The Struggle Within: The Trouble With Broadcast Television In A New Age.
Broadcast television has arguably been in trouble ever since the late 1990s, when HBO was producing its first original series. This is at least true of the original Big Three networks. At this time, FOX, which had been around since 1986, finally gained the status of the fourth Big Network. Breakout hits throughout the early Nineties such as The Simpsons (1989), Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990), and The X-Files (1993) meant that FOX gained popularity with a wide range of viewers. Fox also launched its sister cable channel FX in 1994 which gave the company even further reach. Two new network began transmission the year after, The WB and UPN, which aimed their programming at younger viewers with shows such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997) and Star Trek: Voyager (1995). As a result ABC, CBS and NBC were losing key demographics at an alarming rate.
“As competitors increased throughout the latter half of the 1990s, NBC, like the other Big Three broadcasters, struggled to find its place. The WB and UPN networks siphoned away younger viewers, while FOX achieved the status of a Big Four network that could compete on a par with the others, particularly in the lucrative eighteen-to-forty-nine-year-old demographic. Simultaneously, many of the stronger cable networks began developing original series programming that matched the quality offered by broadcasters.” (Lotz, 2007: 271, 272).
As can be seen in the following figure, the original Big Three had been haemorrhaging viewers ever since the television was first widely circulated during the 1950s. At the beginning of the 1990s, however, they began to dip alarmingly as cable television was on the up and as viewers were looking to broaden their choice of channels:
Percentage (%) of households in the United States watching ABC, CBS and NBC during primetime through the years:
1952-1953 - 75%
1962-1963 - 55%
1972-1973 - 56%
1982-1983 - 51%
1992-1993 - 37%
2002-2003 - 22%
2007-2008 - 18%
As can be seen, during the 2007-08 season only 18% of households were watching one of the original Big Three. This can be attributed to what I mentioned above, the rise of FOX and the birth of an additional broadcast channel, as well as to the sudden influx of cable stations. The rise of the basic cable station has had two major impacts on broadcast television which are worth mentioning. The first is the fact that, as cable stations produce their own original content, they are buying less programming from the broadcast networks to put into syndication on their own channel. Instead of spending millions of dollars to re-run, say, the NBC comedy series Friends (1994), USA Network might instead invest this money into making programming of their own, like they did with their first original series Monk (2002). The cable networks like USA have witnessed what HBO has done in their original drama, and as a result look to re-imagine themselves as networks which produce quality television, instead of just airing it. All of this results in the broadcast networks, which would have sold their series into syndication, losing one of their key avenues of income. The second impact that the reformed cable networks have had on broadcast television is far greater in scope.
With the establishment and rise of cable networks such as FX, AMC, USA Network, Showtime and Starz in recent years, broadcast television has been stuck in a catch-22-style problem. The main broadcasters want to match the quality that is coming out of these channels, but find themselves unable to. One of the main reasons for this is the advertising support which the broadcast networks rely on. Premium channels like HBO, Showtime and Starz are able to experiment with their programmes, allowing for more complicated narrative structures over a whole season of a show. They therefore appeal to smaller audiences who are willing to keep up with intricate plots. However, small audiences do not matter to these networks as their main income is through the subscriptions which they sell. Broadcasters must reach a compromise instead, as they strive to please both audiences and more importantly, advertisers. If they air unpopular, but ultimately critically-acclaimed series, they risk drawing in small viewing figures which in turn is unappealing to ad-buyers. One of the surviving examples of this still on a broadcast network is Lost (2004). Although initially drawing impressive Nielsen ratings during it’s first and second seasons, it has since lost viewers with every season. It has survived however, due to the deal the executive producers of the show struck with ABC, which guarantees the show will end in Spring 2010. Lost may be the final successful, fully-serialized show on broadcast television.
“Like a true labyrinth, the path to narrative resolution is marked by twists, turns, dead ends and misleading clues and the audience is invited to negotiate its way through the maze along with the series’ protagonists. The series’ extreme serial rather than episodic narrative requires a level of commitment from the audience that is usually discouraged by mainstream television executives as it is seen to be alienating to casual viewers.” (Abbott, 2009: 10).
It is this alienation of the casual viewer which networks are extremely wary of in the current television climate. Ultimately, they must schedule programming which appeals to the widest group of people, which leaves shows like Lost in a small groups of their own. Other examples of programmes which are highly dependant on their serial nature include 24 (2001), Prison Break (2005), Friday Night Lights (2006)and Heroes (2006). All of these have seen their ratings drop in recent seasons, each resulting in different fates. 24 remains fairly popular among fans of the long-running series, and has supplemented a drop in rating by striking deals with companies for product-placement within the show. Prison Break was eventually cancelled by FOX, ending with its fourth season in 2009. Friday Night Lights, although gaining much attention from critics, really struggled with viewing figures during it’s second season on NBC. It was eventually saved by a deal that was struck between NBC and DirecTV which split production costs and thus allowed the show to remain on the air. Heroes’ fate remains to be seen as the third season recently finished with some of the show’s lowest ever ratings.
“The US television industry has undergone considerable transition in the last decade, with the networks increasingly reliant on the reality genre and, as a result, decreasingly investing in narrative properties like Lost.” (Johnson, 2009: 31).
So as series such as Lost become less abundant on the broadcast networks, series like American Idol (2002) become dominant. Reality programmes are the safest way for the networks to make money, as they are near guaranteed to rate high in the Nielsen ranks. Due to these high ratings, advertisers will pay generously for ad-time during reality shows. American Idol has been a consistently top-rating show on American television since 2005, which prompted advertisers to break records in 2005 when they paid the highest ever amount for a 30-second spot during a broadcast of the show. It is evident then that the networks will stay within their comfort zone while they are receiving such figures for reality programming. The nature of reality programming lends itself well to the occasional viewer, unlike the series which I have discuss previously. Additionally, procedural programming such as CSI (2000), Bones (2005) and Law and Order (1990) avoids the need for viewers to have seen any previous episodes of the series in order to watch. The ability to jump in and out from week to week suits the majority of the viewing nation, and thus shows such as these do well in the ratings alongside the reality shows. As of April 13th, 2009, eight of the top ten rated shows in primetime were either reality/talent shows, or a procedural. Entertainment Weekly columnist Jeff Jensen remarks how the Writer’s Strike of 2007-08 had a hand in the change which has taken place in television:
“There have been harbingers of The End for a while now, but the death knell came with the writer’s strike; it demonstrated how tenuous our relationship is to a TV show: How quickly it can disappear! In the strike’s aftermath, viewers became both reluctant to re-engage with the old shows that left them hanging and wary of the new shows that promised unique vision or quirky cool…with demand for edgy entertainment shrinking, so is supply. Media industry volatility and recession economics are pushing TV networks towards the safest, sanest options possible. Sopranos wannabes are out, Bones clones are in. Next season, NBC will fill its weekday 10pm slot with…a new Jay Leno talk show.”
Adding to the pressure on broadcasters is the fact that television is diversifying as new media technology becomes widely used. The rise of DVR (Digital Video Recorder) equipment such as TiVo means that less people are watching television live, and instead are recording their favourite shows to watch at a later time. The main problem this poses is that viewers are then able to skip advertisements, meaning advertisers are missing out. This comes around to affect the broadcasters, as advertisers are unwilling to spend as much on spots which are likely to be skipped, such as those during low-performing programmes in the live ratings. For the week of April 13th, 2009, the top ten DVR ratings consisted of ten different programmes than in the top ten live ratings. All of these shows had serialized structures, showing that it is in fact these types of shows that are being recorded for repeated viewing. As an example, 90210 (2008) showed an 80% increase from DVR viewing over the following seven days after its initial broadcast. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008) increased 70% in the same time. Cult series such as Lost, Heroes and Dollhouse (2009) also saw great increases in the seven-day period. This goes to show how viewer habits differ between fans or certain programmes. Though the cult and serial series do not garner high ratings in general, they are among the most recorded shows. On the other hand, reality and procedural programmes are not popular among DVR owners, but instead are watched live. Similarly, content which is viewed on the network websites tends to be the series which are least-watched live. With NBC.com and ABC.com offering full episodes with advertisements, it is clear that they are looking to reach the online market, as well as the younger demographics who are more likely to watch these programmes online.
“Viewership for Lost and Desperate Housewives increased by 17 per cent and 8 per cent after episodes were available for downloading. The fact that Lost increased its audience by more than double that of Desperate Housewives would seem to support my hypothesis about the suitability of genre shows to the post-television era; a Lost viewer seeking clues to the narrative’s hermeneutic may be more fearful of missing an episodes and more inclined to repeat viewing that a Desperate Housewives viewer. (Pearson, 2007: 253).
The broadcast networks, in the face of declining ratings and diverse media outlets have therefore served these viewers who look to get their shows online, by allowing sites such as Hulu.com and iTunes.com to stream and sell their content to the public. DVD sales are yet another avenue which the networks have capitalised on in recent years. In 2004 sales of TV DVDs rose by 62 per cent, to over $2 billion. DVD sales are therefore one of the most lucrative ways for networks to make back money lost during initial runs of low-rated/cancelled programmes. As the networks diversify this way they are able to gain maximum coverage of the market, and as a result maximise their income in the ever-strained environment of modern television:
“What reality TV and formats reveal most of all is that the traditional revenue model used to produce commercial television is become anachronistic. We are entering a new era of product placement and integration, merchandising, pay-per-view, and multi-platform content.” (Magder, 2008: 152).
The broadcast networks have seen numerous disadvantages come their way since the early 1990s, primarily from the uncontrollable diversification of the medium across multiple platforms. Broadcasters must always think about filling their advertising slots, even before thinking of what to out in their programming slots. This leads to advertiser-friendly programming becoming dominant throughout network television. On the other hand, cable TV has been able to dodge most of the disadvantages brought about by the ad-based model, thanks to most channels’ subscription income. This slight advantage, coupled with the new cable networks’ eagerness to create exciting new television, has brought about the high level of quality which cable television in the United States is now producing. This HBO-like quality has quietly grown over the past couple of years throughout basic and premium cable, and we now find ourselves in the beginning of the first golden age of cable television.
 The WB and UPN would eventually be merged in The CW during the 2006-07 season as a result of a joint venture between parent companies CBS and Warner Bros. See http://www.cwtv.com/thecw/about-the-cw.
 Poniewozik, J. (2009, April) ‘Here’s to the Death of Broadcast.’ Time. Retrieved April 27, 2009. See http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1887840,00.html.
 Season one had a peak rating of 21.59 million viewers, while season 2 boasts the highest ever rated episode (‘Man of Science, Man of Faith, 2:1’) with 23.47 million. See http://abcmedianet.com/web/dnr/dispDNR.aspx?id=011105_11and http://abcmedianet.com/web/dnr/dispDNR.aspx?id=011105_11.
 Deal was struck during the mid-season hiatus during season 3, as Exec. Producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse wanted a definite end date to enable them to end the show while it was still of high quality. See http://abcmedianet.com/web/progcal/dispDNR.aspx?id=050707_01.
 Fernandez, M. (2009, January 14) ‘Fox’s Kevin Reilly says it’s ready to set ‘Prison Break’ free.‘ LA Times. Retrieved April 27, 2009. See http://articles.latimes.com/2009/jan/14/entertainment/et-presstour14.
 The deal allows DirecTV to have the first run of new episodes during the Autumn, while NBC re-airs them during the Spring. Fernandez, M. (2008, October 2) “Friday Night Lights’ gives DirecTV the ball first’. LA Times. Retrieved April 27, 2009. See http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/tv/la-et-fnl1-2008oct01,0,7941508.story.
 A record of over $700,000 per 30 second ad-spot. McClellan, S. (2005, September 12) ‘Fox Breaks Prime-Time Pricing Record’. Adweek. Retrieved April 27, 2009. See http://www.adweek.com/aw/search/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1001096022.
 The only shows in the top ten which are of a more serialized nature during this week are Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy. See http://www.nielsenmedia.com/nc/portal/site/Public/menuitem.43afce2fac27e890311ba0a347a062a0/?show=%2FFilters%2FPublic%2Ftop_tv_ratings%2Fbroadcast_tv&vgnextoid=9e4df9669fa14010VgnVCM100000880a260aRCRD.
 The strike was a stand by writers to ensure they would receive payment from new media revenues such as online distribution and DVD sales. Cieply, M. & Barnes, B. (2007, November 2) ‘Writer’s strike to start Monday’. New York Times. Retrieved April 27, 2009. See http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/02/business/media/02cnd-hollywood.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all.
 Sandler, K. (2007) ‘Life Without Friends’, in M. Hilms (ed) NBC: America’s Network. Berkeley and Los Angeles, Ca.: University of California Press, pg. 299.