Will Broadcast Networks Give Up Some Prime-Time Schedules?

Broadcast networks have some choices to make money in this new media age. One is to maximize programming assets by offering more ways to extend their brands to alternative media--as Walt Disney-ABC did last week for Steve Jobs and Apple Computer by providing programming for Apple's new video-enabled iPod. Another might be to abandon certain programming dayparts.

Years ago analysts believed Saturday nights would go the latter route. Instead, Saturdays have evolved into a minor league of network programming, a junk-bond market of repeats, movies, and other low-rent programs.

Fridays might head in the same direction. Low ratings on this night have had advertising executives moaning.

Perhaps the better question might be if networks should give programming time back to affiliates. With new technologies increasingly eating into broadcast stations' revenue coffers--and with networks themselves losing money for about a third of all prime-time programming on the air--broadcast networks should give stations back air time for them to individually program.



Over the years broadcast stations had to feel the pinch of sports programming moving to cable, their syndication rerun programs shared with cable networks, and lower network affiliate compensation fees. This week those stations felt another pinch when Walt Disney-ABC agreed to put commercial-free airings of "Desperate Housewives," "Lost" and other shows on Apple Computer's new video-enabled iPod. Historically, networks executives have offered up little explanation for their moves, other than: "We need this new business to survive. Please bear with us."

Surely this can't last. Cable and other new TV media and technologies continue to make viewership inroads. Maybe in ten years the networks will be programming Saturday nights and other nights of the week exclusively on their Web sites, cell phones, or better Steve Jobs-Apple Computer-devised video iPods.

National advertisers still look to the broadcast networks as the first option. But networks may need to look to other options themselves. ABC, CBS, and NBC continue to broadcast a full schedule of 22 hours of prime time a week. Fox does 16 hours. WB takes a Sabbath break on Saturday. UPN takes sabbaticals on both Saturdays and Sundays.

Instead of struggling with even more low-rated original--and money-losing--programming, perhaps other networks ought to rest, reflect, and pray for better days.

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