There are a couple of bits of big news that have come out of the TV ratings this fall; one of them is kind of silly and fun, and the other is kind of significant.
The silly and fun one first: NBC now finds itself in the position of being the #1 network in the Coveted Demographic. This may not last all year, but only because CBS has the Super Bowl; if NBC had that, they’d be quite well positioned to be first for the whole year. This “turnaround” just shows how flimsy the race for the ratings crown can be, since the network hasn’t turned itself around in any overall, systematic way, and it’s doing no business on Wednesdays or Thursdays. All it really took to turn things around was poor performance by the other networks (basically, bringing them down to NBC’s level), one big hit, The Voice, and one successful drama, Revolution. (Go On also looks like it might have legs – the best sign for that show was that its pilot episode did well in reruns, proving that people want to see the show even when it’s not a new episode – but it’s too early to tell how it would do without a Voice lead-in.) That, plus football, more than makes up for all the other weaknesses, and Bob Greenblatt’s position as head of NBC may be secured simply by one good decision, the decision to bring The Voice back early. It just goes to show the fine line between failure and success in network TV. If Ben Silverman had come up with just one big hit, just one good decision, he’d be a genius.
That leads us into the kind of significant news, which you’ve probably also heard (including on this podcast with Jessica Allen and myself): nobody is watching broadcast network TV this season; there are no new hits other than Revolution, and the cable dramas The Walking Dead and to a lesser extent Sons of Anarchy are beating the networks in the Coveted Demographic. Now, before we start saying that this is an irreversible trend, please look at the paragraph above this one, and remember all the well-deserved fun we were poking at NBC for so many years. The broadcast networks, much like NBC, have many bad long-term trends and a history of bad decisions working against them. But it only takes one or two hits to make things look better. It may be too late to save this season, but if 2013-14 brings only three or four hits, then advertisers will mutter less loudly and everything will be fine, until the next crisis.
Still, that’s the future, and this is now. The networks’ development system is screwed up, and I think everybody knows that, including the networks. They won’t admit this publicly, of course, but when you see something like Fox’s attempt to create a “short-com summer comedy hour” to encourage new comedy ideas, it seems like an acknowledgement that they’re having trouble finding those ideas. This season’s new comedies and dramas have not been terrible, just not very interesting – there hasn’t even been much of anything that people could heartily, enjoyably hate – and effective reality show ideas also seem thin on the ground.
We may also have passed a tipping point, particularly in drama, where it doesn’t even make a lot of financial sense to bring shows to broadcast networks first. Forget the artistic issues; the rate of failure is so high on broadcast networks that almost any new show is going to give the creators a big payday for only 13 to 22 episodes. The rate of failure is getting somewhat higher on cable (the increased ratings expectations makes it hard for a Terriers or a Lights Out to survive) but the chance of a multi-season run is still probably greater on basic cable, and that’s going to be more lucrative in the long run, even at deflated cable budgets.
So what do broadcast networks do to get some hits again? The answer to this is: “they should put on whatever I like.” Or that’s the answer most of us are inevitably inclined to give. If only NBC/CBS/ABC/Fox would take more chances like they used to, make something like [fill in name of cable show or broadcast show that was too good for TV], they would have a hit. I naturally think that the networks would have a better chance of creating hits if they’d make shows that suited my particular tastes, but I have no idea if that’s true. Actually, I think it’s probably not true at all.
One interesting thing about the success of some of these cable shows, though, is that many of them build their success on a demographic that is extremely difficult for the broadcast networks to reach: young men. The FX network in particular is the young guy network; its entire lineup, even its reruns and movies, is composed of shows with young-guy appeal, like Sons, Louie, The League, Justified and Archer. (Not that women don’t watch these shows too, but they are shows calibrated to reach guys, just as ABC’s shows have a lot of male viewers but have women as their primary target.) And The Walking Dead is a comic-book horror show with lots of violence.
Broadcast networks might not be able to come up with hits by imitating these cable networks, especially since they still need to pull in broader, bigger audiences and don’t have the option of narrowcasting. (When they try, it doesn’t really work anyway, though it is working to some extent with a show like New Girl, aimed specifically and consciously at a young audience rather than a broad one.) But they might be able to look at these shows, analyze them and figure out what elements they have that viewers are not finding on regular TV. My instinct is to note that a lot of the most popular cable dramas have action and violence, as opposed to the broadcast network model of featuring a lot of gore and threats but relatively little action. They also move away from the glossy, high-tech world of most network dramas (even period dramas) and toward a more stripped-down world that’s recognizably modern but not so filled with computers and smartphones and hipster jokes; maybe it’s not a coincidence that the biggest new drama on broadcast, Revolution, takes place in a world where those things no longer exist.
Again, though, to say what the networks need to do to get back on track is a little hard, because there’s really only one thing they need to do: make hits. A hit not only makes money, but it makes other shows seem like hits too (the way The Voice has turned Revolution into a solid hit and Go On into a minor hit). It’s probably as simple as that, and if this year’s shows had been better, we wouldn’t be talking about the doom and decline of the broadcast networks.
A couple of minor scheduling notes that I couldn’t fit in to the rest of this post: CBS’s decision to move Two and a Half Men to Thursdays and give 2 Broke Girls the Monday at 9 slot – the key slot on its powerful Monday lineup – may turn out to be a bit hubristic. The thinking behind it made sense: Men is extremely expensive to produce (mostly because of the stars’ salaries), therefore not as profitable as it once was, and doesn’t have very long to go anyway, so the network decided to put it after Big Bang Theory, where they could finally have a popular show to lead into Person of Interest. (That show, the network reasoned, was being held back from becoming a big hit by the endless string of bombs it scheduled after BBT.) But 2 Broke Girls isn’t good or popular enough to be considered a big enough hit for Monday at 9, and Person of Interest‘s ratings are about the same as ever despite the stronger lead-in. So the network may have severely weakened its once-mighty Monday while giving no huge benefit to Thursdays.
(Of course CBS’s biggest issue is just that its comedy development is weak overall – I’m sure they wish they could get Chuck Lorre to give them 8 shows, but he can’t. Which probably explains why the network is making a push to pick up a couple of single-camera comedies for next season: they just don’t have enough decent traditional sitcoms to fill a lineup, so they wind up with bombs like Partners and How To Be a Gentleman. It would be pretty funny if CBS wound up going 1-camera and the other networks finally admitting they have a shortage of 3-camera shows, but that would actually be the best thing that could happen to TV comedy; no type of show benefits from being mostly restricted to one network.)
In general, I think the shortage of hits may prompt a move away from the “comedy boom” we were hearing about only a year ago, when Modern Family and its gigantic popularity within the TV industry (still no sign of backlash, as far as the Emmys are concerned) had all the networks scrambling to expand their comedy lineups. Most of these new comedy blocks have done poorly: Fox’s two-hour comedy block isn’t very successful, ABC’s attempt to do a hip young-person hour with Happy Endings and Apartment 23 started last night to very soft ratings, and of course NBC is still dying on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Comedies are even more unpredictable in their performance than drama or reality, and they cause many more scheduling headaches because of the need to put two shows in one hour. And generally, I think networks have taken some pretty weird lessons from the success of Modern Family (mostly that the key to comedy success is to be “edgy” but with lots of “heart”). I think the success of Revolution and Walking Dead will have network executives moving a bit more in the direction of serialized drama, where they’re on slightly more solid ground.