It's approaching Labour Day, so let's labour in the numbers game.
You know how on Sundays, your local TV news always tells you about "the weekend box office?" There is some breathless report that a new movie grosses this much money while some other movie only brought in that much money.
It's a ritual and it is nonsensical. What is actually happening is a grave overall decline in the movie business. Labour Day is traditionally when the summer movie market is assessed and, according to the trade magazines, this summer has been a bummer, just wretched for the movie business. The Hollywood Reporter says this is the big picture: "By the time Labor Day weekend wraps, summer box-office revenue is expected to finish at $3.78-billion [U.S.], down 15.7 per cent over summer 2016, according to comScore. That's the steepest decline in modern times, eclipsing the 14.6 per cent dip in 2014. It will also be the first time since 2006 that revenue didn't clear $4-billion."
Further, to no one's surprise, the value of stock in companies that own theatre chains in the United States has collapsed – Regal Entertainment has seen shares plunge 28 per cent, while AMC Entertainment dropped 45 per cent.
Meanwhile, television, even broadcast TV, is doing fine. It's not a matter of across-the-board revival for the networks. The Disney-ABC Television Group is retrenching, planning to cut costs by 10 per cent in the next few months. There will be layoffs and many of those jobs will be in sales, distribution and marketing operations. That's because ABC, unlike other network operations, has been much less nimble in adjusting to the digital age.
The conventional wisdom about broadcast TV has been, for some years, that it is a dying business. The networks make shows, often at enormous cost, put them on linear TV at set times and sell ads around them. As viewers move to cable for quality, talked-about TV, and then to streaming services such as Netflix, they have abandoned the networks.
This is emerging as a false picture. ABC's competitor NBC is now saying it has figured out how to monetize this digital world and is doing well, thank you very much. In an under-reported talk to TV critics this summer, NBC head Bob Greenblatt said: "Delayed viewing and digital are not only keeping things afloat, they are getting stronger. The revenue we get from all the delayed viewing is significant. We are following the money."
The same message is coming from the tiniest network outfit, The CW. It has discovered that its niche shows such as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and iZombie have the sort of following that is amenable to watching online and, sometimes, paying a small fee to catch up with the shows online. When a viewer goes to their computer to watch an episode, there are very few commercials, but the ones that exist are lucrative – they are pinpointed for the viewer, giving them greater value than commercials thrown willy-nilly onto a broadcast of the show.
What's happened is inevitable, really – as viewers grew more accustomed to streaming services, their wariness of watching TV online declined. And, if networks offer their content, on-demand and online, that makes it easier for viewers to catch up with shows that got attention but were missed the first time they aired on a specific day and time slot. It took several years for this to happen and, by the way, commercial Canadian TV lags behind in this area.
Of course, monetizing the digital world is easier if a network has shrewdly chosen content. The series This Is Us changed everything for NBC in the last year. Although critically acclaimed, it took a while to take off, largely because the avalanche of new fall shows is so intensely crowded. It did well on its first viewing, with a 2.8 share/11.1 million viewers, as measured for live and same-day delayed viewing by Nielsen. According to NBC, 35 days later about 35 million viewers had seen that episode across all platforms.
The key here is "across all platforms" – people are far more willing to watch TV on all manner of devices right now. Netflix and other online services helped make that happen. Far from being the enemy, streaming turned out to be the kick that conventional TV needed. According to NBC, advertising support for its coming 2017/18 slate, across all platforms, is up 8 per cent on last year.
The upshot is this – conventional TV isn't dead, while the movie business seems to be in terrible shape. Take that into account as the Toronto International Film Festival and the new TV season battle for your attention.