The fantastic ratings in key demos registered by AMC’s The Walking Dead and other cable offerings this year could be looked at as the death knell of broadcast television. Look at the weakest of the broadcast nets, NBC: Dead’s weekly audience of 4.35 million 18-to-49-year-old viewers is bigger than many of NBC’s prime-time offerings; however, instead of fearing AMC, FX, and the other upstarts, NBC should use them as an example. After all, if AMC — with its lower audience penetration (available in only 84 percent of television households vs. 100 percent for NBC) and smaller outlays for production and promotion — can put together a schedule that is competitive when up against with the broadcasters, why couldn’t NBC? Here are my suggestions for how to reinvigorate NBC prime time, and make it once again a ratings and profit leader.
Forget about putting the word broad in broadcast. In reality, there are no broadcasters anymore, in the sense that no one appeals to a wide audience. There is nothing wrong with programming toward a niche, as long as the niche is deep enough to justify the investment. This may seem anathema to a major network but, when you look at the data, the other broadcast networks have already chosen their niche: women and old people. CBS’s audience is 60 to 40 female to male with an average age of almost 56, ABC’s is 64 to 36 with an average age of just under 54, and Fox’s is 55 to 45 and 43.5 years of age. If you take out NBC’s prime-time football, their audience breakdown would be right in there with the others, though with far fewer overall viewers. Looking at all of this, it would seem pretty obvious that older people and women are overserved by NBC’s main competitors and they need a new target.
Hit ‘em where they ain’t. There are only a few non-sports networks that focus on men, while Lifetime, ABC Family, WE, TNT, TLC, TV Land, VH1, Oxygen, E, Bravo, and all the broadcast nets are pretty estrogenic. If NBC’s competition doesn’t want to cater to men and younger viewers, that is an opening. The network shows that do best with men, other than sports, are the Fox animated shows, like Family Guy and The Simpsons. South Park also does great with males. These shows also skew younger, so they serve two key ignored audiences. If Fox can make animation work, why can’t NBC? And in the one-hour drama arena, it isn’t difficult to figure out that adventure, violence, and sci-fi/fantasy are doing great on cable, as with Sons of Anarchy, Game of Thrones, and Warehouse 13.
One of NBC’s true assets is the ability to promote its new shows on NFL Sunday, the only programming they have that gets a big male audience. But if they want to get men to watch and stay with their shows, they have to commit to giving men what they want thematically and not water it down in an attempt not to alienate potential female viewers. The Playboy Club might have reached a male audience (as the original club did), but instead of making the show a titillating male fantasy set at a time when Hugh Hefner’s lifestyle was heroic rather than clownish, the network steered the show toward mystery and female empowerment stories. The result felt neither here nor there and didn’t attract either audience. Women are more tolerant in terms of what they’ll watch than men are. If a character is boorish, sexist, and violent but is written with integrity and is in a vehicle for interesting plots, women will watch: The Sopranos was a great example of this. But no matter how well done Drop Dead Diva may be, no straight guy will watch it. When I was first producing Gilmore Girls, I remember testing it and hearing the males in the test audience say that they thought the show was quite good but that they’d never tune in.
Push the limits of acceptable content. I’ve previously discussed my disgust with broadcast standards and practices in this column and here’s an example of why testing the boundaries of decency makes sense: When ABC first aired NYPD Blue in 1993, there was loud protest from moralists about the fleeting nudity, violence, and obscene language the show offered. Some advertisers initially pulled out. But the hoopla created great attention and the show was a big hit, running twelve years and 261 episodes. Though the FCC fined ABC $1.4 million for one particular episode, the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned that decision and the fine was never paid. Today, it would be even more difficult for the FCC to take a stand against content on NBC, since the raw language and subject matter seen on Comedy Central, FX, and other cable networks can be viewed in most every household that also gets NBC. Loosening up on these restrictions wouldn’t only be a marketing ploy; it would also make their shows more real and, therefore, better. NBC should make it clear to writers and producers that they are looking for shows that you wouldn’t be able to see on ABC, CBS, or Fox and that they won’t be as bridled as before when it comes to language, nudity, and violence, especially at 10 p.m. This would lead to a marketing campaign that communicates a less limited and more exciting vision for their product, akin to Showtime’s “brace yourself.”
Spend less. If The Walking Dead were on NBC, it would be the most successful and least expensive show on the network. All of the basic cable hits, in the early years of their runs, cost way less to produce than those on the networks. This isn’t only because they have concepts they can realize more economically; they also don’t cast big stars, they pay less to those making the shows, and they have tighter production schedules. The average viewer doesn’t see a qualitative difference between NBC’s shows and those on FX, but the latter pays its producers less and shoots at least one fewer day per episode. And if you’re going for a younger audience, you’re most likely not going to cast actors with big quotes, since those are usually burnt-out feature-film stars or former cast members from past network hits, none of whom mean anything to people under 35. Lowering the cost of goods for the network would benefit the bottom line and take the pressure off during the transition to a new creative paradigm, making it easier to take more programming risks. My experience is that network shows cost about $3 million per episode, while basic cable shows go for $500,000 to $1 million less. That kind of savings across a schedule is significant: The struggle is in showing the will and leadership to get it done.
With difficult circumstances usually comes opportunity. NBC has a great opportunity to be remade, if for no other reason than that they’re in such desperate shape. But the good news is that they have the right guy to do it in network chairman Bob Greenblatt. Bob is a terrific executive who reshaped Showtime from an “also ran” into a true competitor for HBO with its edgy and unique series, and he was an executive producer on Six Feet Under, one of the most loved and original shows ever. He’s only been in the job one season, so this year’s performance may not be indicative of anything, other than the fact that there is no winning with a better version of what his predecessors were doing. Maybe I’m wrong about the above strategy, but if I can be sure about one thing, it’s that more of the same approach to programming will only lead to more of the same audience and profit erosion.
Gavin Polone is an agent turned manager turned producer. His production company, Pariah, has brought you such movies and TV shows as Panic Room, Zombieland, Gilmore Girls, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Follow him on Twitter, @gavinpolone.