NBC's Troubles With 'Harry'

NBC kicked off the 2012-13 broadcast upfront season with a move that may have alienated millions of people: the cancellation of legal drama “Harry’s Law,” this despite the fact that it often was the network’s most watched entertainment series during its two-year run. The trouble with “Harry,” as NBC noted, was that its audience was unmanageably older-skewing, even though it was much larger than that of many other television shows. That means most of its viewers were 55-plus -- or “dead,” in the eyes of advertisers who continue to lust after the 18-34, 18-49 and, less passionately, 25-54 demographic groups.

Such industry ageism is nothing new. Indeed, it was an issue of near-calamitous proportions for CBS back in the early-‘90s, when that network almost buckled under the weight of all the old folks who were enjoying so much of what it was offering before it went all procedural crime drama and smart-mouthed comedy. Shows such as “Murder, She Wrote” and “Falcon Crest” were enormously popular but unforgivably mature in their audience profiles. CBS doesn’t skew as old today as it did back then; in fact, it manages to do just fine attracting large audiences of all ages – and advertisers, as well

In that context, it seems rather rash for NBC to go and kill one of the few shows on its network that drew a substantial audience even if that audience was “old,” rather than to find a way to make it work. But “Harry’s Law,” which appealed to millions of older people who enjoy watching television, was cut down in favor of a number of new series that NBC hopes will catch the eye of much younger viewers, many of whom choose not to watch television at all. They’re too busy with anything and everything else, especially when it comes to entertainment. Also alienated by this cancellation are the millions of people who welcome challenging and thought-provoking drama. “Harry’s Law” wasn’t a perfect show, but it was the only scripted series on television that consistently tackled controversial contemporary issues. For example, and as if on cue, two days after word came down (via a tweet from 60-plus series lead Kathy Bates) that “Harry’s” was toast, the show featured in what would turn out to be its penultimate episode a story about a gay man who could not give life-saving blood to his dying brother because of laws preventing gay men from donating blood without the written consent of the recipient, who in this case was unconscious on account of being near death and all.

Watching this show during its two seasons, even sporadically, I’ve heard numerous compelling and at times startling debates in many a lively courtroom sequence, on subjects ranging from human rights to animal rights to immigration concerns to the economic destruction of the American working class at the hands of the United States government, big banks and corporate giants. I believe a recent storyline that explored the potentially fatal dangers of high school football propelled that decidedly unpopular topic into the national conversation.

The cancellation of “Harry’s Law” also suggests that there is no place on broadcast television for a series featuring a woman in her 60s in its lead role, regardless of her talent or accomplishments. (One wonders how Bates, an Academy Award winner, even got the part in the first place.) Tellingly, this is not true of shows headlined by 60something men, as proven by some of the highly successful crime shows currently on CBS, including “CSI,” “Criminal Minds” and “Blue Bloods.”

Most “civilians” don’t understand how broadcast television works. Perhaps that’s why so many of them have been complaining to me about the fate of “Harry’s Law.” They see this as curious behavior for a federally regulated business tasked with serving all Americans regardless of age, ethnicity or economic status. Advertiser preferences are often in direct conflict to that, but a network can’t exactly demand that companies pay for something they don’t want.

That said, it should be increasingly clear to anyone with a head that 50-plus consumers are no longer all about adult diapers and denture cream, if ever they truly had been. From where I sit, men and women in their 50s and 60s (and beyond) are as likely to purchase goods and services as anyone else. It seems that if they aren’t busily buying things (or trying new things) for themselves, then they are hurriedly spending every spare dollar on their kids.

And so it is that the lack of industry support and cold cancellation of “Harry’s Law,” whose only crime was that it appealed to older viewers, many of them quite discerning, makes no sense on many levels. At the very least it is just plain sad. I’d argue that the typical viewer of this show was likely upscale, given the intellectual heft of its courtroom arguments, but what’s the point? NBC has a bundle of new shows ready to go for fall, some quite promising, others much less so. One of them stars a monkey. Enough said.    

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15 comments about "NBC's Troubles With 'Harry'".
  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , May 18, 2012 at 4 p.m.
    Harry's Law could not be seen On Demand by Comcast either. I don't know about other "pipes". I know would rather have a couple of boomers interested in my product/service who can afford to buy it than whipper snappers who could not care less and does not have 2 nickels to rub against each other.
  2. Kathleen Quinn from American Association of Advertising Agencies , May 18, 2012 at 4:07 p.m.
    well said !!!
  3. Philip Moore from Philip Moore , May 18, 2012 at 4:09 p.m.
    Seems rather dumb since this is also the audience most likely to endure commercials. The 18-34 year olds know how to use their TiVo/DVR to blast past the ad pods and get their dramatic content free of the distraction of those annoying commercials. So NBC is giving up a show with a big audience of saps who actually watch the ads and trying to attract a younger audience who won't see the ads the network is selling.
  4. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2013ac.com network , May 18, 2012 at 4:10 p.m.
    And the network broadcast honchos still wonder why viewers, of all ages, are running away from broadcast TV in droves, towards "on demand" and other pipelines? ... News Flash: They ain't coming back, so why bother killing a proven winner with one age group in a doomed attempt to reach groups that are already lost to you?
  5. Marla Goldstein from Around The Bend Media , May 18, 2012 at 4:14 p.m.
    It's called show business for a reason, yanno. This is not the fault of the networks; but rather, the blame falls right at the feet of the advertisers. Believe me, if there is/was a way to monetize older viewers, the networks would have shows on the air that appealed to this demo. But so far there is not, as there isn't a lineup of advertisers willing to pay to promote on national TV consistently enough to keep shows like Harry's Law on the air.
  6. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2013ac.com network , May 18, 2012 at 4:18 p.m.
    I had to post a response to Philip's "saps" charge. As one of those saps in that age group, I'll offer this defense: We "saps" actually do know how to zap commercials, but we also know where the dollars that pay for the broadcast content comes from. It's, simply put, the price of admission. But I do agree with your last comment about the craziness of aiming at a younger, ad-zapping, audience.
  7. Alex Angry from Evolution Entertainment , May 18, 2012 at 4:41 p.m.
    There is one (and only one) way to get advertisers to support this programming, and that's by buying their products. The great thing about technology today, is that we are able to track and quantify media effectiveness. There ARE campaigns that can be created to show that the demographic is not "dead", but just dazed and confused by the amount of bad programming (and consumer products) that are out in marketplace.
  8. Sandra Manning from Law Office of SLK Manning , May 18, 2012 at 5:09 p.m.
    Flash news to NBC and all advertising execs - I am a 59 woman and I just bought a Razor Max because I, unlike my 25 year old daughter, had the cash and the need for it in my business. Most boomers I know are not retiring - we continue to be the conspicuous spenders that we have always been. Since NBC does not consider it worthwhile to have me as a viewer, I will not be watching their new fall line-up, monkey or not.
  9. Pat Hollander from Cosultant , May 18, 2012 at 5:36 p.m.
    Most people in their 50's are at the pinnacle of their careers, their children have graduated college & own their homes. How many other age groups have that much disposable income? "Harry" is simply 1 show of an entire lineup. Totally alienating an established market segment merely to gamble everything on the unknown doesn't make sense.
  10. Jerry Boettcher from Foto News , May 18, 2012 at 5:59 p.m.
    All this pontification means little to folks who have there nose up the anus of the creative director who swears the young folks is where it's at. I thought HL was one of the better shows, and it held me all the way through. It's a shame. Bad enough that the young women scream at every move made on the reality shows and talkies, and canned laughter has just about written me out of most TV today.
  11. Tim Orr from Barnett Orr Marketing Group, Inc. , May 18, 2012 at 6:21 p.m.
    One more comment about us "saps": First, cite your stats, sir, to prove that the 18-34s are zapping the spots and us "saps" aren't. So far, the DATA isn't supporting that conclusion. Just because one CAN do a thing doesn't mean it's being done. Try working with a sample size greater than one.
  12. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston , May 18, 2012 at 7:05 p.m.
    I'm in my 60s and when I was in my 30s, I couldn't care less about seniors. So why should young execs and young buyers care about us now? What goes around comes around.
  13. Pat Hollander from Cosultant , May 18, 2012 at 7:38 p.m.
    That speaks a lot about the caliber of young execs & buyers. In an increasingly competitive market with constantly emerging marketing channels (social media) targeting an untapped review source makes good business sense. What age do most corporate VPs fall into? What demograph has the most people who earn $150,000? Perhaps the research needs to redefined.
  14. Pat Turner from FIDM , May 20, 2012 at 8:27 p.m.
    I just want to thank David Kelley and his team for continuing to TRY and bring cogent discussion topics to TV. We over 50 have been loyal fans since Picket Fences, just because he does hire experts like Kathy Bates and continues to provoke us. It's sad that NBC has cancelled AWAKE and HARRY--both great TV, and it's hard to believe that no one will advertise to us.
  15. Cece Forrester from tbd , May 21, 2012 at 6:46 p.m.
    Grrrr. Harry was my hero. She was politically incorrect in the best sense of the term, could make up her own mind and didn't give a fig for anyone who couldn't respect her for that. So NBC hates me, and so do their advertisers. Suppose I already knew that, deep down. I wish the program producers and audiences could just start up their own TV network in a shoe store and forget about other guys because we don't actually need them any more. Or maybe it's already happening. Most of the dramas I watch are on TNT, USA and AMC. They make it easy to catch all episodes in order with my TiVo, and they don't pull the plug on something good when it's just getting up a head of steam. (As for comedies--two words: Antenna TV.) Here are three questions for someone who knows more about these things than I do: 1) Am I at least partly paying for cable-network content through my cable bill, even if I skip commercials? 2) Does that help explain why these networks are delivering entertainment I like, and with less disrespect and hassle? 3) And why is it that despite all the choices available, the next generation is apparently more eager, not less, to be slaves to those advertisers and the vapid fare they push (well said Mr. Boettcher)?