By Alan Pergament
As the broadcast networks start introducing the new series they plan to premiere in the fall and in midseason of 2014, I'm more than a little worried about their futures.
That’s because Western New York, which has been traditionally one of the stronger markets for series carried by the Big Four of CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox, seems to be losing interest in network prime time shows at an alarming rate.
On Wednesday night, a Final 3 episode of "American Idol" didn’t even get a 5 rating on WUTV, the local Fox affiliate. "Idol" averaged four times that rating in its prime. Now even judge Randy Jackson has seen the handwriting on the wall and has announced he is leaving next season.
"Hannibal," which has gotten some of the best reviews of the season, didn’t even a get a 2 rating last week on Channel 2, the local NBC affiliate. On the same night, Channel 2’s 10 p.m. news on WUTV out-rated NBC’s 10 p.m. program on Channel 2, and that happens more than occasionally.
ABC’s "Scandal," a hot show nationally, got about a 4 rating last week on Channel 7, the local ABC affiliate.
These days, ratings for many prime time broadcast network shows are typically in the 2-6 range locally, which is dangerous territory considering the millions spent producing them.
In the first two weeks of the May sweeps, ABC affiliate Channel 7 is down 25 percent from a year ago in prime time despite its network's national success, Fox affiliate WUTV is down 15 percent and CBS affiliate is down 7 percent. NBC affiliate Channel 2 is flat from a year ago, largely due to the success of "The Voice" and "Revolution."
Of course, the broadcast networks series get more secondary viewership on DVRs but that viewership isn’t as valuable as live viewership because the commercials can be fast-forwarded -- and commercials finance the series.
And DVR viewership only went up 16 percent here during the first two weeks of the May sweeps, with the rating gain about half of all the losses in live viewership.
Things are so bad that network are hanging on to aging shows like "Bones" on Fox and "Two and a Half Men" and "CSI" on CBS because they know that there probably won’t be anything new that can approach the ratings they receive.
To make matters worse, younger viewers courted by advertisers have no loyalty to the networks and often prefer more outlandish cable offerings on AMC, MTV, Comedy Central and other channels.
I get evidence of that at every semester teaching at local colleges. It is rare when any of my students tell me they watch any broadcast network series besides "How I Met Your Mother" or "Revolution" this season. More often, they tell me they love "The Walking Dead" and "Breaking Bad" on AMC, "Game of Thrones" on HBO, "House of Cards" on Netflix and several MTV reality shows that you would have to pay me to watch.
Of course, the loss of the young isn’t the only problem.
The time-shifting available because of On Demand, DVRs and other methods means that there isn’t any show that is immediately must-see TV or watercooler TV because they all can be watched at our convenience on some other day.
Additionally, the broadcast networks seem to rely on the same people to produce new shows, rather than seek new blood. Fox’s recently-announced schedule is loaded with familiar TV producers, including J.J. Abrams ("Alias," "Revolution," "Fringe") and Bill Lawrence ("Scrubs" and "Cougar Town"). Abrams also has a new NBC series coming.
The situation sort of reminds me of the cell phone commercial that frequently runs and ends with the the joke that if old people are using a certain brand then young people have moved on to something else.
In TV’s case, the young are moving on to cable, Hulu, and You Tube for their entertainment.
Broadcast television is in real danger of being just for old people in prime time and they are not that attractive to advertisers.
One of this season’s current "old people" series is CBS’ "Vegas," which stars Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis. It gets decent households ratings but is expected to be canceled next week because its demographics are lousy. The same thing happened to Poppy Montgomery's "Unforgettable" in 2012, although it is coming back with new episodes this summer.
"Elementary," the update of the Sherlock Holmes story starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu, is considered a hit on CBS. It does OK with younger viewers and in foreign countries (this is about Sherlock Holmes after all) and will return for a second season.
Glad to hear.
I also hope that there will be some exciting new program announcements this week and next week, that there is another "L.A. Law," "House," "CSI" or "Modern Family" on the horizon that will bring local viewers back to network TV.
But you don’t need to be as astute as Sherlock to see the local clues this year than the broadcast networks may be in deep, deep trouble locally, which is a bad national omen.
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