Nashville-TV-Show

This week I read an interesting story on the industry website TV News Check. The basic thrust – Fox are considering a new plan whereby they would air original episodes of shows ALL year round – with NO repeats?

The reasoning is simple. Ratings for all 5 of the broadcast networks have been falling – hard! CBS has remained fairly stable but NBC, ABC and Fox are all in a downward spiral – just look at how low the bar for series renewals has become recently. Nashville and Revenge will probably get more series even though they’re both currently scoring around a 1.7 in the 18-49 demo. NBC will probably bring back Parks and Recreation which scores around 3 million viewers a week. In years past all of these shows would have been cancelled by now.

Meanwhile cable is booming. Shows like Breaking Bad, American Horror Story and Sons of Anarchy attract major buzz and regularly out-rate everything on The CW – and often NBC. And then there are the big guns – Game of Thrones, True Blood, The Walking Dead and pretty much all the USA and TNT dramas – that totally dominate their network counterparts. Add in the juiced up reality ratings for the likes of Duck Dynasty, Long Island Medium, Swamp People and Pawnstars and you can see why the networks are worried.

The fact is the network model is outdated. One of the most striking elements of the US TV system is how networks regularly schedule repeats between September and May – padding out a 22 episode run to a 33 week ‘season’ – and then essentially giving up during the summer months. As a Brit living in America it’s a strange system to me – we’d never air repeats during an original UK run (that said Brit TV has a LOT more problems to contend with!)

It was a model that worked 10, 20, 30 years ago – but not now. There are just too many demands on viewers’ time and too many shows that run in sequence and week after week on cable. Fact is it’s often hard to know when your favorite shows are running originals and when they’re airing repeats. Plus often the network’s scheduling is all over the place. One of the reasons Revenge has fared so poorly this season is that ABC have done a disastrous job of scheduling it – running repeats against other repeats and then airing new episodes opposite major award shows (plus season 2 has sucked overall!)

Add to this the number of serialized shows on air, which only compounds the problem. CBS is procedural heavy with self-contained ‘murder of the week’ style episodes which generally repeat better – hence its relative stability. ABC, Fox and NBC on the other hand run far soapier / arced series.  And it’s really hard to build momentum when you’re off air for 3 weeks, back for a week, and then in repeats again. Especially when your cable competition is airing all originals.

The-Following-Fox

Already networks are starting to change. Fox’s The Following aired all 15 of its episodes in sequence without any breaks and the resultant strong ratings proved the plan worked. The same network used to follow a similar pattern with 24 years back.

So if the plan works why aren’t more networks adopting it? The reason of course is cost. Filling your schedule with ALL originals is obviously a lot pricier than throwing some repeats into the mix. And at the moment the networks are nervously watching their costs go up and their ratings go down.

So here’s what I’d suggest. Stick with the repeat plan with comedies (for now) since they generally repeat well. For serialized series either opt for shorter runs – like The Following’s 15 episodes (demanded by star Kevin Bacon who wouldn’t do 22) – or air seasons in two chunks (as NBC has done with Revolution and AMC does with The Walking Dead)

Obviously that leaves gaps that networks need to fill. The obvious answer is more reality programming which is generally cheaper – but as Splash and Ready For Love have proven a bad reality show can crater your network ratings. On the flipside, hit the jackpot and you have a show that can run and run. A great example would be ABC’s Shark Tank which is now the number one show on Friday nights, actually repeats well, and is cheap to make. So put simply the networks are going to have to get better at picking reality hits – which means more original ideas and no more singing contests or weight loss shows!

Finally the networks are going to have to figure out a way to make CHEAPER original drama series. Fact is, it really shouldn’t cost 3-4 million to produce an episode of a network drama. We already know that stars don’t necessarily equal success so networks should invest more in strong concepts launching fresh faces. Perhaps they should adopt an American Horror Story style model where the cast can rotate – and if a star becomes costly they can be jettisoned down the line.  No more Friends style network negotiations!

But what do you think? How would you fix the network model? Do you mind repeats? And where do you see TV going in the next few years? Comment away!