The Wall Street Journal recently ran a story on NBC’s big gamble on Jay Leno. Leno’s new show, debuting Monday, at 10 PM (Eastern-Pacific) and running from Monday through Friday, will have substantially lower ad rates. From $137,000 per 30 second spot, for “Law and Order SVU” last October, to between $55,000 and $75,000 for a 30 second spot on Leno’s show (in the same time period). This amounts to a drop of between 45% and 60% in the ad rates. Clearly, advertisers don’t expect many people to be watching, and those that do to be older (and therefore set in their brand preferences). The article further notes that collectively, ABC, CBS, and NBC’s audience has declined 23% from the numbers three seasons ago (2005). NBC declined 20% in that hour from 2007-2008 (ironically, the year the writer’s strike decimated scripted television around October).
But buried in the numbers, is the story of the revenge of the audience. In the 2006-2007 season, the audience started leaving network television at that hour (FOX does not broadcast shows from 10-11 pm). The networks put on generally poor entertainment (with a few notable exceptions) and the audience responded by not watching.
Note this collapse preceded the writer’s strike (ill-conceived, and worse managed) that alienated or taught viewers not to watch the networks at 10-11 pm. Some did worse, while others managed a slight rally. ABC is down a full 26% from the 2005-2006 season lineup. In 2005 ABC had the following 10-11 pm shows: Grey’s Anatomy, part of Monday Night Football (on the East Coast), What About Brian, Boston Legal, Invasion, Primetime Live, 20/20. In 2008 ABC had Brothers and Sister, Boston Legal, Eli Stone, Dirty Sexy Money, Life on Mars, and 20/20.
For ABC, sending Monday Night Football to ESPN was a stupid move. The ostensible reason (ABC wanted to become a “female only” network and promote “Desperate Housewives” without the bother of Monday Night Football interfering with ABC’s fall schedule) was a failure to think strategically. Desperate Housewives aged, rapidly, and will end (reportedly) in May 2011. Hardly a match for Monday Night Football’s reliable 30 year run at ABC, and continuing attraction to male sports fans, year after year after year.
Also aging in appeal was Grey’s Anatomy, Boston Legal, and 20/20, one of many cable and network magazine “news” shows. Brothers and Sisters, Eli Stone, Dirty Sexy Money, and Life on Mars were outright flops. While only What About Brian and Invasion were flops in 2005. ABC has declined steadily, though not much in 2008-2009 from the previous strike year, with Brothers and Sisters, the Bachelor, Boston Legal, Dirty Sexy Money, Big Shots, and 2o/20 in the strike-shortened lineup. Clearly, ABC bet heavily on the female audience, to the exclusion of nearly anything that would appeal to men (at least in that 10-11 pm timeslot) and suffered fairly steady losses from 2005, although the network did about the same the year after the writer’s strike as the year of the strike.
CBS, which 29% more viewers 10-11 pm than ABC, and 10% more viewers than NBC at that hour, dropped a whopping 35% from its 2005-2006 audience. Viewers like what CBS had to offer in 2005-2006, and then they did not. CBS, like ABC, did nearly the same the year after the writer’s strike as the year before, their two big losses were the 2006-2007 season, and the 2007-2008 season (the writer’s strike). It’s understandable why CBS would lose nearly 900,000 viewers in the writer’s strike season, or about 22% of viewers from the prior season, but what prompted the loss of one million viewers during the 10-11 pm time period from the 2005-2006 season to the the 2006-2007 season? A loss, moreover, of 20%? CBS in 2005-2006 had: part of the CBS Sunday Movie, CSI Miami, Close to Home, CSI NY, Without a Trace, NUMB3RS, 48 Hours Mystery, and mid-season, the Unit. The following season (2006-2007), CBS had: Without a Trace, CSI Miami, Smith, CSI New York, Shark, and NUMB3RS.
CBS had a couple of flops, but CSI Miami did nearly as well in the ratings in the following season as the year before (2005-2006 vs. 2006-2007). Without a Trace lost about 4 million viewers that year (from 2005-2006, to 2006-2007). CSI NY had very little drop-off in terms of viewers. So too, NUMB3RS had little drop-off. The flops, and the poor performance of Without a Trace that year, led viewers to abandon CBS and not come back. While CBS, alone of it’s competitors, staged a rally at 10-11 pm last season, after the writer’s strike taught audiences not to watch network television, the rally was modest, only a 3% improvement.
NBC’s drop has been stunning, and very uneven. From 2005-2006, to 2008-2009, NBC’s audience dropped 1.6 million viewers at 10-11 pm. That is a drop of 35%, easily matching CBS’s fall. NBC has the reputation of the least-watched network, but a mere four years ago, it was very close to CBS in terms of viewers, only 10% lower in viewers at the 10-11 pm hour. Moreover, NBC, after losing 21% of it’s 2005-2006 viewers in the 2006-2007 season, posted a 3% gain in 2007-2008, largely over shows such as Life and Chuck that attracted new (read: Male) viewers to the network. With the strike, however, NBC just could not keep these viewers. NBC in 2005-2006 had Crossing Jordan, Medium, Law and Order SVU, Law and Order, and Inconceivable in the 10-11 pm slots. The following season, NBC had part of Sunday Night Football, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Law and Order SVU, Kidnapped, ER, and Law and Order.
Certainly, something happened between the 2005-2006 season and the season thereafter, to turn substantial amounts of viewers away from network television at the hour (and likely, from network television altogether). ABC had the fewest viewers to start, but lost only 26% of it’s viewers from 2005-2006. CBS and NBC had substantially more viewers than ABC, and lost more, both dropping 35% from 2005-2006 to 2008-2009. Both networks experienced their biggest drop in viewers at 10-11 pm the season of 2006-2007. Both had costly flops (though so did ABC), but there the similarities end. NBC actually rallied slightly, unlike CBS, in the strike year of 2007-2008. With various male-oriented action-drama series, particularly Life and Chuck, NBC had a “halo effect” and “Life,” “Journeyman,” and “Las Vegas” had definite appeal to men. Life did alright the first season, considering the issues of the writers strike and scheduling. Journeyman less well, Las Vegas not particularly well.
It seems striking looking at the graph, however, that something definitely happened between the start of the fall season in 2005, and the end of the 2006-2007 season in August, to drive away millions of viewers who used to watch network TV. Perhaps CBS’s “Crimetime” police procedural shows got old and tired, and NBC’s Law and Orderen family to repetitive and boring. The danger with franchises is that eventually, and particularly with scripted entertainment, as opposed to sports, viewers want novelty and excitement, and seek it elsewhere. A good deal of the decline of CBS and NBC can be traced to poor shows, and NBC’s brief, strike-shortened rally, traced to two shows that generated buzz and excitement (“Chuck” and “Life”) and created a halo effect around the network.
But if this article is correct, much of NBC and CBS’s problems are structural younger men are not watching. Certainly the networks have gotten older and noticeably much older than cable networks that have shows to attract younger viewers. CBS has responded by doubling down on its Crimetime with an NCIS spin-off, and targeting women with a pick-up of the canceled NBC show Medium, new shows the Good Wife and Three Rivers. NBC has added new shows Mercy and Trauma, and of course Jay Leno at 10 pm, Monday through Friday.
All this is of course, merely a band-aid over a bleeding wound. Strange as it may seem, once upon a time, all three networks actually ran new, scripted shows on SATURDAY. Yes, Saturday. Once upon a time, highly rated shows such as the Bob Newhart Show, the Love Boat, Fantasy Island, all ran on Saturday. The last network to run new programming on Saturday was CBS in 2003-2004, NBC last running new programming in 1999-2000, and ABC last running new programming in 1998-1999. Of course FOX runs America’s Most Wanted and COPS on Saturdays, but neither are scripted shows.
The networks, much like American coffee roasters in the 1960’s, using cheap robusta beans instead of costlier (but tastier) arabica beans, have weaned whole sections of the audience off their product. Younger men in particular are the most likely explanation of why both CBS and NBC had such a downturn in viewers after the 2005-2006 season. There may simply have been a tipping point where younger male viewers simply turned away from network television. The easiest thing in the world is simply to not watch, and DVDs, online material (in whatever form), video games, and the like offer ample substitutions for a younger male audience fleeing what rapidly became a gay-female ghetto: network television.
None of this happened overnight. ABC had a few shows (most of their schedule in the 1990’s were female-skewing sitcoms) through 1995-96 that appealed to men. This, was, notably, well inside the cable television era. Easy money chasing the “New Girl Order” allowed execs to avoid making hard decisions to keep or woo the male audience, particularly the young male audience. Like the coffee roasters simply “accepting” loss of a generation or three of customers, the networks allowed men and particularly young men to drift away. As late as the early 1990’s, network schedules had shows such as “Sledge Hammer!” and “McGyver” and “The Young Riders.” Too much easy money in the 1990’s, left the networks exposed for a sustained downturn.
Now, further cost-cutting (in the case of NBC for the Jay Leno show) and derivative, mostly female-oriented shows for CBS and NBC, promise even lower ratings and the prospect of serious trouble. All three networks have basically conceded any effort to reverse losses, looking merely to lose viewers more slowly, than regain them back.
First, Saturdays were conceded, after the 2003-2004 season, by the last hold-out, CBS. Then male viewers were deemed un-necessary. Then, male-oriented action left the schedule. Sadly, almost no Fall 2009 shows except NCIS and the NCIS spin off feature any real male-oriented action at all, a sharp contrast from the schedule of 1999-2000 which featured male-action “Angel,” “the Pretender,” “Martial Law,” “Walker, Texas Ranger,” “Nash Bridges,” “Harsh Realm,” and “Seven Days.” Seven male skewing action-adventure shows versus only two, both from the same franchise.
This is a recipe for irrelevance. Already, cable networks are growing in audience, and people are viewing online various movies (and current and older TV series) on their own schedule. Cable networks have younger, and more male viewers. Certainly shows like “Burn Notice” and “Psych” have a larger male following than say, “Desperate Housewives.”
The current audience of women, a few older folks, and tween girls (the CW network) is not enough to sustain anything more than continued losses. Unlike newer cable networks such as USA or FX, the broadcast networks have large, built-in costs, including news divisions, owned and operated stations, and a pricey affiliate structure. Unlike online sites such as Hulu, networks cannot serve many disparate audiences and viewers at once. The end of the 2005-2006 season may have been an inflection point, a time when younger male audiences felt the networks “jumped the shark” and left for greener pastures.
This doesn’t mean they cannot come back, anymore than the failure of Folgers and Maxwell House to make good coffee in the 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s meant that America would never drink coffee again. But it is unlikely that the new entertainment “Starbucks” will be named NBC, ABC, CBS, or even FOX. Far more likely is a combination of cable or online ventures breaking through to mass popularity by serving men and boys along with women and girls, relegating the broadcast networks (in a time of recession, when cheap and free is something generally preferred by customers) to Folgers status.
And that, never mind Jay Leno, is no joke.