The first few weeks of 2013 are proving to be highly educational as far as broadcast television is concerned. One can’t help but learn something about the medium with each passing day.
For example, NBC’s consistent ratings decline makes it increasingly clear that people don’t watch television networks. Rather, they watch television shows! Take away “Sunday Night Football,” multiple weekly editions of “The Voice,” hot freshman adventure “Revolution” and the critically acclaimed “Parenthood” and the most exciting story of the 2012-13 season -- NBC’s meteoric rise from worst to first among the most desirable demographic groups -- is suddenly over. All at once there is very little to watch on NBC and even less to write about. Late March -- when “The Voice” and “Revolution” return -- can’t come soon enough.
The disastrous debut and quick cancellation of NBC’s “Do No Harm” -- arguably one of the most idiotic ideas ever for a drama series with amateurish execution to match -- didn’t help matters. Can we please stop with shows about men with multiple personalities/identities/lives? The collapse of the political family comedy “1600 Penn” came as no surprise, either, as it was brimming with the kind of humor writers write to entertain other writers in writers’ rooms, seemingly without any thought as to whether it will appeal to anybody outside those four walls.
Similarly, NBC’s glossy mystery soap “Deception” is also a disappointment, even if its concept did sound tantalizing. There is an audience for this genre when it’s done well, as we saw last season with ABC’s freshman sensation “Revenge” and even with the premiere of “Deception,” which garnered respectable ratings. But that audience bolts when such shows don’t live up to expectations, as we have seen this season with ABC’s sophomore stiff “Revenge” and subsequent episodes of “Deception,” which have been duller by the week.
On a related note, we’re seeing firsthand the difference that dedicated writers and producers who truly understand and appreciate soap operas can make in the deteriorating world of daytime drama. This was a genre that was broadcasters’ to lose, and in recent years they have done so with awe-inspiring aplomb, not to mention a profound lack of respect for what had been the last remaining program category that the networks could truly call their own. (Now, with Prospect Park finally getting around to producing new online episodes of former ABC Daytime foundation series “All My Children” and “One Life to Live,” we will soon see if the broadcast networks have willingly sacrificed that distinction, as well.) With new and improved executive producers and head writers assigned to each, CBS’ “The Young and the Restless,” NBC”s “Days of Our Lives” and especially ABC’s “General Hospital” are suddenly better than they have been in years. That’s the difference smart leadership can make.
Lately we’re also being reminded of the dire condition of television news. Just consider the outsize focus by broadcast and cable news programs alike on Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) taking a sip of water during his presentation of the GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night. Yes, the water should have been placed within Rubio’s easy reach. And yes, it should have been a glass of water, rather than a bottle of Poland Spring, which this week has unexpectedly enjoyed massive publicity through happenstance product placement. (These gaffes are squarely the fault of Rubio’s support staff. Apparently good help is as hard to find in the nation’s capital as it is everywhere else.) But watching supposedly serious news programs play the clip over and over, and listening to cable news anchors and other personalities babble on about it as if it meant anything at all, has been somewhat sobering. When taking a sip of water makes that much news, we’re all in trouble.
Meanwhile, even as its audience continues to erode, Fox’s “American Idol” remains far atop the ratings. So even at its weakest, “Idol” is stronger and more popular than almost everything else on television. What an amazing franchise. I wonder what would happen if Fox mixed things up a bit, perhaps starting “Idol” in the fall and letting it run from late September through early February?
Lastly, there is no more exciting a ratings story right now than the wild success of CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” in this, its sixth season. Why does this reliably hilarious show continue to grow at an age when most shows have already begun to see their viewership decline? Give some credit to the new audience that has discovered “Big Bang” in syndication and now flocks to CBS for fresh episodes. But let’s also acknowledge the way the producers have kept the show consistently fresh, specifically by adding new cast members and allowing the relationships of the five core characters to evolve and mature over time. This is the kind of smart comedy storytelling that made “All in the Family,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “M*A*S*H,” “Frasier” and “Friends” some of the funniest and most heartfelt sitcoms of all time. Twenty years from now I think people will speak of “The Big Bang Theory” with similar reverence.