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Can Network Television Stay Relevant in 2013 and Beyond?

October 22, 2013

As some of you may be aware, NBC recently placed Parks and Recreation on hiatus for (most of) the remainder of 2013.  NBC will first pre-empt Parks for 3 weeks to show a RERUN of an episode of The Voice, a Halloween Saturday Night Live special (which could have been seen on VH1, on Netflix, or any previous year when NBC has run this special), and a live episode of The Voice.  Parks will then return for 2 weeks where those 3 episodes will air (including a Halloween episode that will air weeks after Halloween) and that will be it for the remainder of 2013.  Parks (and Community) will return in January of 2014, but this continues to show that the major networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC) are, for the most part, stuck in the past when it comes to television consumption.

NBC has claimed that one of the motivating factors for this decision is so they can help rookie shows Sean Saves the World and The Michael J. Fox Show by having strong lead-ins.  That plan would work 20 years ago when viewers’ options where no where near as varied as they are today.  People do not watch shows simply because they liked the show that was on before it.  If you think they do, ask Low Winter Sun.

I don’t understand. We were on after Breaking Bad. I’m just as intense as Walter White. Stop laughing; I’m serious. This is my serious face.

Nowadays, with fewer people watching live television in favor of DVR where they can watch on their own time and fast forward through commercials, readily available DVD box sets, or internet services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon or iTunes, the way people view television has totally changed.  However, by sticking to the Nielsen system, the major networks are essentially ignoring how people currently consume their television shows and therefore, are committed to the idea that if a show has a strong lead-in, people will stay tuned for the other show.

Cable (for the most part) realizes that numbers aren’t everything for the reasons previously stated.  Shows like Archer, Louie, South Park, Girls, Veep, Eastbound & Down and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia don’t have outstanding numbers by traditional standards, but the respective networks that air these shows understand the changing landscape in television so they don’t hold these shows to the same rating standards we may have seen 10 or 15 years ago.  Another issue for cable is not everyone has HBO or Showtime, but fans find ways to watch Game of Thrones or Homeland online through less than legal means.

A Game of Thrones fan thinking about what he wants to do to King Joffrey.

These are all popular and critically acclaimed shows and the cable networks understand that people are watching them through numerous options that are not necessarily the immediate first airing of any individual episode.  The networks don’t recognize this viewing method, and so, shows with smaller numbers are getting punished even though plenty of people are watching these shows through other means.

Another advantage that cable has over the networks is creative freedom.  They are able to delve into tougher issues, darker subject matter, have adult language and situations, nudity, and numerous other things that network television simply can’t.  Could you imagine Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood or Dexter on one of the major networks?

Omar whistling “The Farmer in the Dell” is about the only thing they could show on CBS and it would be accompanied by a laugh track.

This is one reason that cable has dominated at the Emmys for the past several years.  The Outstanding Drama Series hasn’t included a “big four” nominee the past two years and the last show to win that category from a “big four” network was 24 back in 2006.  Comedy has faired better thanks to Modern Family’s dominance, but an increasing number of nominations have been earned by HBO, Showtime and FX over the past several years.  Cable is bringing in the big names and critical acclaim.  This isn’t to say the networks are not putting out good products, but the fact that they don’t have as much artistic freedom as cable has lead to big time projects going elsewhere.

There is also a problem for the networks because the internet has started original programming.  Netflix brought in House of Cards and Orange is the New Black to much fanfare, while also reviving a little show that wasn’t “popular” enough to survive on Fox, Arrested Development.

Pictured: Not good enough for regular television.

Netflix has seen a tremendous increase in viewership thanks to these shows, and the success is in no way attributed to traditional ratings.  People binge-watched all of these shows, but speaking from personal experience, I waited on House of Cards and Orange is the New Black much longer than the first day they were available.  I can’t say the same for Arrested Development because I had waited years for new episodes and watched it as fast as my eyeballs could take it in.  All have been proven very successful, with House of Cards and Arrested Development earning Emmy nominations.

With all of these combined factors, NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox have seen decreases in their live viewership (well, CBS is still doing well despite putting out lesser shows than the other three) and it’s been at the expense of some great shows.  NBC has continued to use techniques that may have worked long ago before the increased internet and otherwise delayed viewership, but in this ever-changing landscape, these techniques don’t work.  They would be smarter to keep their most acclaimed comedies on television as long as they can, but because they are stuck in the mindset that shows need lead-ins or it only matters who is watching during a certain window of time, they are going to continue to mess with the shows we like and not care about who they piss off because it worked in the past.

 

Hope you liked this post and I hope you like what else I have to say.

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