Outside editorial: Don't write off network television

Posted: Tuesday, August 04, 2009

On the surface, it doesn't matter much to those of us in flyover country that Ben Silverman, the co-chairman of NBC Universal Entertainment, left the company this week after two years of abysmal last-place ratings.

But Silverman's failure at NBC highlights the struggles networks are having connecting with audiences in a new age of media consumption. Network TV may not be the shared experience it once was, but it can be so much better than the current mess of blink-and-you-miss-it scripted shows lost in an ocean of reality TV.

Nowhere is the problem more pronounced than at NBC, where the young and energetic Silverman took the creative helm just two years ago. As an entrepreneur, he had a record of success, developing the American version of "The Office," for example. But as a network suit, he was all over the place. A writer's strike didn't help, but almost half of the shows developed and launched during his tenure were of the reality ilk - stuff like "My Dad is Better Than Your Dad" and "American Gladiators." And some of his scripted shows were just retreads - "Knight Rider" and "Bionic Woman."

The more fundamental issue, though, is the notoriously short leash on new shows nowadays. Of the first 23 shows launched under Silverman, 20 were canceled after 20 episodes or fewer (including 13 canceled after 10 or fewer). In many cases, that demonstrated mercy for the audience, but let's remember that "Cheers" and "Seinfeld" were early flops once, too.

On cable channels, where ratings pressure is much lower, shows have time to grow and build an audience. Cable networks, including some owned by NBC, take advantage of the fact that more people can discover a show well into its lifespan through DVDs, DVR and digital downloads.

All things are cyclical in entertainment. Remember when Bill Cosby was credited with saving the sitcom in the 1980s? Or when "Lost" was credited with saving drama just a few years ago?

Well, for scripted shows to be saved, maybe they need a little more time to connect with people. That's quite a challenge when you hand one third of your primetime schedule over to Jay Leno.

We understand the pressure from advertisers to produce results quickly, but viewers are tired, not just of bad concepts, but of seeing promising shows pulled away too soon. Sure, millions of Americans will watch a show called "Most Amazing Fishing Accidents" if that's what you dangle in front of them, but that leaves an empty spot in our pop culture soul - a spot that could be given to good writers who have time to find some traction with audiences.

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