T Dog’s Think Tank: The white flag

On Monday, the Chicago White Sox traded veterans Jim Thome to the Los Angeles Dodgers and Jose Contreras to the Colorado Rockies, bringing back memories of the July 1997 White Flag Trade which sent Wilson Alvarez and two others to the San Francisco Giants.

The move was sent as a signal the White Sox has given up on the season – as GM Kenny Williams traded the two for basically nothing. After winning the division last year, the White Sox are back in Chicago’s sports basement just four years after winning the World Series – a scenario yours truly wrote about in a think tank two years ago 

But if the White Sox have slid into oblivion – network television certainly has followed – most notably NBC. During the recent Television Critics Association tour, producer Peter Tolan of Rescue Me had this to say about NBC’s decision to strip The Jay Leno Show five nights a week at 9 p.m. (CT):

“I feel they should take the American flag down in front of [NBC’s]building and just put up a white one, because they’ve clearly have given up. They’ve clearly just said, ‘Look, we can’t develop. We can’t develop anything that’s going to stick. We have – clearly can’t find anything with any traction, so we quit.’

Yes, Ken Williams’ inspiration may have came from those guys at the Nitwit Bumbling Company, who practically gave up before the season began by announcing an abomination of a prime-time schedule – with a Jay Leno strip as its’ centerpiece (anyone who thinks Jeff “Doogie” Zucker and Ben “Party All The Time” Silverman is an inspiration for anything should be rushed into intensive care. ) While yours truly praised the idea back in December, now he’s having second thoughts: given NBC’s pathetic fall line-up, Leno now might not get the lead-in he needs to succeed. Given they had only ten hours a weeknight to deal with, NBC could have – and should have – done better than this.

But while this summer has been dreadful for the White Sox and the Cubs, it has been worse for network television. An item in Marc Berman’s Programming Insider on Tuesday caught my eye: A study done by Turner Broadcasting on summer TV ratings showed in a decade’s time, ad-supported cable nets grew by 48 percent in household rating and 67 percent in adults 18-49, while the Big Four broadcast nets dropped 39 percent and 48 percent respectively, in those same demographics. This summer, the Big Four have recorded historical rating lows.

While increased cable and satellite distribution factored in cable’s rating increase, it doesn’t underscore the fact the networks continue to lose audience in the summer (and in all seasons), even though they’re offering fresher fare and other first-run programming. But when the programming consists of I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here, Crash Course, and Shaq vs… , you have a sense the networks have indeed raised the white flag this summer by just throwing crap on the wall to see what sticks, hoping to find the next Survivor or Who Wants To Be A Millionaire by luck.

But here’s the difference: CBS with Survivor and Big Brother, ABC with Millionaire, and to a lesser extent, NBC with America’s Got Talent and Fox with So You Think You Can Dance?, invested money in promoting those programs and viewers have responded. The rest is basically throwaway fare to fill time period. The nets are better off bringing back Busted Pilot Theater.

And the troubles will definitely continue through the fall: many experts are predicting the median age for the average prime-time viewer will rise this fall, thanks to Leno and the lack of youth-oriented fare of the Big Four prime-time skeds. Cable is now premiering new programming in September, no longer fearing the networks. The effect will be felt at 9 p.m. when young viewers – if any are left watching the broadcast networks – will flee for racier fare on cable, which they have done for years.

And let’s not forget another reason viewers are turning away from the dreadful summer programming, White Sox and Cubs included: the burgeoning alternatives from DVDs to the Internet (mainly YouTube) to VOD from your cable and satellite providers. Unless you’re a very die-hard Chicago baseball fan, you’re not going to waste your time given the wealth of entertainment options out there – especially if you are a younger viewer (baseball is an older-skewing sport, even in Chicago. And those under 30 who do show up usually are there for the liquor or chat on their cell phone.)

And given the teams’ mediocre front-office dealings this season, the Cubs and White Sox (not to mention the Nationals, Orioles, Royals, Reds, A’s, and Pirates) have proven they are no better running a business than the major networks are – especially at NBC, where it has been one embarrassment after another. All you have to do is watch Heroes to figure that out.

And so, the white flag has been raised at U.S. Cellular Field. What’s so uncanny about this is after the trade was made, NBC decided to move its headquarters to the ballpark while opening up a satellite office at Wrigley Field. What a coincidence.