With labor troubles, a shrinking audience and no new hit shows in sight, network television is suffering one of its worst seasons ever. And the tough times show no signs of easing soon - bad news for viewers of the broadcasting giants.
Signaling the sense of network urgency, NBC will break with tradition and announce today a new year-round lineup of programs. But so far, more attention is being paid to how the struggling network is overhauling the way it schedules new series and courts increasingly skittish advertisers than to the shows themselves.
The network's action - abandoning a decades-old practice called "upfronts" - comes at the same time as it becomes clear that for the first season in memory there will be no new hit sitcom or drama to spur hope of better days ahead. It offers a snapshot of an industry in the midst of wrenching change and a downward spiral.
"After 50 years of doing business the same old way in network television, it's time to make a change," says Mitch Metcalf, NBC's executive vice president of program planning and scheduling, who helped craft the network's new strategy.
While some analysts like Metcalf contend that the Hollywood writers strike, which began in November and ended in February, makes this TV season an anomaly, others say the labor dispute merely accelerated major forces already sweeping across the media landscape.
"Whether you're talking about NBC's break with a traditional upfront or the lack of a new hit scripted series for any network this year, the message of everything we see happening around us these days is the same: This is a moment of historic change in network television," says Douglas Gomery, a University of Maryland media economist. "Beyond all the imperative for change driven by new technology, the loss of audience to cable alone this year would suggest that network TV desperately needs to find a new model for doing business."
The networks' audience of viewers 18 to 49 years of age is down 15 percent compared with a year ago.
While some executives have tried to dismiss that loss as solely the result of strike programming, Nielsen figures show that the number of young viewers had already declined by 12 percent before the strike - and that was with a new fall lineup of dozens of series debuting in September, October and November.
And the current 15 percent loss with the demographic advertisers most want comes on the heels of a 10 percent decline in that audience during the 2006-2007 network season.
Meanwhile, basic cable channels that carry commercials, such as TNT, Bravo, USA and Disney, are up more than 10 percent during the first three months of the year.
"The rise of the cable channels has changed the landscape for network TV in major ways," says Abe Novick, an executive at Euro RSCG, a global advertising agency headquartered in New York. "You have channels like FX, TNT and Bravo enjoying much success with different kinds of schedules and strategies, and that has caused the networks to rethink everything from upfronts to how many pilots they should make and how many shows they should premiere in the fall."
The upfronts, an industry ritual, involve TV executives and advertising buyers gathering each year at the end of May in lavish New York settings to unveil lineups of new fall shows and negotiate commercial spots for the coming season. Not only is NBC jumping the usual date by six weeks, it is avoiding a big-show presentation at Radio City Music Hall in favor of a scaled-down news conference at corporate headquarters - while also pulling back from the standard practice of putting vast resources into a fall slate of shows.
"From technology to lifestyle, there are lots of factors driving the change," says Gomery, a scholar in residence at the school's Library of American Broadcasting. "But you don't have to look any further than cable and network ratings to understand what's going on. Each week, cable and network ratings are moving closer and closer together. And there's a good reason: There is essentially no difference between a basic cable series like The Closer [TNT] and any top network drama - except top network dramas are getting harder to find."
Indeed, one of the patterns given added impetus by the strike is the move away from scripted dramas and sitcoms, which are among the most expensive forms of programming, to reality TV, a genre made up of shows that generally cost less than one-third as much to produce. As for the dramas that are in production, it appears that the networks are playing it safe and cheap - going for lighter, escapist fare and spinoffs of established shows.
That strategy, analysts say, all but guarantees a summer lineup and 2008-2009 season as lackluster as the one now playing - a prophecy already starting to fulfill itself.
This week, ABC announced a summer schedule that will include eight reality series and no new dramas. The reality series include another cycle of such low-end offerings as The Bachelorette and The Mole, as well as such new competition series as I Survived a Japanese Game Show, which will follow American contestants competing on game shows in Japan.
The lineup that NBC will announce today is expected to include a remake of the 1980s action-adventure series Knight Rider, which featured David Hasselhoff and a Pontiac. A two-hour film version scored big in February.
Other candidates for NBC in the fall: an update of Robinson Crusoe and a drama about a telepathic paramedic, The Listener. The latter is a co-production with a Canadian broadcaster, which suggests how focused NBC is on cutting production costs.
"Network TV can make cheaper programs, but if it cuts too far, it's not going to have much of a future," says Rafael Alvarez, a Hollywood writer and former Sun reporter who has witnessed television industry cuts firsthand since the writers strike ended. "My agent says every year it's a game of musical chairs in finding jobs for his clients. Since the strike, there are definitely fewer chairs."
While some network executives blame the lack of new scripted hits on the labor dispute with writers, analysts point to the last strike season in 1988-1989, when both Murphy Brown (CBS) and Roseanne (ABC) premiered and went on to become hits.
The nearest contender this year is ABC's Samantha Who with Christina Applegate. Before the strike, the sitcom was averaging 13 million viewers a night, but it was riding the coattails of Dancing with the Stars, the second most popular show on TV. Once Stars ended, Samantha plummeted to an audience of 7 million.
Network programmers have even put the one scripted hit series from 2006-2007 in jeopardy by holding back new episodes of the serialized drama Heroes (NBC) until October in favor of additional episodes of such highly rated reality fare as Deal or No Deal (NBC). Fox is doing the same with 24.
On the other hand, whether it created the dire situation or not, network TV now finds itself trapped in a cycle where reality TV is the only surefire, quick-buck winning formula. And in the end, for all the talk about "reinventing" the business model of network TV, success still comes down to having hits - just as it did 50 years ago.
The year-round schedule that NBC will announce today is not unprecedented. Fox has been doing something similar for three years - and winning the prime-time ratings race hands down as American Idol trounces all comers down the home stretch of the network season in April and May.
"I don't think of what we did as setting a template for the broadcasting business; we set a template for us," says Preston Beckman, executive vice president in charge of scheduling at top-rated Fox.
"We took some risks a couple of years ago, like making the decision not to start the fall with all new shows at one time - saving some for midseason and summer instead."
All NBC needs now for the same kind of success is to find the next American Idol - and no one's betting that it's among the new shows being announced today.
Highest-rated new scripted series
2007-2008: Samantha Who (ABC) 12.7 million (17th place overall)
2006-2007: Heroes (NBC) 14.3 million (21st place overall)
2005-2006: Criminal Minds (CBS) 15.5 million (14th place overall)
2004-2005: Desperate Housewives (ABC) 23.7 million (3rd place overall)
[Source: Nielsen Media Company]