Stupid Network Tricks

One of the stages of dealing with a problem is acceptance. If that’s the case, then NBC has finally confessed to a problem it’s been having for years. Although things aren’t going to get better for the network.

According to Time, NBC’s president earlier this week said the network would be moving away from creative, sophisticated shows (specifically naming Community) and try to focus on shows that could attract a broader audience. His network has actually been doing this for years, starting with deciding to run The Apprentice during the Thursday night comedy block about 10 seasons ago. They’ve made a number of similar decisions since (such as choosing the current host of the Tonight Show) and while they’ve had some creative, different shows (like the aforementioned Community), they haven’t done much to support or market them. And these shows they’ve aired for broader audiences haven’t always attracted viewers.

This declaration is seemingly reversing course for NBC. In the early 80s, NBC was last in the ratings and because it took a chance on many niche shows, by the end of the decade, it was the highest-rated network for more than 10 years. NBC thinks these shows with broader appeal will bring it more viewers. The thing is, it doesn’t always work that way. The creative shows, the shows people are passionate about are not always the same shows large audiences watch.  But they are the shows people invest in, whether it’s patronizing a sponsor to save a show (like the Save Chuck campaigns which made Subway a lot of money) or buying DVDs. The creative shows don’t always start out with a large viewer base, but that doesn’t mean it can’t grow into one.

Consider NBC’s biggest money maker of the past 20 years, Seinfeld. I’ve been watching a lot of Seinfeld DVDs recently so I’m familiar with the story- the pilot premiered in 1989 and the show didn’t develop a decent following until mid ’92. Additionally, were the pilot presented to NBC today, the network would take a huge pass on the show. The Seinfeld pilot tested horribly, with viewers complaining the show was “too New York” and “too Jewish,” hallmarks of a show that could be considered niche. Yet given time, the  show became the highest rated and helped NBC become the top rated network of the 90s.

Yet today, with the goal of a “broad audience,” shows like Seinfeld, The Cosby Show or Hill Street Blues (all revolutionary at the time that ended up being huge hits) would never have gotten on the air.

Warming Glow raises another good point, that with its new focus, NBC could also be giving up the edge in something important to advertisers, young viewers:

CBS is the highest rated network, but the average age of a CBS viewer is 52! Those old people are dying off. Nielsen ratings will soon be replaced with a more accurate ratings system. Streaming video on laptops, iPads, and smart phones is the future, and no one is going to stream f****king Two and a Half Men or Mike and Molly on their iPads. Who is going to download episodes 2 Broke Girls on iTunes?

You want to get the most bang out of your advertising buck? You need appointment viewing shows, and shows that are talked about on the Internet (Warming Glow is like a second marketing arm for NBC’s Community. No, strike that. NBC doesn’t actually market Community, so we’re their primary marketing team). Television sets should be considered a way for viewers to sample programming that they’ll get invested in enough to watch in other mediums, where we actually have to 1) buy an episode or download it, or 2) watch on the network websites were commercial skipping is not an option, 3) order seasons on DVD (or digital downloads), or 4) watch on Netflix or Amazon, which will pay huge licensing fees for them (in the future, Netflix and Amazon Instant will be the new syndication money).

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The way broadcast stations make money is based off of Neilsen numbers. But people don’t watch TV the same way they did when the Neilsen system is developed. I rarely watch live TV anymore. Even for shows like Community, I’ll watch it on my computer nine minutes after it starts so I can skip the commercials. And I’m sure I’m not the only person who does this.

I’m not the one with a billion-dollar broadcast network. So NBC can make its decision to keep shooting for the big (but not loyal) audience it will never get. Admitting a problem is one thing. Taking steps to fix the problem is another.

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