Where Have All The Viewers Gone? There Are No Easy Answers
The biggest broadcast story this season seems to have nothing to do with the fortunes of any particular network but rather with the audience erosion, especially in younger demographic groups, that so many of their shows are suffering this spring.
Where have all the viewers gone? That depends on whom you ask. I’ve been covering television long enough to know that the arrival of longer days and warmer weather always brings with it a reduction in the available television audience, particularly in the first hour of prime time. And this season has been warmer than average, especially in the Northeast.
I also have to wonder if the problem doesn’t have something to do with the accuracy of audience measurement systems, which I assume becomes even more challenging with the behavioral shifts of the season, especially when factoring in same-day, three-day and seven-day DVR playback. All of this can’t help but generate confusion, and that brings up a question I have been asking for years. Why can’t minute by minute audience measurement for the millions of televisions and DVRs connected to cable be readily available at the touch of a button? Surely the technology is there.
As for concerns about the privacy of the television viewer, aren’t they somewhat outdated now that so many people live so much of their lives online? Perfect privacy is so pre-millennial. For all of us, every esmail, every online chat, every download, every online financial transaction and every area of every Web site we visit (and the amount of time we spend at each of them) can be tracked or accessed by a number of entities, sometimes on an anonymous basis, sometimes with our identities and personal data attached. Given all that, would anyone truly feel violated if significant interested parties were automatically informed that he or she favored “Smash” over “Castle” or continuously clicked back and forth between the results show editions of “Dancing with the Stars” and “The Voice”?
Frankly, I think the uptick in broadcast series erosion this spring has more to do with programming and scheduling than other matters. Let’s start with content. I consider myself an avid television viewer, but during the last few weeks I have found the experience of watching most of my favorite broadcast series to be something of a chore.
I believe there are several reasons for this. First, there have been so many series of extraordinary quality on pay and basic cable networks during the first four months of 2012 that they have spoiled much of the rest of television, at least for me. A steady diet of FX’s “Justified” and “Archer”; AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” “The Killing” and “Mad Men”; HBO’s “Game of Thrones”; Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie,” “Shameless” and “The Borgias”; and Starz’ “Spartacus,” to name but a few, have left me less than interested in much of what broadcast has had to offer. And that doesn’t include the fun to be had with such shows as Comedy Central’s “Tosh.0” and “South Park,” TV Land’s “Hot in Cleveland,” E!’s “The Soup” and “Fashion Police” and Syfy’s “Face Off.” I’m not alone in feeling this way. For millions of people, the only show that matters is HGTV’s “House Hunters.”
Significantly, most first-run episodes of the shows listed above run in the 10 p.m. hour, when it is dark out all year ‘round. They are the shows that dominate conversations in classrooms and offices, and at cocktail parties and backyard barbecues. How can all those tired and/or tiresome 10 o’clock dramas on the broadcast networks hope to compete, especially when daylight savings time is working against any momentum the networks may hope to build earlier in the evening? The only 10 o’clock show on any broadcast network right now that is at least trying to offer something different is NBC’s “Smash,” and it’s having as tough a time as most other shows.
Oh, wait. I forgot to mention ABC’s “Revenge,” a uniquely engaging serial that is telecast on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. Which brings me to my next point about late-season audience erosion: There is simply no way to over-estimate the damage that is done to even the best broadcast shows by the rerun interruptions that continue to plague the business. When are the networks going to properly address this issue? For many shows, momentum built in the fall is dissipated by a prolonged break from first-run episodes in December and January. Slipping in two original episodes in early January only to slide back into repeat mode doesn’t help. Everything is very robust again when the February sweeps kick in, but by mid-March reruns are wrecking havoc all over again. I enjoy “Revenge” as much as anyone, but the fun I was having with it last fall has faded considerably from January through April. The same is true of CBS’ “The Good Wife” and The CW’s “Vampire Diaries.” These are just three of the many fine broadcast shows that have had to endure the negative impact of herky-jerky scheduling patterns while also trying to hold up opposite considerable competition from cable.
As for audience declines earlier in the evening for the talent competition behemoths -- Fox’s “American Idol,” ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” and NBC’s “The Voice” -- that likely has to do with format fatigue, given the number of such shows on network schedules all year long.
I might be oversimplifying here, but it could be time for the broadcast networks to transition to a different scheduling model. Break the year into two-half seasons and put shows in one or the other. Let viewers settle into viewing patterns. And let absence make the heart grow fonder when a broadcast series finishes a season, as it does when many cable shows end theirs. This would likely result in fewer episodes of most scripted series per season, but that’s what viewers seem to want, because fatigue clearly sets in around March or April, and that is likely also contributing to broadcast’s current concerns. Even the best shows wear out their welcome after a while.