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Letter from New York
Mathew Tombers is the President of Intermat, Inc., a consulting practice that specializes in the intersection of media, technology and marketing. For two years, he produced the Emmys on the Web and supervised web related activities for the Academy, including for the 50th Anniversary year of the Emmy Awards. In addition to its consulting engagements, Intermat recently sold METEOR’S TALE, an unpublished novel by Michael O’Rourke, to Animal Planet for development as a television movie. Visit his web site at

The Challenge of Television

Well, here in Washington, D.C. this Thursday evening, after a long day of meetings about the future of television, it is snowing. Lightly now. But the cancellations are already coming in for schools and before we left our meetings we made a snow plan. D.C. does not deal well with snow. It literally freezes up; everyone heads for home or stays there if it has the decency to start to snow at night, like tonight.

But what I think I should be telling you about is the future of television. It ‘s not that I know for sure what it is. In fact, I have only a glimmer of what the future is like for television.

No one really does. But it’s nice that I’ve been right about a couple of things in the past. Back in the long ago days of 1985 when cable was young, I boldly stated that by the turn of the century cable viewing would be larger than broadcast viewing. Okay, so it took an extra three years but it did happen this year.

I help people develop and sell ideas for television. Yesterday, I had to tell a person who has produced dozens of hours of programming that his ideas are much too dense for cable networks. In other words, they are much too much like PBS programs of fifteen years ago and, honestly, I don’t know anyone today who would devote several hours to the development of knowledge transfer.

To my way of thinking, that’s a little sad. I would like to think someone would do that but I don’t know who. Yesterday I was in a meeting with a senior executive of one of the cable networks with a wonderful producer with whom I work who has a project based on the work of a photographer in Cuba. We weren’t there to sell it; it just came up as part of the conversation. We were also looking for her advice on where to take it.S

She didn’t have any advice. Once upon a time, she thought, it would have been a PBS program but not today. Today there is almost no place for “alternative” fare. PBS wants it stuff to be a lot more like cable today than what we traditionally think of as PBS – at least that’s what the consensus seems to be.

It might not be that way always but it is today.

Look, everyone is pushed for money and so they squeeze their producers who attempt to do as much with even less than they had before. And they are grabbing after new technologies to drive down the cost.

It’s a cruel cycle we’re in and it will definitely get more “challenging” before it gets any better. [“Challenging” was the word used when I worked at Discovery to describe a REALLY difficult situation.]

The choices keep growing, the budgets keep shrinking, and, as my friend Medora said: there is no deal too weird to consider.

Personally, I find it a bit discouraging. The things I generally love on television are harder to find than they were a generation ago. Cable, which was a lovely, quirky, growing, exciting business in the ’80 and the ‘90’s is now faced with supporting the businesses that grew up around their surprising successes. Some networks peaked and thought they didn’t need to do much more and now they’re faced with slow decline. So they are scrambling to re-define themselves. Others created business empires and find themselves under business and financial pressures that preclude the creativity that made them what they were because they have businesses to support.

On the other hand, in adversity there is opportunity. I just need to find it. As do we all, all of us who work in television.