Friday, September 8, 2017

The end of the networks

A few years ago, faced with not one but two existential technological threats, industry observers started talking about the possible death of network television and the highly likely death of at least one of the majors.

In response, the networks panicked and released an enormous and embarrassing slate of new shows that demonstrated they had not only lost the ability to entertain and innovate, but to pander and steal with any degree of success. It was as if they were determined to prove all of the naysayers correct.

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It was 1979.

An unprecedented 36 new series premiered in the winter and spring (January-May) of 1979 on ABC, CBS and NBC, the most over a mid-season period since the early 1950s when there existed a fourth network, Du Mont. The driving force behind this new series glut was NBC’s legendary strategically aggressive programmer Fred Silverman. After solidifying CBS’s top-rated status earlier in the decade, then propelling ABC to overtake CBS and have it reign in the top spot for the first time in its history, Silverman moved in on hapless NBC to once more work his ratings magic on that network for a perfect trifecta victory. ABC and CBS, however, were determined to not allow that to happen and so churned out multiple new shows of their own. After all three networks launched their barrage of mostly terrible series, the prime-time battlefield by the summer had become littered with the slaughtered bodies of 26 of them.

Of course, new technology did erode the viewership of network television. Some of this can be explained through cannibalization, both in terms of the introduction of new networks and in terms of viewers consuming network-produced programming through other media, but even taking that into account, CBS, ABC, and NBC are still clearly pulling in fewer eyeballs than they did during the glory days of the 70s.

Inevitably, this erosion will reach a point where traditional network model is no longer viable. We could very well be looking at the last decade of the institution, but even if NBC disappeared tomorrow and the rest of its brethren quickly followed suit, it is still worth noting that (taking 1949 as a somewhat arbitrary ending point for the experimental period), the medium/business model spent more than half of its lifespan under a prognosis of imminent demise, and for most of those decades remained a viable and arguably dominant player.

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