back for further discussions this fall. Other potential networks for the commercial tier include American Movie Classics, Disney Channel, and the Hallmark Channel. Adam Gronski of WETA, the venerable PBS affiliate that brings us Washington Week, The NewsHour and Ken Burns’ films, will continue to represent Matinee at the Bijou to PBS member stations.

We’ll keep you posted on our progress as we continue our sponsorship quest for Matinee at the Bijou. Meanwhile, the Bijou Blog resumes with our weekly Friday feature posts and occasional mini-matinees and special screenings in our Bijou Mini-Matinee Theater on YouTube.


Marianne Richardson said...

Glad to see you’re back, Bijou Bob! Hope you are nicely tanned and ready to show us some interesting slices of cinematic America.

Thanks for the update about the show. Bijou fans will be keeping their fingers crossed as you surf that entity known as Web 2.0. Without dwelling too much on politics, perhaps our economy’s current similarity to the Great Depression will demonstrate to sponsors the absolute need for programming like Matinee at the Bijou. The bijou experience helped Americans weather a depression once before; it can undoubtedly do it again.

As for “podcasts, vodcasts, ring tones… and other emerging social networking” -- you make “At the Bijou” into a ringtone and I will be SO all over it!

Prof. Griffin said...

Great blog site and wonderful to see the possibility of Matinee at the Bijou back on TV!

I watched the original show religously and honestly it was wholly responsible for my love of B-movies, trailers, snack bar come ones and short subjects.

Perhaps even leading me into my current career as a actor/TV horror host. (Yeah some of us still do that!

Great stuff my friend...I'm happy to have found this site.