Reposted from my blog at TV Worth Blogging.
The Jay Leno Show begins its history-making run tonight on NBC. That’s right, without having seen a single episode, I can confidently claim that it will make history. When future pop cultural anthropologists penetrate the Miley-Britney Stratum and begin to excavate our era, they will wisely look at each other and cluck (yes, chickens will rule the future) “This day was the beginning of the end of network television.”
That’s because today is the first time an American commercial television network has turned over five hours of prime-time to a talk show. Big deal, right? Actually, yes.
NBC, once the unstoppable juggernaut of “Must See,” home to E.R., Seinfeld, The Cosby Show and Cheers, has run up the flag of surrender. Firmly in fourth place, lacking a strong program development slate, they’ve essentially given up on trying to fill twenty-two hours of prime-time. They’ve declared that audiences in the age of TiVo, Hulu and XBox have become too fragmented to pay for all of those expensive dramas and sitcoms.
I’ve seen this coming for at least a decade. As cable and satellite systems continued to expand their offerings, they pecked away at the dominance of the so-called “Big Four” networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox). Lots of people were watching television, but an ever-increasing number of them were engaged by programming targetted to their niche interests.
Not too long ago I pulled out the earliest Nielsen ratings book in the WILL-TV archive, from February 1976. For no particular reason, my eyes alighted on Petrocelli. If you don’t remember that one, you’re not alone. It was a legal drama that ran for two seasons on NBC. In fact, it was cancelled shortly after this particular ratings book was issued. Yet in our local market, Petrocelli ended its run with a 17 rating. Seventeen percent of all households with a TV were tuned to Barry Newman as small-town lawyer Tony Petrocelli.
By comparison, in the May 2009 book for our market the final four episodes of this year’s American Idol competition averaged a 15 rating. Idol, arguably the most buzzed-about series of the past decade, doesn’t even crack the level set by Petrocelli just before the axe fell.
The problem with all of this is that the niche audiences which have migrated to cable and satellite aren’t large enough to attract the advertising dollars necessary to pay for top-line talent and production values.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some fine programs out there in the “500 channel universe.” Most of the bigger cable networks have one or two higher-end productions which they use as their calling cards. Shows like Mad Men, Damages, Battlestar Galactica and Project Runway attract attention and awards; they help build corporate identities and invite viewers to check out a channel’s other offerings.
But none of these so-called “networks” can afford to make anywhere near the number that once populated the Big Four’s lineup. They fill the rest of the time with cheap programming and repeats of shows that once aired on broadcast TV.
What I foresaw–and what I think the coming of Jay Leno to prime-time portends–was a future in which no channel, not even the broadcast networks, could pay to produce more than a handful of shows at the level of quality we once took for granted.
Whether or not The Jay Leno Show succeeds–and remember, as Time’s TV critic James Poniewozik points out in his recent cover story, the bar for success is ridiculously low–it’s a clear indication that the business model has irrevocably changed. The future is coming, and Mr. Leno’s prodigious chin will point the way.