Innovations, er, “Innovations” from broadcast networks — Conclusions

Well, here we are. After nearly two months, I’m finally getting around to the conclusion section of my broadcast innovations research, at least for now.

So now I’m left wondering, did we learn anything from all this?Obviously, I’m not so naive that I think any research I’ve done is reinventing even the smallest of wheels, but I do believe there are a few bits of information we can take from it all that might not only tell us where the broadcast networks have been, but also where they are going.

First, let’s check out some of the combined stats for all four networks over the five-year period.

Total number of series aired: 263; number of series that lasted more than one season: 72 (27.3%)

Per format, with percentage of success in parenthesis:

  • Drama: 107 (35 made it more than one season or 31%)
  • Competition Reality: 41 (3 or 7%)
  • Single camera Sitcom: 33 (13 or 41%)
  • Multi-camera Sitcom: 26 (7 or 27%)
  • Reality: 25 (4 or 16%)
  • Game: 22 (8 or 36%)
  • Animated: 5 (2 or 40%)
  • Anthology: 2 (0 or 0%)
  • Talk: 1 (0 or 0%)
  • Secret Camera: 1 (0 or 0%)

Though we hear about the failures of pilots and first season series, putting five years worth of data together really slams that point home. In one respect it is insane to think that between ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC, nearly 300 new series have aired in five years, but because things have been yanked so quickly and generally so bad quality-wise on the broadcast nets, it’s also not that shocking at all.

What does stand out for me is the reliance on the one hour drama series, which still dominates as the most popular type of program to air. Not that I think the result is that shocking, but if someone were to ask me to name more than a handful of recent (i.e. in the last five years) broadcast dramas that aired for more than more season, it’d be difficult. Instead, the words drama series automatically recall Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire, hell, even Damages or The Closer. Not The Philanthropist or Day Break. And that’s why the cable channels are cleaning up during awards season.

But what — if anything — should the broadcast networks do to improve their drama series stock? I’m honestly not sure. It’s easy for me to come here and say they need to be more patient with struggling ratings and more willing to let writers and producers do their thing so series can find their footing and voice. But with a collapsing business model thanks to DVR- and online-powered declining ad revenues and the lack of second revenue stream that cable companies enjoy, it’s understandable for the broadcast networks to think about things more with their pockets than their minds.

This is especially true when each network is part of a larger media conglomerate that also owns successful cable companies that the umbrella corporation would probably love to succeed more — again, remember that extra revenue stream — and also have lower expectations for success. So while NBC has struggled mightily over the past five years, USA and Bravo have not, meaning NBCUniversal doesn’t quite care as much about those Peacock problems. Same goes for Disney’s ownership of ABC.

And thus, that’s why we’ve seen the reality competition, reality and game series stay popular at least in the network perspective. Those formats are cheap and easily adapted across countries, networks, etc. But my goodness are those types of programs not successful — or at least not on the broadcast networks. Instead, just like the drama series, people have turned to the cable channels for their reality television in many ways. Bravo, VH1, MTV, TLC, HGTV and loads of other cable outlets bring us the best (read: worst) kind of reality content that appeals to enough to build buzz and good-for-cable ratings.

So if the broadcast networks can’t beat cable with drama and can’t beat them with reality, what in the hell can they do? Is the broadcast model of television actually broken beyond repair?

Based on this evidence, the answer could damn well be “yes.” There has been little to no innovation in actual format over this five-year period and in an era of convergence, the broadcast powers couldn’t afford to stagger through transition. They seemingly can’t win with the most respected type of program the medium provides or the supposed worst either. Instead, the four networks are trapped somewhere in the middle, trying to play catch-up to cable channels that are oftentimes their corporate cousins.

Broadcast television is no longer the crown jewel of a media company, but just a middle-of-the-road cog in a large machine. And though it’s disappointing to continuously bring up the business side when talking about the content side, at this point, the lack of second revenue stream is the giant, red ink-painted elephant in the room. Without the money, broadcast television will not change, will not evolve in the way it could and sink further away from what viewers want and what critics enjoy.

I might come back with more conclusions tomorrow, but wanted to get this first — and possibly only — batch of thoughts up now. I hope you’ve enjoyed all this because it’s the type of thing I’d like to continue here at TV Surveillance.

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