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Broadcast’s Opportunity for Clean TV



Since the inception of network broadcast television, TV’s three major networks – ABC, NBC and CBS, today often called the “legacy networks” -- have filled the “prime time” hours of 8:00 – 11:00 p.m. with entertainment programming. (In fact, in TV’s earliest days, the networks even attempted to fill the 7:00 p.m. hour, as well.) 


The Fox network broke this pattern, filling only two hours per night, and the UPN and WB networks (now combined into the CW) followed Fox’s example. Such a change from the established pattern made sense, given the more limited resources available to these networks at their outset; but throughout the years, the “Big Three” maintained an all-night schedule.


Thus it came as something of a surprise when NBC’s President Jeff Zucker announced in a meeting of media investors and executives last week that the network was considering cutting the number of prime-time hours during which it would show original entertainment programming.  The network would likely eliminate original programming in the 10:00 p.m. ET hour, thus “giving back” that time to its local affiliates. Additionally, NBC has also announced that Tonight Show host Jay Leno will be given a program in the 9:00 p.m. timeslot, thus further reducing the need for scripted dramatic programming at that time.


There are several reasons that NBC is considering this move: competition from cable and satellite TV’s original programming, and from Internet video, all of which are drawing more viewers; major staffing cuts at the network; and, of course, the current state of the economy. It is unfortunate that these events are occurring just before the long-anticipated transition to digital television imminent in February 2009. Under the new digital scheme, each broadcaster will be enabled to transmit over a multitude of channels whereby before they had only one. (For instance, a station previously broadcasting on channel 5 will now be able to broadcast on channels 5.0, 5.1, 5.2, et cetera.)  It is sadly ironic that NBC’s local affiliates will now have more channels to fill, and less programming with which to fill them.


But if all of these factors present over-the-air television – not just NBC, but all the broadcast networks – with challenges, they also present an unparalleled opportunity.


The broadcast networks are obsessed with their cable competition, beholding it with the terrified fascination of a paralyzed bird regarding an approaching cat. Yes, cable has been successful, particularly in the area of drama. But it seems that the broadcast networks forget that its own business model is, and always has been, different from that of cable TV.


Cable surrounds its "hit dramas" with many, many hours’ worth of reruns – reruns of broadcast network programming! During its first decade or two, many cable networks’ programming consisted entirely of broadcast reruns. As a result, viewers have become accustomed to the incessant hours of reruns on cable, but still expect original programming from broadcast TV.  Cable is therefore able get away with showing reruns far more frequently than could NBC, CBS or ABC.


Furthermore, broadcast networks do not receive cable subscription fees, as cable networks do.  Under its business model, cable does not rely solely on advertising dollars; and as a result, cable networks have the luxury of allowing new programs to run an entire season and develop an audience, rather than the broadcast networks’ advertiser-centered desperation policy of canceling any program which is not an instant hit.


Finally – and most fatally – broadcast network executives make the mistake of assuming that cable programming is successful because cable does not face FCC restrictions against indecency. Much cable programming tends to emphasize “mature” elements: profane language, explicit sex and graphic violence; and as a result, such programming is often acclaimed by the tiny clique which makes up the community of TV’s so-called “critics.” In an attempt to garner the same audiences which are watching cable TV, broadcasters are becoming increasingly “edgy,” and even demanding that the Supreme Court overthrow all rules regulating indecency on the publicly-owned airwaves. They are trying to beat cable at cable’s own game.


This strategy is nonsensical. For broadcast TV to change it’s programming to cater to the relatively few people who like the explicit content on cable is like Reader’s Digest deciding that, to attract more readers, it must become more like Cosmopolitan or Playboy. Cable is a subscription-only service; viewers must choose to subscribe to cable, and thus it has to be “invited” into the home. Broadcast TV goes into every home with a TV set. Instead of considering that fact a deficit and trying to compete with cable’s “edgy” and “adult” dramas on their own terms, the broadcast networks could embrace their far wider viewership by deliberately programming shows appropriate for all viewers, which families could watch together.


And audiences want such programming. A 2007 Yankelovich poll revealed that 63% of parents with children said that the content of programs forces parents with children at home to watch TV separately; 68% said that there are not enough shows parents and children can watch together; 81% wanted to see more programs that they can watch with other members of their household; and nearly nine in ten parents (88%) said that it is important to them to view TV programs with their children. And even ignoring the poll for a moment, consider: the single highest-rated program on cable TV, ever, was Disney Channel’s broadcast of High School Musical 2.


Any objective witness must conclude that Americans are desperate for clean, family-friendly television programming. By trying to compete with cable to see who can be raunchier, the broadcast networks are ignoring a potential gold mine – one which they are already uniquely suited to mine, simply by adhering to the broadcast decency standards which were so long a part of their networks’ strategies.


NBC has already taken a few tentative steps in this direction. In April 2008, the network announced that it was committing airing decent programming during the traditional Family Hour of 8:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. ET. The network also provided revivals of past family-friendly escapist programming with Bionic Woman and Knight Rider. Unfortunately, these “reimagined” versions have been steeped in “edgy” sex and gory violence which rendered them unsuitable for the very family audiences at which they were presumably intended.


Critics may sneer at such “mindless” TV, preferring and to be enamored of all the “dark” sexualized and graphic violence programming of today; but the truth is that there is nothing wrong with television being relaxing and “fun.” Not every program has to be a deep, “meaningful” drama or a sitcom slathered with sex and seamy language.    


(Another truth – often overlooked by critics – is that being dark and wallowing in sex and perversion does not automatically equate to being “sophisticated.” Being dark and “edgy” can just as easily become a shallow, meaningless cliché as can unremitting happiness; the only difference is that the viewer comes away not with a smile on his face, but with a feeling of despair.)  


Given the economic circumstances of the present day, stead, broadcast TV today has an even greater opportunity to garner viewers. It is a fact that, during difficult economic times, viewers tend to seek out entertainment that makes them feel good. During the Great Depression, Hollywood turned out light, airy musicals, screwball comedies and escapist films which proved to be tremendously successful with movie audiences.  With more people likely to stay home and watch free, over-the-air television (and perhaps dropping expensive cable packages), an approach which emphasized clean, upbeat, “feel-good” TV could prove wildly popular with viewers.


The broadcast networks can continue to pursue the success which has come to cable by attempting to compete with cable networks on their own terms; or they can embrace their built-in advantages by providing American audiences with the clean family entertainment they crave. Depending on which path they choose, viewers may soon see an unparalleled revival of the broadcast TV networks…or witness their final failure.


TV Trends: This column was compiled from reports by the Parents Television Council’s Analysis staff.


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