15 December 2008

Desperate times for TV

Kind of wish I had blogged about this a few days ago, but oh well.

NBC, after four years of ratings futility, has finally declared defeat in programming its primetime lineup and has decided to cede valuable broadcasting real estate - the 9 pm (Central) hour, five days a week, to a new talk/variety program hosted by erstwhile retiree Jay Leno.

Can I call this unprecedented? Not since the earliest days of TV has a programming gambit of this variety been attempted by a major broadcast network. Or maybe I should say former major broadcast network. This officially marks NBC's devolution to second tier broadcaster.

Good riddance. The NBC culture has always been about arrogance and dickhead jive. It's good to see the Peecock network get its just desserts finally. What one Silverman couldn't do, another finally accomplished - run the network into the ground.

I don't know how five days a week of Jay Leno (whom I despise) is going to play out ratings-wise. Sure seems like audiences are going to be tired of what could easily become oversaturation of a single program. That's what killed Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, after all. But I guess it locks in a more stable viewership during that time period, of which few if any of the new dramas appearing in the 9 pm timeslot over the past four years have accomplished. NBC has more or less abandoned the quest for ratings here.

Little if anything remains on the Peecock network of worth or value. The few ratings highlights include Law and Order: SVU (rapidly aging) and Heroes (which is fantasy bullshit). Otherwise there is just very little to draw viewers. No, ultra-futuristic versions of throwback programming like My Own Worst Enemy won't cut the cheese, either. People go to the movies to obtain their explosion quota.

NBC can't pin the blame for their overwhelming downward trajectory upon cable and alternative media. The other networks are certainly struggling, but at least their ratings are acceptably stable (for now), due to their overwhelmingly comfort-food programming lineups. No, NBC lost fair and square in this matter.

Though a word of caution: NBC is only the first stone to drop in the broadcasting world. Over the long term the other networks are going to have to face the same issues of increasing inputs generating decreasing output. The plain fact is that most broadcast television programming to-day is sheer crap, and has been for some time. Even if the broadcasters do manage to achieve some enlightenment and start airing quality programming again at some point, by that time it may be too late. The reputations of the "nets" are in the toilet, while more quality drama have migrated to cable channels, burnishing their reputations and solidifying their ability to obtain ever increasing shares of the overall shrinking/increasingly fragmented total viewer pool.

The economics are working against the traditional broadcast model, as the competition proliferates, the syndicated programming market explodes and the Internet draws off large portions of key demographics. Besides the declining economy, this is the core issue at the heart of the declining fortunes of broadcast media to-day. The days of a tri-opoly of three broadcast networks is long finished, with cable (after a long gestation period) having proved to grow into a viable alternative to traditional broadcast channels. Not to mention all the possibilities of "new media" and the trends present and future that portend to work their wrath on the Medium Three.

I predict that the major broadcasters will all eventually move toward the cable model, with the weakest networks such as NBC leading the way. This looks to be disastrous in the long run for local broadcasters and TV stations, traditional broadcast advertisers, and certain genres of programming; not to mention the employment prospects for many writers, actors, and other talent implements of legacy programming fare. (Not that I feel bad about this. The free lunch in Hollywood has gone on long enough.)
Primetime will shrink or even become less of a factor in the overall model. Some dayparts, like Friday and Saturday evenings, will unquestionably become the land of permanent reruns and inexpensive news/talk programs. Network daytime television will experience massive changes, and will hardly resemble its traditional formats when all is said and done, if it survives at all (which is highly unlikely, by the way). The daytime soap opera as we know it is dead, killed by demographic realities, ratings collapse, and rising production costs. And it goes without saying that "reality" and other unscripted fare will only expand its reach across the entire broadcasting spectrum in order to occupy the many more hours of broadcasting time that must be filled in a 1,000 channel age.

Would I like to see all this? Not really. In the absence of an incubator of project development such as a major network provides, less programming of quality will probably make it to air overall. But this is the economic reality of modern broadcasting, of which the current correction is duly accelerating toward its inevitable conclusion. 

And in the end, this is the final result of increased competition, and market competition produces more desirable results for all. So a new model will be of benefit for both broadcasters and viewers in the long term.

It may be a very long term. But dat's reality, folks.

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