NBC and the End of the Broadcast Era

The news broke yesterday that NBC will be canceling 30 Rock, Parks and Rec, and Community.

(…On the bright side, I suppose I’ll be more productive next year when there’s nothing interesting to watch on television.)

As a media consumer, I was shocked.  Everyone who watches Community knew the show was in ratings trouble.  But the other two shows have been a Thursday night tentpole and didn’t seem to be in danger.  Considering the hit-or-miss quality of most NBC programming, does anyone believe that they’ll find three replacements that are better?

As a media analyst, this strikes me as evidence that NBC just doesn’t understand (or accept) how the tv game has fundamentally changed.  The network has the attention of a valuable niche audience, but insists upon wasting it.  NBC was once the most popular television network in America.  But that was during the era of broadcast television, when limited consumer choice meant that three or four networks enjoyed the luxury of competing over an entire national audience.  NBC was home to The Cosby Show and Cheers in the 1980s, Friends and Seinfeld in the 1990s.  Those hit shows brought in a whole national audience.  Today’s NBC shows attract an appealing niche audience rather than the whole nation.

The difference is cable tv and the Internet.  Cable television existed in the 1980s and 1990s, but had a different texture.  Cable stations offered niche programming, while the networks offered staples.  Many households did not have cable back then.  While HBO started developing its own programming relatively early, we were still a long away from AMC competing for “best drama” Emmys with Mad Men.  Lacking the social web, audiences were passive.  Lacking the rich online data environment, advertisers settled for coarse metrics of audience interest.

Today, NBC fills a pretty sweet niche with its programming.  Parks and Rec, 30 Rock, The Office*, and Community anchor a lineup of generally pretty-smart comedies.  They attract devoted fans who riff on the shows constantly online.  My students at Rutgers frequently mention that they watch 30 Rock or Community.  They never mention Two and a Half Men.  My friends and colleagues are the same.  Amongst the social clusters who watch Mad Men and The Wire, NBC is the broadcast network that we most often tune in to.  NBC could choose to be happy with that audience.  It’s a tech-savvy crowd, with enough spending power and cultural capital to keep advertisers happy.  But that would mean relinquishing the dream of recapturing 1980s audience-share.  Apparently the network decided to go another direction.

If some upstart competitor is smart, they’ll view this as an opportunity. Cult favorite  Arrested Development is already heading to Netflix.  Netflix or another outlet (Current TV 2.0, anyone?) ought to round up these shows and corner the market on creative-class cultural favorites.

Arrested Development is a great example of the broader trend: how can a show that is so intensely popular not be worth airing?  In the era of broadcast, when there were limited timeslots, I can understand that logic.  You cancel it because the “real estate” of prime time television is too scarce and too valuable.  But can anyone honestly argue that Arrested Development wouldn’t attract a solid niche audience on a weekly basis?  Now that we have hundreds of channels, plus hulu, plus netflix, plus youtube for remixes, plus tumblr for memes, plus twitter for riffs, no channel is going to attract Seinfeld-sized audiences.  But that also means there’s expanded opportunity for quality programming.

If you can’t make money off of Arrested Development or 3o Rock, Parks and Rec or Community, it’s time to get out of the money-making business.


*The Office is sticking around for another full season.  I will pay cold, hard cash if someone can explain the logic of that move.

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