Perhaps 'Hot NFL Wives Lose Weight Singing?'

Why, oh why, are the Big 4 broadcast networks doing so poorly this fall? This question is being bandied about everywhere, including this very publication.

Is it DVRs? Is it Netflix and Hulu? Is it programming competition from cable? Is it Wii? Is it YouTube? Is it live plus 3 days ratings versus live plus 7 days? Those are the questions. Here’s the answer:


The Big 4 are failing because, as has been obvious for almost a decade, they must fail. Fragmentation and ad avoidance have killed their business model -- duh. Their inexorable downward trajectory will be interrupted only in outlier years, bumped by such things as the Olympics, close elections and the rare hit reality show. Meantime, the only ratings grabbers beyond competition shows will be sporting events and live awards programs commanding real-time attention.


That was true in 2005, when I first started saying it. It was probably true in 2000, before I started saying it. And it will be true until the shakeout begins, whereupon it will only be a question of whether any survive into the 2030s. Or 2020s. The tipping point will be when the law of diminished returns kicks in, which could be any day now.



What has kept the nets afloat, paradoxically enough, is the very fragmentation that is decimating them. As the mass audience has gradually but enormously eroded, the value of any mass audience has increased all out of proportion to actual reach. It’s like the last gas station before Death Valley: $10 a gallon. The Big 4 have kept revenues flowing by doing nothing more visionary than gouging at the pump. But the traffic on the desert highway is now so light, even the gougers won’t long be able to keep their pumps running.

That’s the simple economics of the situation. Even if the Big 4 had the wherewithal to produce the likes of Homeland, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Girls, and Game of Thrones -- and for reasons of budget and FCC nannying they emphatically do not -- they would suffer an end-stage condition. But they can’t even program themselves into survivability, because the one aspect of their business model that stubbornly pertains is the sanctity of the lowest common denominator.

The question, therefore, should not be how the Big 4 can cure what ails them. They cannot cure what ails them. The only relevant set of questions concerns what will succeed the Big 4. Is there a place for an all-live network? Is there a place for two? If CBS is a cable channel, what will it present? Cable channels are -- in varying degrees -- vertical. Comedy Central and Discovery have organizing principles, and therefore constituencies. CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox have no organizing principles. They have decades of brand equity, but literally zero brand meaning.

They are, in short, irrelevant. They exist to sustain the affiliates, who in turn exist to sustain the nets in a sad symbiosis of mutual obsolescence. Advertisers aren’t served. Audiences aren’t served.

The only thing being served is inertia. 




8 comments about "Perhaps 'Hot NFL Wives Lose Weight Singing?' ".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, November 26, 2012 at 9:24 a.m.

    Well said. Nothing more sad than an aging entertainer whose core audience has moved on, or died.

  2. Kim S from Media, November 26, 2012 at 11:40 a.m.

    Yes, great observations! The other question to ask, how/when, or even, if, it is possible to change the behavior of lemmings jumping off the upfront spend cliff year after year and funding this sad symbiosis. One would think the law of diminishing returns has been with us for a while. Fear of change is a dreadful motivator.

  3. Sheldon Senzon from JMS Media, Inc., November 26, 2012 at 11:46 a.m.

    I've followed your career for a number of years and am more than a little surprised by your post. To say you're stating the obvious is exactly that, the obvious. We've all followed the downward trend of TV ratings, fragmentation and the like for a number of years.
    Intertesting you chose to take a shot at TV Networks considering all the ads placed by the "Big 3" over the years in Ad Age, your employer for many years.
    Why not write about what the networks are doing to continue providing "critical mass" to advertisers as well as a more targeted message (streaming) delivery via Second and Third screens?

  4. Richard Gillam from DeskSite, November 26, 2012 at 11:47 a.m.

    Absolutely brilliant summary. Everybody knows all of this to be exactly true, but few want/can/will acknowledge it, because (to most of the Big 4 stakeholders), this sort of doomsday chatter feels like a conversation about the inevitable Supernova of our own solar system's sun...yes, it will happen, but not in our species' lifetime, so who cares?

    But the Big 4 Supernova is most definitely happening now, as we're already seeing early-stage debris disrupting the video advertising ecosystem.

  5. Ronald Stack from Zavee LLC, November 26, 2012 at 11:49 a.m.

    Perhaps not central to the theme of the post, but there is indeed a difference between brand equity and brand meaning.

    That difference is something we try to exploit in our business, which is oriented toward small to mid-sized local businesses.

  6. Bob Garfield from MediaPost, November 26, 2012 at 11:54 a.m.

    @Sheldon Senzon

    In 35 years of journalism, I have never written a single word based on who my news organization's advertisers are. The deference you suggest is corruption. And it is disgusting.

  7. Kamran Asghar from Crossmedia, November 26, 2012 at 12:12 p.m.

    Bob, couldn't agree more. Come upfront time, I would LOVE to hear your thoughts on the passive collusion that exists between the big nets and the big holding companies.

  8. Michael Kilgore from, November 26, 2012 at 11:44 p.m.

    I love the Death Valley gas station simile, and I think that you're more right than wrong, but a couple of things bug me. Is it really true that the networks aren't able to make a successful series? Did Lost count? House? Seems to me that the Big 4 are just more interested in low-risk bets - reality shows and the like. And about the complete death of live networks, what about cable cutters? What about non-directed viewers who flop on the couch to see what's on? Won't there be a significant percentage of viewers in these categories for another decade or more?

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