The Collapse of Primetime Television: Where Are Television Shows Going Wrong?

February is a make-it-or-break-it month for a lot of television shows.  It is a sweeps month where ratings for all television show are vital to determine the longevity of any show.  Sweeps occur in November to test the viability of new and returning shows; then in February, to test new mid-season shows and again check the pulse of existing shows; and in May, to show advertisers and networks that they are getting their money’s worth and demonstrate that there is an existing audience willing to come back the following Fall after the usual 3-4 month hiatus. 
 
The average viewer has no real awareness of “sweeps” months — other than it guarantees some really cool guest appearances, big stunt episodes and a possible heads-up that there may be a hiatus period afterwards in which television shows are M.I.A. as they play catch-up.
 
This February, however, has been a blood-bath for most TV shows, new and existing alike.  This is typically the time of year when viewership is at an all time high because people are stuck at home during the winter months and seek solace in front of their TV sets.  However, 2012 is proving to be the exception to the rule.  People are not sitting at home and watching TV.  They are doing anything but watching their television sets at the appointed times — and it is sending sharp-spasms of fear throughout every television producer and programmer in the industry.  Where have the viewers gone?
 
It is the one thing that programmers are supposed to be able to guarantee:  a prediction of trends of viewing patterns throughout the year.  Millions of dollars are spent tracking viewership and the daily/weekly Nielsen ratings are scoured over to ensure that every last nickel is squeezed out of advertisers as networks and TV shows deliver the promised viewing eyeballs. 
 
But again, 2012 is proving to be an anomaly.  There is more content than ever and yet viewers are checking out.  What is going on?  Why are viewers running away from their TV sets? Here’s a few theories:

Appointment television is a thing of the past.  As we have speculated previously in the article “Our Television Pie Theory: An Analysis of Available Viewers and How We View Competition on Television” – viewers just aren’t bothering with “live” TV.  Viewers are savvy enough to know that unless they have a Nielsen box, it doesn’t matter anyway.  The knowledge that no one is really tracking their personal viewing habits combined with the proliferation of DVR’s has freed viewers up to attend to their personal lives and to stop worrying about catching their favorite shows when the shows are broadcast.  Instead, television shows can be recorded and watched at another time.  In fact, it has never been easier to watch TV whenever and wherever you want.  Exercising that freedom, viewers are less likely to tune-in and watch “live” television broadcasts anymore.  Viewers are choosing to watch TV shows whenever they have time – not whenever the show is being aired.  Such freedom has been previously denied to viewers and now that they have it, viewers are happily using every means possible to watch at their leisure, not when the networks demand they watch TV shows.
 
Reality TV is kicking dramatic television to the curb. We may hate to admit it, but we are a society that is hooked on “voyeurism.”  Peeking into other people’s lives is addictive.  We find ourselves invested in the choices they make and seeing if they can win a competition, find the perfect mate, or survive some ordeal.  Then there are people that we are simply curious to know more about.  Shows like AMERICAN IDOL, SURVIVOR, THE X-FACTOR, DANCING WITH THE STARS, THE BIGGEST LOSER, EXTREME MAKEOVER, THE VOICE are claiming obscenely high numbers of viewers each week because they offer a chance to watch real people in allegedly real situations having real experiences.   Viewers want to see the journey these contestants embark upon; for there is something inherently relatable to watching people reach for their dreams and dare to achieve the impossible.  Who will be our next super star?  Who will be the biggest train-wreck on television?  Who will have the best transformation and who will fail spectacularly?  Curiosity, voyeurism, whatever it is, there is a significant number of television viewers craving to see what happens when normal people are put in these extraordinary situations. While a recent trend reveals that reality shows are also suffering in ratings, they are still the kings and queens of television right now. 
 
Serialized television is too fatiguing or too complicated for average viewers.  The most successful scripted shows on television right now are NCIS, NCIS: LOS ANGELES, THE MENTALIST, PERSON OF INTEREST, THE BIG BANG THEORY, TWO AND ½ MEN, MIKE & MOLLY and MODERN FAMILY.  None of these television series are considered “serialized,” meaning the audience has to tune-in each week just to keep up with the ongoing storylines.  These shows are known to be “procedurals” as they are self-contained short story episodes that are resolved within their allocated one hour or ½ hour format.  This makes it extremely easy for viewers to jump in and out without worrying that they missed something.  For a variety of reasons, viewers are unwilling to watch television shows that require them to follow a complex serialized story.  Just look at the rapidly vanishing audiences of CHUCK and FRINGE.  They were huge draws initially, but the more serialized these shows became, they began hemorrhaging viewers.  Both shows could have easily have adopted the “procedural” style of story-telling and perhaps thrived.  But seeing the potential to explore another more intricate level of storytelling, their writers embraced complex, serialized stories that took faithful fans on an amazing journey.  Alas, casual viewers quickly became confused and jumped-ship.  They did not want to have to keep a cheat-sheet by their televisions to track the villains, the mythology and the characters that were jumping in and out of different realities.
 
Niche viewer markets are siphoning off viewers.  (And, by far, this is the biggest offender!) While shows like THE WALKING DEAD are pulling in 8 million viewers on AMC, no one stops to consider that the same show would probably draw significantly less viewers on another network.  If THE WALKING DEAD were on NBC or ABC, there is no way the ratings would be as high.  But because it is on a more obscure network, viewers are flocking to it thinking they have “struck gold.”  They found a hidden “gem” and are tenaciously touting it as the greatest thing on television.  Serialized television is thriving for the off-networks, like HBO, Showtime, AMC, A&E, FX, PBS, USA Television, BBC America, Syfy, MTV and TNT.  The audiences those networks are courting and catering towards claim to be exhausted by the seemingly mundane and repetitive formats found on basic networks, like Fox, ABC, NBC and CBS.  How often have we heard from elitist viewers, “Oh, I only watch shows on HBO or Showtime”? 
 
There is an emerging trend of viewers who consider themselves connoisseurs of television and they deem shows on mainstream networks unworthy of their attention – alarmingly, sight unseen.  Incredible as it sounds, some viewers are discriminating for and against television show simply by network.  Brand identification is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to fickle and uneducated viewers.  Fox is known for its animated shows like THE SIMPSONS and AMERICAN DAD, along with a mixed-bag of comedy and drama like HOUSE, BONES, THE FINDER, ALCATRAZ, NEW GIRL and RAISING HOPE.  Fox is known as the younger, hip network.  Competing for that audience is The CW, which is known as the destination network for young teens and female viewers with such shows like GOSSIP GIRL, 90210, HART OF DIXIE, RINGER, ONE TREE HILL, THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, THE SECRET CIRCLE, SUPERNATURAL and NIKITA.  While Fox may flee from the supernatural/fantasy series choosing to dabble in safer fare like TOUCH, TERRA NOVA and ALCATRAZ; The CW is willing to openly proclaim itself as a network willing to take risks on fantasy and supernatural, particularly as its currently highest rated series is THE VAMPIRE DIARIES.  (Though it should be noted that both networks lost out when they shied away from the fantastic supernatural series LOCKE & KEY.)  
 
ABC with its core audience invested in procedurals with a romantic twist, finds that its top shows are GREY’S ANATOMY, CASTLE, DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, ONCE UPON A TIME, and the comedy MODERN FAMILY while still dabbling in more riskier fare, like THE RIVER and the upcoming series MISSING and SCANDAL. CBS has stuck with its tried-and-true programming leaning heavily on its procedurals, like CSI, BLUE BLOODS, PERSON OF INTEREST, THE MENTALIST, UNFORGETTABLE, and HAWAII FIVE-O.  That leaves NBC in an interesting position of not having really found its niche market yet.  NBC used to be a dominant player in comedies and dramas, like FRIENDS and THE WEST WING, but those days are long gone.  NBC has since struggled to find its perfect blend or brand to attract a stable viewership.  Even its flagship LAW & ORDER seems to be rocky these days.  Its current staples extend to GRIMM, HARRY’s LAW, and SMASH.  But none of these spell out a clearly identifiable brand for NBC.  It has left viewers confused and they are uncertain if this is a network they should identify with.
 
With the top 5 broadcast networks playing it safe and trying to stay within their newly identifiable brands, that has left the playing field open to other networks to snatch up riskier and more innovative television shows.  HBO has BOARDWALK EMPIRE, GAME OF THRONES and TRUE BLOOD.  Showtime has HOMELAND, DEXTER, WEEDS and THE BIG C.  TNT has FALLING SKIES, THE CLOSER, SOUTHLAND, RIZZOLI & ISLES, LEVERAGE and FRANKLIN & BASH.  USA Network has BURN NOTICE, ROYAL PAINS, SUITS, COVERT AFFAIRS, WHITE COLLAR, IN PLAIN SIGHT, FAIRLY LEGAL and NECESSARY ROUGHNESS.  Syfy has WAREHOUSE 13, EUREKA, HAVEN, ALPHAS, BEING HUMAN, MERLIN and LOST GIRL.  FX has JUSTIFIED, SONS OF ANARCHY and AMERICAN HORROR STORY.  AMC has MAD MEN, BREAKING BAD, THE WALKING DEAD, THE KILLING and HELL ON WHEELS.  PBS has DOWNTON ABBEY and SHERLOCK.  A&E has THE GLADES and BREAKOUT KINGS.  BBC America has DOCTOR WHO and LUTHER.  MTV has TEEN WOLF and AWKWARD. And one of my favorites, ABC FAMILY has SWITCHED AT BIRTH, PRETTY LITTLE LIARS, THE LYING GAME, and JANE BY DESIGN.
 
There is a saying “no risk, no gain.”  All of these networks are taking risks to lure in niche audiences.  They are not looking for shows that will guarantee 10 million viewers; instead, they are looking for shows that will draw a committed audience.  They recognize the value of siphoning viewers from the bigger networks and drawing them to their network where they can advertise a whole range of their other shows and programming.  If they can get viewers to watch one show, they have won half the battle.  As a calculated strategy, it is working.  On any given night, the off-network channels are siphoning off anywhere from 20-30 million viewers.  When the average viewing pool is only 50 million viewers, this is significant.  10 years ago, it was unheard of that viewers would regularly tune in to these specialty channels.  Today, it is a regular practice.  The strategy has worked.  It has proven that it only takes one show — and that viewership is for the poaching.
 
THE WALKING DEAD is the best example.  It returned to 8 million “live” viewers.  It is not just siphoning viewers, it has successfully poached an entire block viewership that any one of the top 5 networks would gladly give their souls to have.  Before THE WALKING DEAD, had the mass viewing audience really paid attention to AMC?  Not really.  Shows like MAD MEN and BREAKING BAD were critically-acclaimed, but rarely drew more than just over 1-2 million viewers.  THE WALKING DEAD put AMC on the map.  It is now a network to contend with.  It took a show about zombies and an apocalypse and made it “must-see” for a huge number of viewers.  That’s remarkable – and it is a strategy that worked masterfully.
 
Regular TV networks need to pay close attention.  Viewers are not just craving something new, they are demanding it — and the real horror is that they are simply getting it elsewhere.  Viewers want flexibility, they want innovation, and they want to “discover” great TV shows; not have them crammed down their throats.
 
Adjusting expectations of viewership.  But it is also a time to be realistic about the number of available viewers.  There is only a limited pool of viewers and networks need to project their audience draw and retention realistically.  Questions about: (1) what types of shows viewers are willing to watch and (2) when they are willing to watch such shows, are vitally important to consider.  Networks need to adjust their expectations about how television is currently being watched — and be just as realistic about the number of viewers available during various timeslots.  They cannot just snap their fingers and expect to command millions of viewers anymore.  Viewers have figured out that they have a lot more control over what to watch and they do not like being stuck within the “primetime” box anymore.  They also have figured out that there are more than five networks to watch.  Scary as it may be, in this modern world, television is more competitive than ever and with so much to choose from, it can be hard to sway and secure the mass viewing audience.
 
Television viewers aren’t running away from their TV sets, they are simply refusing to be stuck in the “box” anymore.  Technology has made watching television a world without time-constraints and boundaries – it has opened the doors to boundless possibilities.  Broadcast networks just need to figure out how to explore that new world of possibilities with viewers and not fight the tide of change.  The “dinosaur” networks will soon be obsolete if they do not figure out how to be flexible, court viewers beyond the primetime hours, and offer more brand-identifiable shows.  After all, AMC may be built on the backs of MAD MEN and BREAKING BAD, but it is on the shoulders of zombies that they stand.  Who knew?!
 
To read more about why modern television shows seem to be in decline, be sure to check out these prior articles:
• “The Intangibles Killing Television”
• “Losing Momentum Can Be Detrimental to Television Shows: How to Stop the Hemorrhaging”
•  “The Secret to Television Success: Why some TV shows are succeeding when others are failing?”

Tiffany Vogt is the Senior West Coast Editor, contributing as a columnist and entertainment reporter to TheTVaddict.com. She has a great love for television and firmly believes that entertainment is a world of wondrous adventures that deserves to be shared and explored – she invites you to join her. Please feel free to contact Tiffany at Tiffany_Vogt_2000@yahoo.com or follow her at on Twitter (@TVWatchtower).

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  • http://profile.yahoo.com/EJR2YVR2OTQ4UZUGTXMOCEXJYY StephanieS

    I feel like another one up that Walking Dead has is that, on that show, ANYTHING can happen. So people likely want to watch it live because then they will find out, without being spoiled, if and when a major character dies. Major characters don’t die (maybe one in a fifty) on network shows. When they do, we usually already know prior to the episode because we read that the actor didn’t resign their contract. On Walking Dead, it will always be a shocker because they have the ability to kill off main characters AND keep it under wraps. Just a thought. Interesting article, thanks.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/5CF7HWBX7LU3MK2DBVJE6NT3LE Erick

    Great read.. Wish the networks and advertisers realize how antiquated the old system of tracking viewers is.

  • http://twitter.com/7lovelyangel Nora

    Really insightful! 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QKHGDXSSB46J4WLB2ORIDBA3YQ Clarence

    Great analysis. I feel bad for network TV, especially now that cable is competing hard. Gonna keep supporting it, though. The hidden gems are found there too (great examples in CHUCK and FRINGE) but they’re just not adjusting to the new rules of television now. Just hope that they keep taking risks in shows like these because my brain will honestly melt if I see another procedural. There just needs to be some changes. Those networks have got to understand their audience better.

  • Anonymous

    It would be such a refreshing change if the VIEWER was actually asked about what they would like to watch.

    Choices are limited and voting is simply on what is available, not on preference.

    It’s not rocket science to note that procedurals would be more popular than serialised stories.

    Speaking for myself – I am BORED with what’s on offer. Police/forensics, Sci-fi/vampire, and reality tv is just so tired I could scream.  We have MILLIONS of brilliant writers and storytellers out there, what about something fresh and new. Give us a change. (In fact what’s wrong with having a program with a completely different story EVERY episode!).

    Advertising pays for the series, I understand that, so get the actors in the story to use the advertiser’s products. Then if they are recorded for later viewing, the adverts still get seen.

  • Tinafg

    Perhaps if the networks listened to the fans instead of their pockets, they’d be more successful!

  • TVnut

    As budgets decrease along with the ratings, it will be harder and harder to find quality shows.  However, I have found some shows have kept up the quality even with a smaller budget, most notably “The Lying Game” on ABC Family.  It’s as good as a movie, week after week!  

  • TheKillerCucumber

    I loved reading this. This is exactly how I feel. Almost all of the series I watch are non-procedural dramas, simply because I am not willing to commit dozens of hours to stories that don’t move. Personally, I am an AMC nerd. It is ironic that The Walking Dead has the most viewers, because I view it significantly worse than Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Killing, and tied with Hell on Wheels (I would still rate it 8/10, though). However, I would rather watch The Walking Dead than 90% of other series. The “specialty channels” are attracting so many viewers because THE STORY ACTUALLY MOVES. People are actually getting something for the hours they inevitably put into these shows. Reality shows and multi-camera, laugh-track-ridden comedy shows getting 10+ million weekly views gets on my nerves… long live non-procedural dramas