I keep seeing this meme running around on blogs and in industry papers where people seem to derive some twisted bit of pleasure in the failure of the fall TV lineup this year, building on the failures of the strike-shortened schedule last year, gleefully celebrating -- some of these people work in television oddly -- the demise of network television in general, as if a populist revolt is underway where people are turning off their TV in droves in protest of crappy content.
It's like Lost and CSI and House have conditioned everybody to expect every show to get 20 million viewers and for everything old to build to better and bigger numbers, all the while completely ignoring the long and steady ascendancy of cable as a viable competitor to network TV. Lee Goldberg has some links to what I'm talking about here, where everybody is equating declining numbers for network programs to "nobody's watching anything this season."
Forget that CSI in its 9th season just debuted to 22 million viewers last Thursday and football is setting all kinds of new records for ESPN, and is doing very well for NBC on Sunday nights as well. At least 19-20 million people watch Dancing with the Stars and if you look around hard enough, you can find very successful programs on each network, although the audience size is somewhat proportional to the overall network audience. NBC doesn't get numbers like that, but in general NBC's overall audience isn't really big enough to support those kinds of numbers to begin with.
But the point here isn't that people have stopped watching TV, it's that more people are watching original series on cable than ever before. There has got to be something like 200 cable channels these days and while not all of them have their own series, the segment that does is growing every single year. Who would have thought that AMC, a classic movie channel or all things, would launch its own hour-long drama, and that it would go on to win the top prize at the Emmy Awards this year?
Man Men might not be pulling in 20 million viewers to place it in direct competition (more like 1.2 million), but it doesn't need to do that in order to steal that audience from CSI or other shows. If a single Mad Men is worth one million viewers, and Nip/Tuck is worth another million, and The Closer is worth four million, all those eyeballs start to add up. Yes, they aren't all on at the same time, but again, its all in the numbers -- even if 200 channels is playing a bit loose and we're only talking about say 40 or 50 real players, with 1 million people watching original content on each network at the same hour in the evening you've got more people than watch even American Idol.
I figure the numbers are somewhat less than that, but the point stands.
Those channels wouldn't be around folks if there weren't people watching them. That 1.5 million people that aren't watching Heroes anymore are probably watching something else on cable, they haven't really gone anywhere.
The broadcast networks have never been known to take risks, but cable can do pretty much anything it wants since it's not covered by the FCC. Most cable networks self-censor to gain a level playing field with the networks, knowing full well that strong language, violence, and nudity would probably drive away more viewers that they would bring it, but even that has been changing over time. Those with less to lose can take bigger risks not just in shock, but in story telling in general.
Take strange premise that a broadcast network might reject and see if it sticks, see if there's an audience of two or three million people out there that might like it and make it profitable. NBC and FOX and the bunch can't do that, and that's why they are suffering, but it's not a loss to the industry, it's just competition reshaping the battlefield.
At some point the big four are going to have to realize that they can't expect to get those big numbers anymore with so many competitors around them and that as a result, they can't charge advertisers so much, and will have no choice but to keep some shows that today might be considered a failure. Five million today isn't as bad as it used to be, it's still on par with what some of the best cable shows can pull in and yet it's nearly an automatic cancellation on a broadcast network. That attitude is going to have to change, audiences are not going to tolerate the big four having a 95% churn rate on their schedules, throwing out anything that isn't a mega-hit.
As such, I think it's equally as silly to blame the writers strike for it these "problems" affirmatively or defensively. House isn't trailing off because the strike made people want a clean slate of programming, people are just getting bored with it. Even though the fourth season finale was some of the best television I've ever seen, on an average day, House has gotten pretty stale.
The strike didn't make it stale, it just got old.
We all know that procedurals like Law & Order and CSI seem like they can live forever, but people get bored of those shows too, we just don't notice it as much because with such a low entry barrier, for everyone that gets bored and leaves, someone else can come in and feel perfectly at home. Some shows work good on a long run and some don't, that's not even necessarily a rule of television so much as it is the nature of story telling. Some stories can be stretched out, some can't.
The first season of Heroes and Prison Break were spectacular television, but what came after was mediocre. Lost was good, then it was bad, then it was good again. Sometimes it's the premise, sometimes it's the network, sometimes it's competition, sometimes people just have more important things to deal with in their lives than watching television.
Many shows are being hurt because of Nielsen's flawed ratings system that still doesn't properly account for DVR usage. One in four homes has a DVR now, and yet the TV industry is still beholden to a company that only samples like 30,000-60,000 homes out of 112 million in this country and advertisers that want to hold their breath and pretend DVRs don't exist at all.
It's a complex mess, and there's just no way you can boil down the problems of network television to "nobody's watching anything this season."