If I Ran a Broadcast Network: A Lamentation on the Current State of Broadcast Television

posted Oct 3, 2013, 2:04 AM by Terrence Moss   [ updated Aug 16, 2014, 9:34 AM ]
There was a time when slogging through the summer doldrums of TV reruns was rewarded with the return of our favorite shows and the premiere of some exciting new ones.

Perhaps because there were only three major TV networks until the late 1980s, it seemed that NBC, ABC and CBS had a better pulse on what audiences wanted to see – broad, mass appeal comedies with characters we wanted to check in on week after week and riveting story-driven dramas that kept us tuning in week after week.

Perhaps audiences tastes have changed – the success of The Big Bang Theory, which experienced its highest ratings in its sixth season, and NCIS, which hit #1 in the Nielsen ratings after its TENTH season, clearly notwithstanding. Or perhaps network executives THINK that all their research, focus groups, misplaced focus on younger demos, over-reliance on the same the same worn-out premises and ridiculously high-octane, low-mileage series concepts is what audiences want to see on television these days.

I was so terribly disappointed in this year’s TV development season that, for the first time, the most I could muster up was ambivalence about the new fall season. So if I ran a broadcast network”, I’d make a few seemingly radical changes to move a bit further ahead of TV’s evolutionary curve:

LIVE FROM NEW YORK…AND LOS ANGELES…AND WHEREVER ELSE. Their competitive elements may be a factor, but The Super Bowl, Sunday Night Football, The Academy Awards, American Idol, The Voice and America’s Got Talent prove that live television not only generates interest but can also provide a boost in overall viewership. This isn’t as solidly proven with scripted television, but Saturday Night Live certainly continues to generate buzz (both positive and negative) as it approaches its 40th season -- as did the live 30 Rock episodes in 2010 and 2012.

Reality-competition series and specials carry a greater sense of urgency for viewers to tune-in since they’re not as readily available online the following day or week – if at all. But viewers will still tune in to watch a live episode as it airs – if for no other reason than to be among the first to spot, tweet and post online any mistakes that are made as well as any unexpected moments that may occur. 

Therefore, I suggest an expanded slate of live programming – regularly scheduled character-driven sitcoms in the tradition of All in the Family, early Roseanne and Everybody Loves Raymond, one-act dramatic teleplays in the vain of the well-regarded anthologies of the 1950s, limited-run series that don’t require much by way of sets and effects as well as other comedy, drama, music and variety specials.

BEAUTY IS ONLY SKIN DEEP, BUT TALENT IS TO THE BONE. Of course, what makes Saturday Night Live work (when it does) and the live 30 Rock episodes such standouts (particularly the first one – if for no other reason than Julia Louis-Dreyfus making a cameo as Liz Lemon in flashback) is the fact that many, if not all members of their respective casts have backgrounds in live performance.

Such was the case with many of the stars of early television. And not only were their programs well-received in those days, that work is still fondly remembered and appreciated -- even if moreso by baby boomers and those such as myself who study television. Unfortunately, since the prevailing mindset in those days was that no one would want to see the same thing twice, a lot of this great work was either taped over or discarded and therefore lost to the ages. 

It will take this kind of talent for the network to execute such an expansion of its live programming slate as opposed to just pretty faces and sexy bodies who probably won’t know what to do when they or someone else forgets a line or when a prop doesn’t work or when a set door doesn’t cooperate.

Granted, a pretty face and a sexy body are nice to look at and television will always make room for shows and roles that are primarily about that, but they will never be as engaging to watch without some semblance of talent backing it up. Beauty fades as does audience interest in it because at a certain point, even the most unsophisticated of them are going to want to see more from a performer than just that.

AVOID STAR VEHICLES. We’ve heard it many times before – “so and so returns to television” with a new something or other about this, that and the other thing (usually with a lot of unnecessary fanfare because hype is king for those who don’t know any better – or choose not to).

There are many beloved actors and actress out there, but lightning doesn’t generally strike twice and much-heralded returns to television can become embarrassing debacles. 

Creating a series or developing a role and then pursuing a well-known star because they're right for it is one thing. Building an entire series around them just because they're a big name is quite another. And more often than not, the latter becomes The Geena Davis Show or The Michael Richards Show instead of The Carol Burnett Show or The Cosby Show.

Kevin Bacon had some success with The Following last season. This season Greg Kinnear, Robin Williams, Sean Hayes and Michael J. Fox throw their household names into TV's three ring circus with their respective new shows Rake (on FOX), The Crazy Ones (on CBS), Sean Saves the World (on NBC) and The Michael J. Fox Show (also on NBC).

(2/19 UPDATE: Rake is struggling on FOX. The Crazy Ones is being out-rated by its 11-year-old lead-out Two and a Half Men on CBS. Sean Saves the World has been unfortunately cancelled and The Michael J. Fox Show has been pulled from the schedule.)

Create the concept and then find the star – if you must have one at all. Focus on developing new talent rather than mining Hollywood for the same personalities we may love but have already seen so many times before. There’s plenty of room for both. Give the newcomers a shot and then bring out the stars for guest appearances in those live one-act dramatic teleplays or comedy, music and variety specials that will drive the bulk of this network’s programming slate.

RECOGNIZE AN UNSUSTAINABLE PREMISE WHEN YOU SEE ONE. Every year, hundreds of comedies and dramas are pitched. Every year, dozens of series go to pilot. Every year, a handful makes it on the air. Every year, I wonder why and how some of them did.

Misfit friends decide to start going out and having fun on Friday nights. A single mother takes over her son’s little league team. An unhappily married woman has an affair. A rookie FBI profile goes up against the world’s most wanted fugitive. A surgeon’s family is held hostage by a rogue FBI agent.

These five series concepts sound like movie premises or miniseries at best. Does anyone at the networks ask the question as to what’s going to happen throughout the first season let alone where these stories are supposed to go in the second or even the third? If not, they should. If so, they need to re-adapt these series into limited-run programs or “event” movies – which is another format that could suit this network quite well, especially if they’re live.

IXNAY ON THE EALITYRAY. There was a time when so-called reality television wasn’t such a drain on the collective soul and mind of society. It existed (particularly during the early days of FOX), but it was far more reviled than celebrated as it is today. PBS/FOX’s American High and NBC’s The Restaurant were low-rated standouts in the unscripted genre before it became more about creating drama (or the allusion of it) rather than telling a compelling story using elements of drama. 

So you’re not seeing much by way of this type of unscripted programming on the broadcast networks right now – especially since cable took that baton and ran the genre into the ground as a celebration of idiocy and over-the-top histrionics.

But the competition sub-genre has fared a lot better on broadcast: FOX’s American Idol had a heyday that lasted longer than the entire run of most scripted TV shows but has fallen off the relevance cliff over the last few seasons. NBC’s The Voice has risen from its ashes while CBS’s The Amazing Race, ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, NBC’s The Biggest Loser, FOX’s Hell’s Kitchen and the Grand Poobah of the sub-genre, CBS’s Survivor, continue to serve as the foundation of it.

Reality television as such isn’t the problem; the problem is the broadcast network’s over-reliance on competition programs to fill their schedules. Yes, they’re cheaper to produce. And yes, they’re generally more popular than their scripted counterparts. But broadcast television as a whole cannot secure its future by focusing primarily on its shaky present.


AND WHILE YOU’RE AT IT, IXNAY ON THE EMAKESRAY. Knight Rider on NBC. The Munsters on NBC (which mercifully never made it to series, but did air as a special last fall). Prime Suspect on NBC. And Bionic Woman on NBC. All are the latest in a long line of failed TV remakes. The new Hawaii Five-O on CBS has experienced some middling success on Monday nights, but that has been owed largely to the strength of the comedy lineup leading into it than any genuine interest in a remake of the original 1968-1980 series.

This fall we can look forward to a remake of the 1967-1975 series Ironside that starred Raymond Burr of Perry Mason fame and news of a remake of the 1969-1974 comedy anthology series Love, American Style.

I’ve always said and always will maintain that there are PLENTY of great TV series ideas out there to render any remakes unnecessary. With that in mind, even if the broadcast networks are looking for concepts that already carry some built-in audience, it makes no sense that they look to decades-old TV series the younger viewers they continue to pursue have, in all likelihood, never even heard of.

Therefore, the sensible thing to do is to simply avoid the remakes altogether. Even if the remakes are the network’s attempts to maintain the older viewership they’ve otherwise largely abandoned, I’m more than certain they’d just prefer the original versions anyway.

IT’S ABOUT THE AUDIENCE, NOT THE DEMOS. This is a dying horse that just won’t die. So I have to keep beating it. I don’t know where the focus on demographics came from and I don’t care. In a BROADcast medium, the focus should be on the VIEWERS – all of them, not just the younger ones who NO LONGER WATCH TELEVISION THE SAME WAY PREVIOUS GENERATIONS DID. Save the demographic targeting for the cable networks, which are generally created for specific segments of the general audience. 

So while going for a large general audience may create a lot of perceived waste (if having more viewers than you need can be thought of as waste), consider this: for the 2012-2013 TV season, CBS’s NCIS averaged a 3.3 in the so-called all-important A1849 demo with an average of more than 19 million total viewers. In the meantime, FOX’s Glee, which specifically aims to be more demo-friendly, only averaged a 2.2 rating in that metric with an average of less than 6 million viewers over that same time period.

So why aim for specific demographics only to generate a 2.2 when you can aim for a broader audience and generate a 3.3? Granted, Glee is considered a lot hipper, cooler and more buzzy than NCIS, but it’s the latter program that has quietly spent the last five seasons in Nielsen’s Top 5 while the former continues to downtrend even in its target demographic.

Call me crazy, but I’ll sacrifice being hip, cool and buzzy in order to draw three times as many viewers. Besides, it’s harder to stay hip, cool and buzzy in a society where those factors can change on an almost daily basis than it is to maintain overall viewership, which tends to be far more stable. And despite the concerns of continued audience fragmentation and competition from cable, the internet and mobile leading to declines in that overall viewership, the viewers are there – as long as there is reason for them to tune in.

IF OUR LIVES CAN’T ALWAYS BE STABLE, AT LEAST THE TV SCHEDULES SHOULD BE. Believe it or not, there was a time when a 39-week TV season meant upwards to 39 weeks of shows. But over the last 60 years, that number dwindled to 22 – and in the case of some star vehicles, even less than that because they don’t even want to commit to what is now considered a full season. 

But the problem with a 22-episode season isn’t so much the number of episodes as it is stretching out those 22 episodes over what is still a 39-week TV season. The result is 17 weeks of repeats, particularly in March and April, and it becomes harder and harder to know when a new episode will air regardless as to the amount of promotion for it.

The solution is simple though. Split these 22-episode seasons into two (which ABC has announced they’re going to attempt this upcoming season): 11 for in the fall and 11 in the spring. Save the winter weeks in between to bring back returning series to replace any cancelled series and to premiere new series that were held for midseason. Not only does it reduce the number of repeats and shift the bulk of them back to the summer months, it creates more stability for the schedule throughout those 39 weeks.

KNOW WHEN IT’S TIME TO LET A SHOW GO. Understanding that syndication is where a series makes the bulk of its money, you want as many episodes as possible. And when you have a rare hit series on your air, you want it to last as long as possible – especially if it’s helping the network keep ahead of the competition and advertisers are willing to pay more than a mint to air an already expensive commercial in that expensive program. 

But none of it should be at the expense of the legacy of the show itself. When the star or the ensemble cast is ready to move on, why continue to throw money at them? Let them go and hope you’ve nurtured, are nurturing or will soon nurture your next hit.

SUMMER. SUMMER. SUMMERTIME. In the early days of television, shows that signed off for the season were replaced by other shows that filled in for them over the summer. Then, with the arrival of the rerun, summer on broadcast was filled with repeats of episodes from the just-concluded TV season. In recent years, particularly since the cable networks gained a foothold on it, the broadcast networks have started to recommit to original programming during the summer months between broadcast TV seasons. 

That commitment for the most part has been reality shows and burn-offs of series that didn’t make it onto the fall, winter or spring schedules. FOX’s American Idol and CBS’s Survivor debuted in the summer before being upgraded to the regular season while CBS’s Big Brother, FOX’s So You Think You Can Dance and NBC’s America’s Got Talent have become summer staples.

But where for art the scripted programs? Despite their success on the cable side, the broadcast networks haven’t shown themselves as willing to fully commit to airing worthwhile scripted programs during the summer. Rookie Blue has quietly aired on ABC for four seasons so far and Unforgettable made a summer return on CBS after being cancelled last year. But it’s been CBS’s success this summer with Under the Dome that may be the best argument for making taking that next step toward serious investment in scripting programming during the summer. Combined with reruns of popular shows as well as promising new ones that just need the extra exposure to solidify it for the fall and you have a worthwhile summer slate.

So instead of the networks premiering what they think are their most promising shows on in the fall, spread the wealth throughout the TV season and into the summer. THAT would be a true commitment to summer programming instead of typical broadcast network lip-service.

Of course, I’ve not worked out the financials of all this and I don’t care. All the research, focus groups and algorithming can’t take the place of experience. But this broadcast network will at least TRY it. And if it doesn’t work, it will try something else. Either way, it’s going to attempt to survive in this rapidly ever-evolving medium they call television.