Is it time to start carving a tombstone for Network Television?

Wired magazine thinks so. Last season, the three major networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) combined attracted their smallest audience since the advent of television. But the cable networks, which target a niche audience rather than aiming for the broadest possible reach, now claim more than half of total viewers.

It may be time to perform an autopsy on network TV, which some have
pronounced officially dead at age 60, the victim of a lifetime of big
spending, hard living, and bad planning. Here's the coroner's report:
The evening newscasts have been mowed down by cable's heat, spin, and
round-the-clock immediacy. In prime time, nobody watches reruns
anymore—and reruns, along with syndication, used to be the only way
comedy and drama series, the heart of a network's prime-time business,
made money. (The way they make money now is…well, the networks will
get back to you as soon as they figure that out.)

Speaking of old-school, half-hour sitcoms: Once, 50 of them were on
the air at a time. Today, they're all but gone. Suddenly, people just
stopped liking them. Prime-time news magazines? Barely holding on.
"Protected" time slots? Viewers accustomed to Web surfing and channel
flipping at hyperspeed aren't going to watch a new show just because
they're too lazy to change the channel after The Biggest Loser.
The audience for daytime soaps, a profitable staple since TV's infancy,
has shrunk so dramatically that the form may vanish within a few years.
This is all very bad news for a medium that hasn't come up with a fresh
format since 2000, when CBS launched Survivor, the gold rush in reality-TV competitions. (P.S.: Survivor isn’t what it used to be either.)

It's unlikely that a broadcast network is ever again going to create a megahit like The Cosby Show,
which at its mid-’80s peak drew as many as 50 million viewers an
episode. For several years now, TV's top event has been Fox's American Idol. Last season, it drew 28.8 million viewers a week.


7 thoughts on “Is it time to start carving a tombstone for Network Television?”

  1. It may be time to call in priests for the last rites. When your biggest hit draws approximately the same viewers as the last season of the original Star Trek(for which it was canceled for low ratings), it can’t be good.

  2. Well…responding to the original post by Lee, and to the first comment person…I am a priest, but am not ready to perform last rites on TV…if, and I mean if the Network execs will wake up.
    Growing up back in my father’s heyday (Harry Ackerman – exec. prod. of Bewitched, Flying Nun and many more) I watched how tv flowed and changed. In the 1960’s ABC reserved a slot every season for a “Harry Ackerman Show” but that changed in the 70’s when things took a turn. Not sure if networks were following audience trends, or just trying something new…but the cop shows came about, and the sitcoms that remained were a bit edgier (All in the Family), then after a late 70’s dance with game shows…”family” sit coms came back (Dad exec. produced “The New Gidget” for it’s two season run before he died).
    The difference now is Network execs are lazy. It used to be that you might have a hit show on one network…say “8 is Enough” and the other networks would try to find a copy-cat show…in that case “Apple’s Way” on CBS, and “Mulligan’s Stew” on NBC (the latter co-starring my mother, tv actess Elinor Donahue), but now tv execs greenlight their own copycat shows. The Law and Order and CSI franchises to name a couple.
    They generate more of the same in order to keep from having to experiement with the “new.” So now instead of one type of show on each network you have multiple types of the same shows on all networks. Added to that if a show does not work with a few airings it is curtains, while in the past a show got a good 13 or so episode run in order to “find” its audience.
    Anyway, it must be cheaper to rehash the same old program on the network, but creative minds have ventured elsewhere it seems. Networks must try fresh ideas (and revisit old ones) in order to see what grabs people today. Oh what I would give to have a Sunday Night Mystery Movie again with 3 great series alternating each week.
    It seems the people have spoken and the ball is in the Network’s court…will they respond? I hope so, if not, I will be around to say the final blessing.

  3. Thank-you, Father, I found your comments interesting. I just wanted to add the point that audiences seem to favor shows that are “information intensive” over those which are not. So with CSI and LAW & ORDER, the audience is being taken beyond the superficial and into the deep depths of the issues in the show that episode. Marshall McLuhan (did I spell his last name correctly?!) theorized that MOVIES were an information intensive experience while TV was not. So maybe the Networks need to develop more information intensive shows in order to survive because, once the audience stops learning new information, maybe they start channel surfing. The internet would be the most information intensive media experience, which may account for its rise. Anyway, the Nets have to try something or the day will come when their business model is no longer viable.

  4. Dan, I don’t see CSI and L&O as shallow and information driven as you make them out to be. The shows have thrived on good writing, complex characters and intense relationships, even if that applies more to suspects and victims than some of the leads themselves.

  5. Howard, I didn’t say CSI and L&O were “shallow.” But I did say they were “information intensive.” I guess it’s relative, but these shows deal with technology and crime issues and the law and the legal system, and with every episode there’s lots of new information presented that does not relate to the characters or their relationships. At least that’s how I see it.
    Of course, just presenting technical information does not make a story great. As you say, these shows also have great writing, great characters and intense relationships. But this is not what defines them in my opinion. The intensive information does. One staff writer for CSI-MIAMI recently said she has read over 600 books relating to forensics and related issues. For an episode of FRIENDS, I don’t think the writers needed to read even one book! Still, a show can be great without being information intensive, but it is doubtful that two concurrent spin-offs of FRIENDS could run at the same time, whereas with CSI and L&O it’s being done. Is the public thirsting for the characters and their relationships? Maybe. A bit. But is the public thisting and fascinated by the information, issues and technology? I think so.


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