The fall line-ups for the Big Four networks are out, and if they’re any indication, the future of network television looks bleak. Networks have abandoned edgy, envelope-pushing programming—never their strong suit to begin with—in favor of mindless, focus-group tested easy-viewing. Stale, formulaic procedural dramas, conspiracy thrillers, and wacky-suburban-family sitcoms now dominate the schedules. Network executives rightly fear dropping viewership, yet they sacrifice dynamism and originality in their ultimately futile quest for ratings. The traditional ad-dependent model of television is nearing obsolescence, as even number-one CBS continues to lose viewers and the gap between network and cable programming widens.
Nielsen ratings, which measure the percentage of television sets tuned in to a particular program at any given moment, paint a vivid picture of network television’s recent evolution. The most-watched show for the 2011-2012 season was NBC’s Sunday Night Football, which had approximately 21 million viewers, corresponding to a Nielsen rating of 14.1. Five years ago, the top-rated program was Fox’s American Idol, but it had 35 million viewers and a Nielsen rating of 17.6. Twenty-five years ago, NBC’s The Cosby Show drew in 31 million viewers, and a Nielsen rating of 34.9. Going back half a century, in 1952, CBS’s I Love Lucy had the highest Nielsen rating of all time, with 67.3 percent of television-owning Americans tuning in each week. Two clear trends emerge from the data: first, fewer and fewer viewers are watching network television, and second, reality shows and sports, programs that require little creative effort, now outperform sitcoms or dramas.
Several factors drive this transformation. The rise of cable added more variety to television, so as cable grew in popularity, it became harder for any given show to capture a large audience. Different business models meant that this pattern had different impacts for network and cable channels. Ad-dependent networks require large numbers of viewers watching at the same time, and thus their fates are more or less determined by Nielsen ratings. Cable channels on the other hand make much of their profits by selling subscriptions to the channel, so their success relies on building strong brands. Thus, network stations suffered as their ad revenue fell, while cable channels thrived by selling more subscriptions.
The advent of Internet television has further contributed to the decline of the networks and the rise of reality television. If viewers can watch their favorite shows online, there is less incentive for them to catch Community, for example, on Thursdays at 8 P.M., since they can see it on Hulu with fewer ads at any time they like. Nielsen ratings only measure the number of viewers who watch when the programs first air, so online video drives down ratings even further, increasing viewership at the expense of ad revenue. Again, this trend harms network television and helps cable; less people watching live devastates networks, while increased viewership overall enriches cable channels.
This ratings crisis and resulting shift in viewer behavior directly affects the quality and composition of network line-ups. Reality shows and sports especially, are less susceptible to competition from Internet television, since there is a distinct value to watching live. If a potential viewer wants to watch both Idol and Whitney, a sitcom that shares the same time-slot, he or she will almost certainly choose to watch Idol live, since Whitney is available on Hulu. In addition, because shows with lots of character and inter-episode plot development exclude viewers who aren’t already privy to the story’s background, networks are more likely pick up programs that anyone can jump into without necessarily being a “fan” of the show. This gives simplistic, repetitive shows such as laugh track sitcoms like CBS’s Two and a Half Men and procedural dramas like CBS’s CSI an important advantage over more complex or controversial shows (which often receive more critical acclaim) such as ABC’s Pan-Am, which, despite receiving very positive reviews, was canceled mid-season.
This fall’s line-up almost looks like a culmination of this trend. Interestingly, none of the new shows premiering this fall are reality shows, although several reality shows are returning, including CBS’s Survivor and NBC’s The Voice. However, nearly all of the new shows fit easily within a well-defined genre. Out of the 22 new programs, eight center around suburban families, including NBC’s very Modern Family-esque The New Normal, which tells the story of a single mom who decides to be a surrogate mother for a neurotic gay couple (not at all like a recent plot-line in Modern Family in which a neurotic gay couple searches for a surrogate mother for their second child), and six are legal or medical dramas. Networks also tried to bring in viewers by using time-tested actors like Lost’s Terry O’Quinn [ABC’s 666 Park Avenue], Friends’ Matthew Perry [NBC’s Go On], and The Office’s Mindy Kaling and Ed Helms [Fox’s The Mindy Project]. Veteran producers such as Ryan Murphy of Glee fame [The New Normal], Law and Order’s creator Dick Wolf [NBC’s Chicago Fire], and Lost producer J.J. Abrams [NBC’s Revolution]. All this, of course, only exacerbates their problems in the long run, since relying only on what used to work hinders creative advancement.
Cable television seems to reach new heights of creativity and critical acclaim each year, all the while network programming becomes more conservative and less popular. Yet, five or ten years from now, it seems likely that online video sources such as Hulu Plus, Netflix, or Amazon Instant Video will begin to compete directly with networks and cable alike, as consumers move from their television sets to their computers and smart-phones for the bulk of their media consumption. Indeed, Hulu has already premiered its first original scripted show, Battleground, which has received mixed to positive reviews and a modest but not insignificant audience. Fundamentally, the television industry is about making money, and programming is merely a means to that end. Better business models lead to better television, and networks are clearly losing on that front.
Ethan Corey is a sophomore at Amherst College, where he studies Political Science, History, or Philosophy, depending on who wants to know. Outside the classroom, he manages an SAT prep business and is a writer and editor for the Amherst Student. In his “spare time” he enjoys taking pensive walks and embroiling himself in petty and pedantic arguments on the Internet.