‘Major’ TV Networks on Verge of Fading to Black

Originally posted: March 30, 2013

jeff-mccall-ndy-oct12Network broadcast television has been in a downward spiral for years, but the recent disastrous ratings from the sweeps period had to shock even the most hopeful executives of the big four networks. Networks ratings dropped 23 percent compared to a year ago, and all four broadcast networks experienced losses.

Viewers are ditching ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox in droves, giving their eyeballs to cable shows, DVDs, video games and the Internet. Traditional broadcast television just isn’t relevant for most Americans any more.

Cable channels that used to cater to narrow audiences are grabbing for a mass audience. A formerly niche channel, History, is stealing more than 10 million viewers a week with “The Bible.” A&E’s third season debut of “Duck Dynasty” reached almost 9 million, way more than most network fare.

NBC’s ratings drop is the most dramatic, finishing the sweeps in fifth place, even behind the Spanish-language Univision. No NBC show rated in the top 25. No NBC show during February came within a million viewers of PBS’ “Downton Abbey.” NBC’s highest-rated show that month was “Saturday Night Live.” Really weak.

The other “major” networks aren’t gloating. They can tell that NBC is just the first canary to suffer in this coal mine.

McCall Book Taking Control-212x321Their struggles can be attributed partially to the larger menu of video options and the many technologies available to deliver entertainment. Also contributing to the demise, however, are the strategic blunders made in network headquarters. Network producers culturally disconnected from viewers over the years, sitting in corporate towers to cook up crazy shows and plots by having discussions with people just like themselves.

Network producers believed the way to make a crime drama more viewable was to inject more violence and creepiness. Former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow complained in 1961 about “blood and thunder, mayhem, violence” in crime shows. The Peter Gunn of that era would look like Mr. Rogers today. Today’s crime dramas feature morally vacuous antiheroes and women plunging ice picks into their eyes. Two-thirds of prime-time shows feature violence.

Networks decided that situation comedies would be more hilarious if they could get more potty humor and sex jokes into the dialogue. That’s easier than having to develop clever comedy. CBS’ failed sitcom “$#*! My Dad Says” should have been a signal that over-the-air viewers weren’t ready for such locker room comedy, but now reports suggest that ABC is developing a sitcom tentatively called “Dumb F**k.”

Except for the added graphic violence and raunchy language, the networks really never left their 1950s heyday, relying largely on the same genres and programming strategies of that era, which were borrowed from the radio programs of the 1940s.

So, the broadcast network entertainment model is irreversibly broken and will soon drift off into the history books. Networks will soon just distribute programming via cable, satellite and Internet, becoming bit players in the video universe. In the greater scheme of American society, this is hardly a big deal. It does, however, signal the end of an era in which network television provided the nation with common cultural experiences.

In many ways, the country has become polarized politically and culturally, with people separating into smaller corners of the nation’s fabric. No medium today can provide the kinds of shared experiences that television used to provide.

TV Generic OffIn the 1950s, nearly every American knew who Lucille Ball was and when she had her baby. More than half of the country watched her sitcom. Even in the 1980s, Bill Cosby’s show attracted more than a third of all Americans each week to watch a lighthearted family talk with us about life’s loving moments. When major news events happened, everybody saw the update.

Families used to gather around one television to share a program. Now family members are in separate rooms watching widely differing shows on various electronic devices. Coworkers used to gather at the water cooler to laugh about Bret Maverick or wonder who shot J.R. Ewing. Now, odds are that no two coworkers watch the same shows. The nation has to look elsewhere to find messages that unify us and provide for common culture, if that is possible any more.

by Jeffrey M. McCall, professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, and author of Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences. Contact him at jeffmccall@depauw.edu. On Twitter: @Prof_McCall

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