By Ron Merk
NBC is having a bad time, and not apparently sure why it’s happening to them. They can’t seem to figure out where to find an audience. Maybe they need to look at their own history, and from it, learn about the future. When I was a kid, back in the Stone Age, a typical network series had 39 episodes, and 13 of the best ones were “repeated” in the summertime, so that our favorite shows were always on the air, every week, 52 weeks a year. Families planned their TV viewing based upon their favorite shows, the days they were on, and the times they were broadcast. This came to be know as audience viewing habits in the parlance of Madison Avenue, the “geniuses” who really controlled what was on television by reason of the show they supported with specific advertisers. This worked for a really long time.
Then came along the competition… cable TV…a nd later Pay TV. The “pie” began to get cut up into smaller pieces, but the networks continued business as usual, hoping that the competition would fold, just like the most Hollywood executives thought “noisy” sound films would ever replace silent films. They did not innovate programming, but kept going back to the same tried and true formulas: cop shows, lawyer shows, westerns for a while, and a few innovative sci-fi shows (which got canceled if they didn’t pull ratings) the most ill-advised cancellation was Star Trek, and that certainly proved be be a loser over the years, didn’t it?” Then came “recording a show and watching it later on the VHS machine.” Time shifting meant that families did not watch their favorite shows together any more. I call this the loss of ritual. Rituals are very important to the human animal.
Why is it that the cable channels are doing so well? Hmmm, let’s see. They take chances with edgy, off-beat ideas. They’re the indies of TV. The cable channels seem to know how to build and sustain great dramas — so why can’t NBC? Where is NBC’s “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones” or “Walking Dead”? It’s not impossible.
So, what do the Networks do when their expensive programs pull the ratings they need to satisfy their masters on Madison Avenue, the fill the time up with “non-fiction” programming (read: much cheaper) such as game shows, singing and dance competitions, and the bottom feeders of the reality genre: shows about witless people crammed into one house. Do any intelligent viewers really want to watch these shows? Or only people whose favorite store is Wal-Mart? How did the television landscape go from Newton Minow’s benighted “vast wasteland” to the present vast waste dump?
Network Executives, listen up! The biggest problem you’re facing is programming that is tired, from the same suppliers, and the fact that you don’t support a show like Smash that was intelligent, innovative, and just damned good. Series with just 10 or fewer episodes, followed by nearly a year of NO episodes, simply don’t develop a viewer habit and anticipation. While much is being said about time shifting, there are probably more people out there (especially with an aging populating growing) who remember that such and such a night at such and such a time was when we tuned in to our favorite show. Everyone is out there chasing audiences in smaller and smaller numbers, in the fractured or is it damaged landscape of the many platforms on which shows are seen. Just as movie theaters have to work harder to secure audiences in their seats, networks have to re-launch classic audience building strategies that were successful in the past, and convince advertisers to take the risk that they might just have a hit on their hands if they stayed with it longer than ten nano-seconds. Get back to basics, audience building basics, and you can be proud as the NBC peacock once again, in living color.