Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings boldly threatened three years ago that broadcast television would be dead by the year 2030. He seriously miscalculated. Network television will be gone before then. Network executives at CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox haven’t yet figured out their perilous condition, but their prime time lineups have already collectively hit the canvas and the referee is counting toward ten.
The demise of network television is due in part, of course, to the emergence of Hastings’ Netflix and competition from other streaming services. Make no mistake, however, the collapse of network television is the result of self-inflicted damage, namely the inability of broadcast networks to remain culturally relevant to an American mass audience. Further, prime time broadcasting still follows a model that was created in the 1950s, which was itself patterned off the model of old-time radio that emerged in the 1930s. Dinosaurs did a better job of adapting.
The networks have put on happy faces recently with the glitzy rollouts of their fall offerings. The “upfront” presentations, as they are known, are designed to dazzle advertising executives into making commercial buys on network shows. Behind the painted-on clown smiles, network programmers are surely crying about the audience declines of recent years. Only NBC had audience growth last year, but surely wouldn’t have without the narcotic injection provided by the Super Bowl and the Olympics. ABC dropped two percent of its audience last year, CBS lost eight percent and Fox lost seventeen percent. The trend has been in effect for years. Based on the uninspired, predictable and vacuous prime time lineups presented to advertisers in the last week, network television viewing will continue its freefall.
Television was still in its childhood in 1961 when FCC chairman, Newton Minow accused the networks of being “complacent” by programming unimaginative action-adventure shows and harebrained sitcoms. Fifty seven years later, the networks came to this year’s upfronts to trot out a batch of the same old fare. There are no visionaries in the network hierarchy.
“The Beverly Hillbillies” of Minow’s era looks like high culture today. At least Jed and Granny and Jethro could do something today’s sitcoms can’t – deliver ratings. In its first season, thirty six percent of all American households, almost sixty million people, tuned in each week to see the hillbillies. Contrast that to this year’s “Roseanne” on ABC, which thrilled network executives by getting twenty seven million total viewers with its premiere show this spring. Since, “Roseanne” has lost almost half of its viewership. By the way, Jed’s ratings were generated on the night of broadcast. Today’s shows benefit from delayed viewing by DVR and on-demand.
The networks’ lack of vision is seen in the many show revivals in next fall’s lineup. In addition to the ABC revival of “Roseanne,” CBS is bringing back “Magnum P.I” and “Murphy Brown.” NBC is reviving “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and Fox is bringing back “Last Man Standing.” Networks crave younger demographics for the audience, yet offer burned out old shows that look like the “Andy Griffith Show” to those younger viewers.
ABC is so oblivious to the nation’s polarized condition that it’s giving Alec Baldwin a prime time Sunday night interview show. Even in an era of niche broadcasting, networks need shows that can attract broad interest. Baldwin, the lightning rod, can’t do that. ABC has thus written off a large chunk of the nation’s viewers who will have no interest in Baldwin’s caustic and hyper-partisan style.
The networks, to their credit, have at long last stumbled into one great insight – that television viewers don’t like commercial saturation. NBC and Fox are both openly discussing plans to reduce the commercial minutes in prime time. NBC is pondering a ten percent decrease in advertising time. Fox might cut more than ten percent, and is looking at keeping each commercial break shorter. Of course, these networks will naively expect advertisers to pay more for the commercials that do air. Sure.
Broadcasters plan to recoup lost revenue from traditional commercial breaks by writing sponsors’ messages into the actual programs. This is euphemistically being called “product integration.” Basically, it will be product placement on steroids. And the network geniuses think audiences will be just fine with that.
Network television was for decades a cultural force that entertained the nation and provided common experiences for families, neighbors and co-workers. That era is now gone. The nation is polarized on many fronts and television can no longer play a culturally unifying role.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a Professor of Communication at DePauw University.