With so many viewing options available today, not to mention time-shifting devices, people don’t need to watch stuff just because it’s on a certain channel at a certain time or following one of their favorite shows. To be sure, the concept of lowest common denominator programming no longer applies. The days when a “Wings” can become a top 10 hit simply because it follows “Cheers” are long over.
Exacerbating the problem of overall declining ratings is the fact that the broadcast networks are stuck in the past when it comes to promoting their own programming.
There are five major broadcast networks. Four of them — ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX — each draw significantly more viewers and generate substantially more reach than any other ad-supported media vehicle. Netflix has enjoyed sharp subscriber and audience growth, partly because it uses all of these high-rated platforms to promote its programming.
The broadcast networks, on the other hand, do not advertise on three of the four highest-rated platforms, namely the other broadcast networks – despite the fact they’re reaching the exact target audience they’re going after, an audience who is currently watching similar programming, and is at that moment most receptive to advertising about other series.
So, while instant hits will always exist, borderline series, which could really be helped by being cross-promoted on other broadcast networks, are typically allowed to languish and disappear before most potential viewers even realize they exist – for no other reason than the broadcast networks stubbornly continue to view one another as competition, when they should only be seeing one another as allies.
Despite all of the above, however, people do still like watching broadcast network television. Among adults 18-49 and 25-54, 57 of the top 60-rated original scripted series on TV this season are on the Big Four broadcast networks.
Another key indicator of broadcast strength is that six of the top eight rated entertainment series on the broadcast networks among adults 18-49 debuted over the past two seasons: “Roseanne,” “This is Us,” “Young Sheldon’” “The Good Doctor,” “911,” and “Will & Grace.” That half of them are either reboots or spinoffs is telling. These do not need the same level of promotional effort that would benefit truly new, unfamiliar series.
The broadcast networks should take a page out of Netflix’s promotional playbook. For example, the second season of “Jessica Jones” debuted on March 8. Its star, Krysten Ritter, went on a press tour that lasted at least a month. I doubt there were many national talk shows on which she did not appear.
Now it’s true that Netflix’s business (and viewing) model is substantially different from that of the broadcast networks. All episodes of its series are made available at once, so people can watch as many episodes they want whenever they want. Obviously, this is different from the broadcast networks airing one episode per week as part of a network schedule.
But today, episodes of network shows are can also be viewed either on-demand or streaming a few days after their initial broadcast. So, unlike several years ago, when viewers might not have wanted to start watching a new show in midseason, this same type of nonstop promotion up to a month after a show debuts can help turn a marginal series into a success.