the end of television

Josef Adalian Responds to Readers’ Ideas on How to Save NBC

Last Thursday, in the wake of three disastrous new show launches and the shockingly low ratings for the return of Smash, I asked whether or not the long-troubled NBC may have finally begun a death spiral. My argument: The TV universe has changed so much in recent years that the Peacock might never be able to regain enough momentum to return to the top of the Nielsen ratings. The story prompted a strong response from readers, many offering suggestions for how the Peacock (and other broadcast networks) might adapt to the new realities of TV in the 21st century. Below, some of the most interesting ideas, along with my take on whether they might (or might not) work. Who knows: Maybe we can crowdsource a fix to what ails NBC!

Rather than the problem lying with the measured audience of the network, shouldn’t all nets be focusing on the faulty measuring system? If they’d either cut their ties with Nielsen and their outdated methods, or else force Nielsen to provide more accurate figures that gave equal weight to online viewers (who sit through more commercials than a lot of television viewers do), I feel like they would all know much better where they stand. Why make fixes to fit into a outdated, ridiculous methodology? —YESINDEED
It’s not like the networks haven’t tried. Back in 2009, big conglomerates such as Disney and News Corp. teamed up with some ad agencies to study alternatives to the decades-old system of measuring ratings, something The
Wall Street Journal at the time called a possible “shot across the bow of Nielsen.” The consortium is still active, and last year even announced results from a couple of pilot programs designed to better count viewers. No doubt feeling the pressure, Nielsen has made some moves to expand its ratings, including working on ways to count online streams of a show and VOD plays in its tallies. But it gets complicated: Advertisers consider viewers who watch a show on Hulu or less valuable than those who watch on their flat-screen (even though streaming services make you watch their ads!). They’ll also pay a network if you watch a recorded show within three days of its first broadcast, but if you watch after that? Doesn’t count. Network insiders still regularly gripe about Nielsen’s methodologies (yes, the company really does still use paper diaries in some cases!), but these days, they’re much more concerned about convincing Don Draper’s descendants to pay up for nontraditional viewing.

None of this considers that people are sick of the 30-second commercial anyway, live or not, and that different advertising & sponsorship models might work better in the DVR era. —BRIANVAN
The networks are on it! There’s a reason Subway has become part of the plot on shows such as
Community and the late Chuck, and why the folks on Modern Family always seem to be mentioning how much they love their Toyota. And last fall, the cast of Revenge totally pimped themselves out for Target as part of the retailer’s (ultimately failed) promotion with Neiman Marcus. But it’s worth wondering if any of this will help the networks in the long term. As it is, the viewing experience on network shows is impaired by those constant pop-up ads and onscreen logos. Do we really want every network show to feel like a giant infomercial for sponsors?

Why not try miniseries, which no network does any more? Why not try to make [their] own movies, especially comedies, which might be cheaper, which would be a good way to cultivate talent for the network? Why not create a show much like Biography on A&E, but with regular people, perhaps after they passed on? —BJSSP
So many ideas, ‘SP! Let’s go in order, starting with the miniseries. This
is a good idea, which may be one reason we’re seeing networks sorta kinda doing this. CBS is planning a thirteen-episode limited series this summer based on Stephen King’s Under the Dome, while Fox has said it plans to do high-profile, short-run series by 2014. They’re not calling them miniseries, and they’re not airing all the episodes over the course of one or two weeks, as was the case with most (but not) all minis in the seventies and eighties. But the intent — tell a big story in a short amount of time — is the same. As for the idea of more made-for-TV movies: Don’t count on it any time soon. Problem is, it’s really hard to get viewers’ attention in the bazillion-channel, always-streaming universe. Networks are willing to spend the necessary dough to market a potential long-running series, but they argue it just doesn’t make sense to shell out tens of millions on ads for a one-off movie that may or may not draw a crowd. (Cable networks still do movies, but remember: They can repeat them endlessly). As for your Biography for Real People idea, it sounds like This Is Your Life, but in a slightly different form. I’d watch it, but I’m not sure such a concept is compelling enough to make it a big ratings draw. Unless, of course, these real folks happened to be hoarders who like to fish with their hands while watching their beauty-pageant daughters practice.

I’m surprised some genius at NBC hasn’t decided to just air repeats of older shows like Friends and Seinfeld, which seem to draw huge ratings in syndication. I could see them airing them one night a week, start to finish, as part of a “retro” comedy block, that would conceivably get higher ratings than anything else they’re airing. It would probably provide a better launch pad for newer shows at 9 or 10pm too. —PENNYWISE
You get me, Pennywise. I’ve been pitching this idea to anyone I know at the networks for years and am usually met with either stony silence or over-the-top laughter. Of course, this was before NBC started finishing in tenth place in prime time. The immediate argument against reviving TV classics in prime time is usually “Isn’t that what TV Land and Nick at Nite do?” My counter: No, what those networks do is chop up episodes of old shows, cut out big chunks to make room for commercials, and repeat them on an endless loop so that anyone in need of a quick nostalgia fix can get one. There is nothing wrong with this. But it’s also sad that TV has so little self-respect. The cinema has Turner Classic Movies, which honors feature films by airing them uncut and commercial-free and with an intro from George Clooney’s dad. There is no TV network that treats the small screen with similar respect. And that’s why I think a struggling network like NBC might benefit from a regular showcase of TV’s best. Why not rebroadcast the twenty best episode of
Cheers, complete with cast interviews and TV historians (they exist!) or current celebs discussing what made the show great? (“Lena Dunham Presents My Favorite Episode of The Golden Girls.”) Or how about re-creating a classic night of ABC’s TGIF or Must-See Thursday every once in a while? This would not be simple, since many shows have syndication contracts that give local stations or cable networks exclusivity. But I’d think that the added exposure in prime time could only serve to boost ratings for those syndication packages.

Broadcast isn’t doing so well because of silly restrictions imposed by the FCC and social culture. Imagine if NBC had Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, or those type of shows, NBC (and other major networks) would be doing great. But they can’t, because the FCC doesn’t allow broadcast to have profanity, nudity, or certain subject matters. —FLUSHINGTOILET
I couldn’t agree more. The current FCC restrictions are pretty ludicrous, particularly when kids can pull up all sorts of vile stuff on their iPhones. And while networks do use “public airwaves,” most viewers tune into their local network affiliates via cable, which isn’t subject to petty rules and the threat of endless legal trouble for a single wardrobe malfunction or a stray celebrity F-bomb. (Multiple graphic murders on a single episode of
The Following, however? Totally cool!) Those who worry the networks would turn into little HBOs if they weren’t restricted are also ignoring the example of basic cable: It doesn’t have FCC restrictions, but because it does have advertisers, it self-polices and keeps profanity and nudity under control. Having similar freedoms to cable wouldn’t be a panacea for broadcasters: You still need to do good shows. But it’s about time the playing field be leveled.

Just give Larry David and a cameraman a few hours alone in NYC. I guarantee you’d get something entertaining out of it. —BJSSP
I think HBO probably has Mr. David under some sort of a deal. But the concept of giving talented people access to a camera crew and some walking-around money could produce some interesting results. As other commenters have noted, it certainly worked with Louis CK and FX. Networks, of course, hate ceding creative control and love to meddle, meddle, meddle (see:
Up All Night). The lower their ratings get, however, the more likely they might be to take a leap.

Why doesn’t NBC just get out of scripted series altogether? Just have a lineup of … reality/variety/game shows? Lower ratings but much cheaper than scripted anyway. —BARTHOLOMEW
Sure, such a lineup would cost less, which would partially offset the lower ratings. And I pray every night for somebody to revive
The Match Game (as long as no Kardashians are allowed on the celebrity panel). But there are two big reasons such a strategy wouldn’t work. For one thing, while megahits such as American Idol or The Voice command premium ad rates, advertisers tend to pay more for scripted shows than they do for reality shows. Plus, there’s usually zero syndication value in non-scripted series. I Love Lucy is still making money for CBS. Repeats of Survivor? Not so much. Finally, would an NBC with no scripted series really be NBC?

What NBC needs to do is to STOP LISTENING to pitches from the SAME WHITE GUYS —JBELKIN
Well, in fairness,
Deception is a massive bomb, and it was created by a woman named Liz Heldens. But I think you’re right to suggest that NBC might have some success if it tried catering to groups not currently being targeted by the broadcast networks. Look at what’s happening in cable: VH1 has beaten network programming with its African-American-led reality shows such as T.I. & Tiny and Basketball Wives, while last week’s episode of BET’s Real Husbands of Hollywood virtually matched NBC’s Smash among viewers under 50 (and outrated it among those under 35). A few years back, repeats of The George Lopez Show sometimes drew close to 3 million viewers on Nick at Nite, which is more than NBC’s Do No Harm pulled in last Thursday. Even though most networks are run by Hollywood Liberals, broadcasters’ development slates often seem like they were put together by Mitt Romney. Diversity might not solve NBC’s problems, but it certainly couldn’t hurt.

Treat [the Internet] like the equal to broadcast. Premiere shows on the Internet on the same night and time as it shows up on the air —CHCONNOL
The big stumbling block for this idea is that networks don’t actually broadcast shows themselves; it’s local affiliates across the country that put them on the air. Affiliates don’t have the same power they once did, but putting shows on the web simultaneously would be taking away whatever small window of exclusivity these stations have.

Semi-reboot ER with Dr. John Carter’s treatment center as the setting. Or just reboot ER, one of the best shows in the history of mankind (try watching seasons 1-15 over 6 months and you’ll see what I mean … even the “bad years” were 100x better than what’s on now). —VANDEC
Well, Dr. Carter is currently busy on TNT’s
Dark Skies, so it’s unlikely Noah Wyle will be available for your first idea. But a reboot of ER isn’t a bad suggestion. There’s probably still equity in the name, and the emergency-room setting isn’t being used right now on any of the other current network medical dramas. The problem, however, could be that a revival might not be financially feasible. Steven Spielberg and the late Michael Crichton were executive producers of the show, and any reboot would have to get the blessing of Spielberg and Crichton’s estate. Assuming both signed off, each would likely command substantial producing fees, automatically making the show costlier than a typical first-year drama. What’s more, if a new version were to happen, there’s a good chance producer Warner Bros. TV might want to sell it to sister network TNT. Here’s one show that might be easier for NBC to revive: Quantum Leap. People love time travel, maybe even more than zombies!

The networks have shown such contempt for their audiences in the way they shuffle their schedules and cancel shows after creating interest in them, that they can’t expect a return in loyalty from the audience. The networks can’t expect people to watch shows and develop an interest in them if they are just going to be cancelled w/o finishing the job. —WISPERCH
This is a tough one. I agree with you in principle: Networks have often been too quick to pull shows that don’t immediately click with viewers, disappointing those who did get invested in the story line and training many of us to simply wait and see if a show gets enough buzz or a second season before jumping in. But they’ve become more patient in recent years: Series like
The Good Wife, Parenthood, and Fringe survived so-so early ratings to last multiple seasons. Vegas and Nashville haven’t become breakout hits, but CBS and ABC, respectively, keep airing them. Likewise, it’s hard to blame NBC for pulling Do No Harm after two weeks when it was clear viewers were simply rejecting the concept. In theory, the idea of airing all thirteen episodes of a new show is very appealing. In reality, keeping Nielsen losers on the air for three months is a really hard thing to do.

Why NOT go back to 7 nights a week? Not everyone goes out, not everyone just wants to watch reruns, movies or just crap. A network doesn’t have to spend a boatload of money to put on first-run entertainment, all they have to do is be willing to try. Saturday night could be an interesting place to watch something different instead of a night where giving up is more important to the bottom line. —TRMJR
It sounds good, but most networks (not Fox) would benefit from programming fewer hours, not more. I would love them to try something more innovative than repeats, like maybe a
Sabado Gigante–style variety show with lots of advertiser integration and giveaways. But it would have to pay for itself, since there’s little evidence that networks already struggling to hold on to viewers earlier in the week would be able to lure many folks back to a night they long ago gave up for dead.

Readers’ Theories About How to Save NBC