Despite new CBS Entertainment President Amy Reisenbach’s emphatic declaration on Thursday that “broadcast is not dead,” the industry has largely shifted its focus to streaming. And it’s looking more likely than ever that NBC will give its 10 p.m. hour of programming back to its affiliates, an idea that was first teased in August.
Back in NBC’s “Must See TV” heyday of the 1990s, network president Warren Littlefield and most other industry execs thought of the 10 p.m. slot as “Malibu real estate,” valuable territory that no one in their right mind would want to give up. “But that was 30 years ago,” Littlefield told TheWrap in a recent interview.
While he still believes in the value of broadcast networks, Littlefield sees their role now as “a valuable part of a larger ecosystem,” which increasingly favors streaming. Networks “generate buzz and attention, but these are all pieces now of massive media companies. It’s the evolution of these platforms. A network is a platform. It’s no longer the platform, and that’s fine,” he said.
Tom Nunan, a former Littlefield colleague who also helped build UPN and Fox, said the writing is on the wall for all linear broadcasters. “Network television is on the way out and I think we all know that,” he said, adding that the idea of jettisoning the once-key 10 p.m. slot is simply the latest proof that streaming is the future.
“It’s not the end of the world”
While the mere idea of axing seven hours of primetime once seemed unthinkable, it’s already been done — just not in the U.S. “CBC in Canada ceded its 10:00 pm slot to news years ago and the universe did not end,” James Nadler, an associate professor at the Creative School of Toronto Metropolitan University, told TheWrap.
The 1982 shift was considered “one of the biggest gambles in the history of Canadian television,” according to CBC’s archives, but audiences were fine with getting their news an hour earlier. In fact, they were so used to watching nightly newcast “The National” at 10 p.m. that when it was temporarily switched back to 11 p.m. in 2006, viewers were livid.
Littlefield anticipates the U.S. industry will also take the shift in stride. “It’s not the end of the world,” he said.
What this means for the future of broadcast TV
Beyond the loss of a nightly hour of programming, the retreat from primetime signals a willingess to rethink the entire business model around network TV. “I don’t think it’s a big deal whether they give up the 10 o’clock hour or not,” Nunan said, “but I do think it’s a flashing red light that’s saying NBC may be getting out of the network business, and they may be doing it incrementally.”
While Nunan thinks it’s “unlikely” NBC will give up the 10 p.m hour for now, he suspects that the network will rethink its programming choices — doubling down on cheaper unscripted and reality series to create the same kind of content that affiliates might offer in that hour. “It’ll be sports, it’ll be game shows and the reality shows. Low-cost sticky programs for a more mature viewer who likes broadcast TV,” he said. “And then the scripted content, I think, will migrate over to the appropriate streaming umbrella.”
Littlefield, however, argues that network content won’t be split up so neatly between scripted and unscripted, pointing to ABC’s success with the sophomore comedy series “Abbott Elementary.” “All of a sudden, bam, an innovative, wonderful, big-tent comedy for all emerges on network television,” Littlefield said of the Quinta Bunson series, which airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. “Audiences discover it both on the network and on Hulu literally hours later. That’s a win for everybody. As long as you still have those examples of network success, that will continue.”
He also noted ABC parent Disney’s decision to move one of its biggest unscripted hits, “Dancing With the Stars,” to Disney+ for its 31st season this fall. “There’s a lot of experimentation,” he said. “But I hope it’s not [the case that] network airwaves can only do one thing and that’s unscripted shows.”
Despite the fact that network viewership continues to dwindle as viewers continue to cut the cord and the buzz shifts to streamers like Netflix and Hulu, network TV continues to drive major ad revenue given its broad reach. But as mass layoffs in media and tech surge, that trend is decidedly downward.
In October, CBS CEO George Cheeks told TheWrap that his network is “committed” to its 10 p.m. slate and isn’t considering moving ratings hits like “Blue Bloods” and “FBI: Most Wanted.” Paramount/CBS’ TV Media revenue was down 6% in Q1, up 1% in Q2, and, as reported on Nov. 2, saw a 5% dip in Q3.
Disney-owned ABC saw no change in revenue in Q1, but did report a 13% loss in operating income. “At linear networks, you may recall that we guided to a decrease in operating income of nearly $500 million for Q1 versus the prior year,” Disney CEO Bob Chapek said in February. ABC’s linear in Q2 was up 3%, but down again by 5% in the last quarter.
While many of the linear networks’ corresponding streaming partners aren’t yet profitable, that’s where their corporate owners are focusing most of their attention and money: The 2022-23 season saw a record low number of pilots and new scripted programs for the networks, Forbes reported.
“The question isn’t, ‘Will the networks survive?’ I think the question is more, ‘How long will the network survive to launch streaming, which is the future?'” Nunan said. “I don’t think we’re ever going to un-ring the bell. It’s done. We’re gonna be living in the streaming universe for the rest of our days until a new platform comes along.”
The change would benefit, not hurt, the affiliates and late night
If NBC (and other networks) back an hour of primetime, the affiliates would be responsible for programming that time — and collecting all of the ad revenue generated. That could mean different content, depending on the station (and the market).
“I would project that many stations will go to 10 o’clock news. They’ll have an additional hour of local news and that’s attractive to them,” Littlefield said. “They’re going to get revenue and cover their news overhead. And then late night will go in at 11 p.m., so you get a higher number of eyeballs, so that’s an advantage. And the audience will adapt to that. They just got their local news earlier, and then they went to late night at 11 and that should be more attractive.”
And that could be a win-win for both sides. “You’ve lowered costs at network, affiliates increase revenue, and you have a potential of raising your profitability on your late-night franchise,” Littlefield said.