How the Major TV Networks Can Learn to Love the Internet

Written by Television

It’s eaten into their ratings and wreaked copyright havoc, but the web could end up becoming the Big Four’s most powerful tool.

So what’s a “TV network” anymore, anyway?

That’s the question I tweeted in response to the news that NBCUniversal plans to premiere more than a dozen new series through online channels including Hulu, NBC’s website, and VOD. It’s easy to view this as a cheap, desperate move by a network whose name has become synonymous with cheap, desperate moves (My colleague Mike Duquette answered my question by quipping “Barely NBC, as it is”), and Variety’s story on the NBCU announcement summed it up matter-of-factly as “a play to keep digital ad dollars from migrating to rivals.” But I think it also reflects a smart two-tiered approach to programming, as well as a harbinger of the ever-encroaching video singularity that will eventually rub out the distinction between digital and broadcast entertainment.

For many of us who are old enough to remember the dial-up era — or, ahem, the days when you had to get up off your ass to change the TV station — the idea of reliably streaming hi-def video is still, on some level, a glorious novelty, the kind of thing you can almost feel giddy for getting away with. In terms of content production, the web is still largely viewed as sort of a farm system for television, where you get your “real” shows.

That’s still true to an extent, but it’s changing. As the Variety report notes, both NBC and ABC explored the digital premiere method in 2008-09, and although none of their efforts made much of an impact, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu have moved aggressively into original content in recent years, with occasionally impressive results. The technology is obviously still evolving — and not quite mature enough to support the demands of episodic daily programming — but it’s rising to meet, and transform, our viewing expectations.

Not that this is news to the major networks. After watching their market share erode following the advent of cable TV, they’ve suffered further attrition during the broadband era. The last in-depth market study I could find listed a cable subscription base of roughly 84 million; as of late 2013, the U.S. had around 83 million broadband subscribers, all of whom have access to an array of programming choices, and all of which has totally atomized the viewing audience. It’s a familiar concept for us at this point, but it’s still a source of lingering horror for an industry that, during 1986-87 season, saw an average of nearly 30 million people tune in every week for its top-rated show.

In contrast, the top-rated series of the 2012-13 season (NCIS) walked away with a 21.6 million average. That drop paints a stark enough picture, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg; the fifth-highest rated show that year drew 16.2 million, while in ’86-’87, the Number Five show pulled in 25.9. In other words, technology has evaporated TV’s ability to manufacture consensus.

For a long time, this was mainly a problem for ABC, CBS, and NBC to deal with, and they adapted — albeit not always effectively — to stave off challenges from upstarts like Fox and cable, as well as pay networks like HBO. It wasn’t much of an issue as long as there was still enough room for everyone to get rich — which they did, as cable premiums and ad dollars skyrocketed in a fruitless effort to test the outer limits of our bottomless thirst for moving pictures we can watch while sitting down at home. (Cable packages, which cost around $20 in the early ’90s, routinely set customers back more than five times that amount today, while the cost of a Super Bowl ad more than quadrupled between 1990 and 2010.)

Now, though, even those upstarts are feeling the pinch. The biggest video streaming service, Netflix, has a subscriber base of around 44 million users — and although its $7.99 monthly fee means it isn’t as profitable as HBO/Cinemax, it’s drawing a comparable audience. Perhaps more importantly, Netflix knows more about its users and what they’re watching; rather than relying on widely disputed Nielsen data, they can look at their own numbers — and dive in far enough to figure out not only what people are watching, but how long they watch it, and what they watch next. Where they pause. What they search for. Which actors are their favorites. You get the idea.

This not only takes a lot of the guesswork out of delivering popular programming, it upends ingrained notions of what makes a “hit.” Netflix has famously refused to divulge ratings data for its original series House of Cards, which drives pundits crazy while pointing the way toward a future in which self-contained entertainment ecosystems anticipate and create the shows subscribers want before they even know what they’re asking for, then reap the rewards on their own terms. If the proliferation of entertainment options destroyed consensus by making us all individually monetized niches, perhaps granular data can restore it by sussing out the ingredients for whatever constitutes broad-based entertainment in the 21st century.

And here’s how NBCU’s announcement, which might actually be a panicked attempt to cling to digital ad dollars, could also — if the company is smart, and I’m not saying it is — be part of a multi-pronged approach that seeks to take advantage of the web’s niche-friendly, data-driven potential while freeing up the broadcast schedule for the kind of stuff the networks still do better than anyone else: event entertainment.

Consider NBC’s The Sound of Music Live!, which, between live and DVR broadcasts, pulled in 22 million viewers — a far cry from Cosby Show numbers, but still a step in the right direction for a network whose most critically beloved series regularly draw fewer than three million. Rather than trying to emulate prestige cable shows like The Walking Dead, Mad Men, or The Americans and vainly attempting to build consensus hits out of niche-by-nature quality series like Hannibal, they should double down on their strength — their wide reach — by focusing on programming people will feel like they have to tune in for as it happens instead of portably consuming on demand.

This is easier said than done, of course, and it also tends to drive the demand for cheaply produced stuff like The Bachelor or any one of a dozen American Idol knockoffs. No sane person would argue for more of that. But programming like The Sound of Music Live!, while easy to mock as old-fashioned (and possibly awful), at least indicates an eagerness to entertain that’s been missing from too many of the TV industry’s recent attempts to reverse its slide.

If it seems like I’m saying NBC should dump its low-rated series onto Hulu and stop broadcasting anything besides musicals, sporting events, and singing contests, I’m not. But I am envisioning a future in which Hulu, et cetera really can act as a kind of farm system for the networks — a place where “niche” doesn’t necessarily mean “on the bubble,” where more offbeat choices can once again be subsidized by lowest-common-denominator-in-kind-of-a-good-way stuff like Battle of the Network Stars. A system that plays to the inherent strengths of both delivery mechanisms — the wide spotlight of broadcast TV and the pinpoint-efficient laser of the web — while harvesting viewer information to refine overall creative efforts.

How long will it take to get there? I don’t know, but probably not as long as it might seem. Nerdist mastermind Chris Hardwick has repeatedly pointed out that the “ratings” numbers enjoyed by YouTube stars are already on par with plenty of TV shows, and what do you know — YouTube just launched an ad campaign aimed at bringing channel owners like Bethany Mota (5.8 million subscribers) to a wider audience.

Of course, “subscribers” don’t necessarily translate to viewers — I’m YouTube-subscribed to a number of content feeds that I rarely visit — and that’s kind of the crux of why NBCU’s new digital ventures tend to consist of crap like Saturday Night Line, “a socially interactive digital series featuring super fans who wait in the Saturday Night Live standby line outside NBCU’s 30 Rock headquarters”; at the moment, the networks are more willing to throw spaghetti at this particular wall if it costs next to nothing. And they’re not necessarily wrong, either — close to 20 percent of U.S. households still reportedly take the free antenna approach to TV, which adds up to roughly 60 million people, including a growing number of “younger households, lower-income families and minorities.”

Obviously, not all of these households are actually tuning in to those over-the-air broadcasts, as the ratings attest — but I submit that that’s partly due to the networks’ approach to programming, which has reached new lows of transparent cynicism and frantic desperation during the reality era, and it represents an enormous opportunity for the networks to regain lost ground. Deprived of profits artificially inflated by a shattered monopoly on viewing habits, they’ve resorted to clutching the financial bottom line tighter than ever, and ceded quality to cable and the web. A more balanced approach, shaped by a renewed commitment to broad-based entertainment and driven by the same technology that’s flummoxed them and diminished their value, could reverse that tide.