Another day, another piece of news about broadcast television's slow, painful death rattle. It's no longer just primetime that's hemorrhaging: the big old networks are fighting battles in daytime, in news, and royally fucking up their once-sturdy late night empires.
Broadcast's grand formula has always been straight-through-the-day coverage, with morning shows giving way to daytime chatters and syndicated shows, then to afternoon Oprah, followed by evening news, climaxing gloriously at primetime, and then resting its head, satisfied with the day, in late night. But all of these formats are now fully besieged by wicked cable, and the broadcasters just can't seem to keep up with the competition.
The latest bit of bad news is that lifestyle guru and daytime mainstay Martha Stewart is leaving the confines of mid-day broadcast for the hungry maw of a cable network, following in the footsteps of Oprah, who recently who also dropped her broadcast syndication deal for cable.
Everyone's scrambling right now, trying to figure out what to do once Oprah pulls up the stakes and moves her self-help circus to her very own cable network. It seems like a syndicated version of The View might be the frontrunner, though toe-to-toe, that lady squawkfest can in no way measure up to l'Oprah's juggernaut. But it is, likely, the best bet. Really, no matter what they find to fill the crucial void — usually a plum 4pm timeslot, right before affiliates' local news broadcasts — it will be a loss. A big loss.
Oh, yes. News. We all know that only grandparents who remember the gravely days of Cronkite and, if they're real old, Murrow actually watch the evening news. But have you heard of cable news? Everyone's watching that. Did you know that cable news is so big these days that conservopundit Bill O'Reilly bit off a fresh piece of primetime network TV last Thursday night, beating NBC's comedy programming at 8pm? That's huge! Like, iCarly huge. Increasing loyalty to bombastically biased news networks like Fox and MSNBC means that the relatively even-keeled TV-dinner broadcasts will continue to lose eyeballs. (Another culprit: This internet of ours.) Sure the latest numbers look pretty decent for Brian, Katie, et al, but bear in mind that those were during the height of Haiti coverage. And look at those 25-54 age demo numbers. Not terribly promising for the future. Plus, Glenn Beck's on at five. Five! This is not good for local news.
Nowadays in the eveningtime, a TV viewer can have all of their politics presented to them in bellowing assent when they used to be watching Law & Order. They can have their tastes for gritty shows with guest stars (FX!) or inane crime solvin' series (USA!) are lugubriously satisfied without switching to the Big Four. And there are also places where they can find swears and boobs and stuff (the pay channels). It's all about niche programming these days. There's just increasingly little room for big populist networks like ABC, CBS, and NBC have always been. Their vague attempts at quietly branding themselves — CBS for the olds, ABC for the families, NBC for the smarties — have sputtered and died since the great scramble for eyeballs, any eyeballs, began in earnest a few years ago. Plus, they just don't know what to do with themselves.
NBC wiped out an entire time-slot of original programming (10pm) to save a few measly (but necessary) bucks, but has now begun the embarrassing work of cobbling it back together in the wake of the Leno fiasco. Only, they can't seem to remember how to do it. They have, like, hardly any shows planned (Jerry Seinfeld reality show about marriage! Yay...), they let Southland get snatched by TNT, and now they've tabled one of their more promising pilots, the David Tennant-led drama Rex Is Not Your Lawyer. It might come back in the fall, might, but what's to be done with, y'know, the rest of until then?
Right now the broadcaster in the direst straits is by far NBC, but remember that only ten short years ago, NBC was the reigning king of all television media. And now Universal doesn't even want it anymore. Where will CBS and ABC be in similar time? ABC's losing Lost while Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives gray and get, uh, desperater. CBS keeps trucking along at number one with its NCIS iterations and Tuesday night comedies, but pretty soon their audience will be dead! And what of Fox, whose major tentpoles (American Idol, House) are both losing steam, with few prospects to replace them? If cable keeps making the surges it has, and networks the bumbling miscalculations they have, well, then we may soon be looking at the end of primetime dominance.
Oddly enough, this slot might be the most sturdy. Well, for CBS at least. David Letterman, all gap-toothed cranky 62 years of him, is still going strong, managing to snag big ratings for sleeping with staffers and (correctly) accusing Sarah Palin's baby of sleeping with the entirety of the Yankees' bullpen (or something). But such tricks and zeitgeist blips are ephemeral and rare. Letterman's getting old, and few people are being groomed to assume the mantle when he's gone. (A lot of Americans just won't watch that Scotsman do his thing, and that's a fact.) ABC has only half-heartedly tried to get in the late night game with Jimmy Kimmel, and Fox gave up long ago (save for Wanda Sykes' poorly-received Saturday night debacle.) NBC, as we should all know by now, has completely mucked up their late night schedule. They've lost Conan for good (maybe he'll be Fox's big entry into the race?) and Jay Leno has engendered no small amount of ill-will since he got forced out of the Tonight Show and then got himself forced back in. No one knows what that lone distant non-planet Jimmy Fallon is doing out there, and Carson Daly has never counted and never will.
So, broadcast is looking pretty bleak.
At least there's sports! Yes, the big nets do have long-standing deals to air various sporting matches, which earns them enormous advertising riches. But they lost Monday Night Football to ESPN in 2006 and other mainstays like the Olympics have been steadily losing money. (This year, even Mother Nature is conspiring against them.) Viewers are increasingly staying away for any games that lack a big American narrative, and sadly a Michael Phelps only comes around every so often. While some of us might want to watch that third human interest mini-doc about Johnny Weir's Fabulous Flair for Fashion, lots of folks have been clicking away. This year, the Hotlympics butt up against American Idol two nights a week. Dying titans clash!
The story of cable crawling out of the Ace Awards-shamed shadows has been going on for years now, but only now are we truly witnessing moments of conquer and defeat. These iCarly and iO'Reilly instances are bigguns, and though most of us don't watch Martha Stewart and pretend to not care about Oprah, daytime has long been fertile, lucrative territory for the broadcasters. That they're having such trouble maintaining and developing true talent (Rachael Ray is a certified bust at this point) is telling. The broadcast networks might be too big to fail, but it seems a near guarantee that the next few years will bring massive changes to their structure and format.
Oh, and the CW. There's also the CW. Uh, it'll be fine and live on forever like the cockroach, most likely.