Networks Cutting Back On Big Programming Risks?

As the broadcast networks head boldly into another season, they should reflect back on their big mistakes -- the ones that may be hard to recover from.

Think about NBC's 10 p.m. Jay Leno move and, a decade ago, ABC's over-running of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" These risks may have deepened viewer erosion for those networks, a nasty trend that has continued for over two decades, hurting networks and advertisers.

Instead of holding the line, NBC -- courtesy of now departed chief Jeff Zucker -- went all out a couple of years back in making the Leno move. Irwin Gotlieb, global chief executive officer of media agency giant GroupM, called the Leno move an unacceptable risk.

Robert Greenblatt, the new chairman of NBC Entertainment, didn't mention the Leno move in his recent upfront address. However, he did admit to a problem with the 10 p.m. time period. That's an honest assessment.

Now a couple of years removed from this major programming error, the situation has worsened for the 10 p.m. time period, where viewing of time-shifted programming has made big inroads. The question to ask now is, "Are other networks making risks of this type that will be hard to recover from?"



Not really. In fact, things have gone the other way. Networks are so risk-averse now that they continue to cut costs -- even on sure things. Fox's "House" -- still a top-rated drama on network television -- is coming back for an eighth season. But Fox decided to cut salaries of three actors in the ensemble cast. Two accepted the lower salaries, and one, Lisa Edelstein, has decided to leave.

Is it risky to schedule too many sitcoms, or too many "fairy-tale like" drama shows, or too many singing competitions or singing-themed scripted shows? Maybe a bit. Sure, "Lone Star" failed miserably. But it was only one show. It didn't take down what amounted to around 20% of NBC's prime-time schedule which is what the Leno 10 p.m. move did.

And the move didn't just affect the 10 p.m. time period. Now back in his late-night time slot, Leno's ratings are not nearly as dominant as they were before the Conan O'Brien fiasco. That's a double-whammy for NBC.

Few networks now have time to see if something really risky might work -- if a different kind of show can grow, if a new programming scheme can work out. These are unacceptable risks in today's TV environment.

So networks give consumers sitcoms that look like sitcoms, dramas that look like dramas, reality shows that look like reality shows. Recently announced new shows from NBC, ABC and Fox haven't seemed all that unique to many media agency executives over the last several days.

Networks have far fewer chips to play with these days.

NBC's Greenblatt said honestly that it would take "years" for NBC to get back on top. That might indeed happen. But if it does, it will be at a much lower rating level. And advertisers may not want wait around until it happens.

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