Brought to you by the Parents Television
Broadcast’s Opportunity for
BY CHRISTOPHER GILDEMEISTER
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.
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
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
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.
This column was compiled from reports by the Parents
Television Council’s Analysis staff.