Robert Greenblatt, president of NBC Entertainment, is talking about NBC's recent history, specifically the period when General Electric owned and ruled the venerable network. "I think there was a sense that it's a declining business, and let's just sort of manage the decline and hope we can get the best out of it."
This feeling is not confined to some non-showbiz number crunchers at GE. There is a vague but widespread belief that the traditional network, or "broadcast television" industry, is fading. Every new advance in technology – from the growth of specialty cable channels to the spread of Internet access to the iPad to the success of Netflix – causes a small army of pundits to suggest that the end of old-fashioned television is nigh.
There is no doubt that, according to traditional measurements, the number of people watching network TV in the United States is steadily shrinking.
Look at comparisons between viewers last season and the 2010-2011 prime-time broadcast season (which ended in May): ABC was down 9.7 per cent, CBS was down 8.1 per cent, Fox was down 5.8 per cent and NBC was down 15.5 per cent. Still, these numbers don't tell the whole story. In the case of Fox, if the staggering number of viewers for this year's Super Bowl broadcast – a TV audience of 111 million people – was removed from the equation, the broadcaster would actually be down 18.4 per cent. And if the Winter Olympics coverage were added to NBC's total, the decline would only be 2.2 per cent from the previous season.
At the same time, viewing numbers for many of the top 10 shows during the 2010-11 season actually went up slightly. This is the result of DVR viewing being added to the calculations. The Nielsen ratings now count viewers who watch a show on their DVR within seven days of the broadcast. As Kevin Reilly, president of Fox Entertainment Group, said during the recent TV critics' press tour in Los Angeles, where broadcasters present the fall shows, "Sometimes my head spins with the complexity of the ratings."
There are countless issues facing network TV. One is the fact that it has been years since a scripted drama or comedy was the No. 1 show for an entire season. The last was CBS's CSI: Crime Scene Investigation in 2003. Mind you, rough figures for international sales and viewer numbers would suggest that CSI was the most-viewed show in the world in 2010.
However, for all the turmoil, in talking to executives from the four major U.S. networks here, it emerges that nobody is worried about the end of network TV. Everybody is concerned about changing viewing habits, and the challenge of creating hit TV shows that transcend network TV to become popular-culture phenomena.
Nobody sees other technologies as replacing television. Everybody sees opportunities to reach more consumers on new communication platforms and everybody knows that advertiser-supported broadcast television is still the major content provider for those platforms and the most visible entertainment form on the planet. If there are concerns, they are about creating the content that matters to consumers – the content people want to watch, whether it's on the traditional TV set at home, streamed to their computer or downloaded to their tablet or smartphone.
Certainly that's Greenblatt's principal concern. He took over at NBC six months ago and his job is to take the network out of fourth place. That's what Comcast Corp., NBC's majority owner since January of this year (GE still owns 49 per cent), wants. Comcast is the largest cable operator and home Internet service provider in the United States. It's not GE; it's a communications company.
Once, NBC was No. 1 among the four U.S. networks and crowed about its ability to deliver an endless stream of super-successful shows – ER, Cheers, Seinfeld, Friends, to name just a few. Then the stream dried up. CBS took the lead with enormously popular sitcoms and police procedurals, and Fox destroyed the competition in the ratings with American Idol. NBC became best known for disastrous programming errors, including airing the cheap-to-make Jay Leno Show at 10 p.m. and the ensuing farce of its cancellation and the resignation of Conan O'Brien from The Tonight Show.
Given his mandate, Greenblatt seems a surprisingly content man. After a career in the theatre and some time at Fox, he was put in charge of cable channel Showtime and delivered cable hits with a string of adult, provocative series – Dexter, Weeds, Nurse Jackie and The Tudors. At NBC, his job is to succeed with populist, mass-appeal shows. And it doesn't faze him.
"Cable has been great for writers [of TV shows]. Broadcast is more difficult," he says. "The target is the broadest possible audience. I certainly don't want to turn NBC into Showtime. I'm trying to get the greatest writers and producers to come to NBC. But I also don't want to tie their hands so the creativity gets sucked out of them. What's worked for me over the years is to find people whose voice you really like and just stay out of their way. I think we've got to find ways to conceptually excite the audience, which has so much else to watch and so many diversions and so many great shows on cable."
"Comedy is a goal for us. We've got to have more of it," he emphasizes.
In particular, he wants more "multi-camera" comedy. That means the traditional sitcom, filmed in front of a live audience. He's seen how well such shows have performed for CBS. Sitcoms such as Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory are not only ratings hits for CBS but are immensely popular in boxed-DVD sets, as online entertainment and through Netflix, which allows viewers to watch entire seasons at their leisure. The revenue just keeps coming when a hit sitcom is syndicated or available online and from on-demand services.
To that end, Greenblatt is stacking the NBC schedule with female-centric comedies this year, including the very traditional Whitney, which looks like a female version of CBS's male-focused hit comedies.
"Given all of the doom and gloom in our industry and for our little network, I think it's been a pretty good spring and summer," Greenblatt says. His main reason for optimism is the surprising success of The Voice, another singing-competition show, which has been a huge hit in a very crowded field. It will return next season.
Over at CBS, chief of research David Poltrack, a man who has spent years studying TV viewing patterns and statistics, dismisses pessimism about network TV.
"As this century opened, the focus of the world was on the Internet, and the focus of the television industry was on the DVR. At that time, the business of prognostication was booming, and no one was too optimistic about the future of the broadcast networks. Yet here we stand 11 years later, and the business of network television is alive and well. That doesn't mean that the entertainment market has not been transformed by the new technologies. It has. What the pundits got wrong was not the impact of the new technologies but the alleged vulnerability of the television networks. ... As the broadcasters and the cable networks move more content online, the viewers' online video diet has included more and more episodes of television programs.
"It would be no surprise to find, for the first time, a significant number of viewers reporting that they're watching more television than last year. The fact is, the viewer's perception of television viewing is program- or content-driven, not distribution-driven. Whether they are watching their favourite program on their computer, their tablet or their smartphone, they consider themselves to be watching television. So contrary to the expectations of the pundits, the explosion of new sources of video distribution has actually fortified the market for the broadcast networks' content."
Asked what's the major challenge networks face in the next two years Poltrack says it's mainly about adapting to new distribution systems – and how they affect mass viewing.
"When we test a TV program today, the same percentage of people say they are likely to watch it as said that in 1960. But they are, in reality, much less likely to watch it. Because they go home and there are so many more shows to watch, so many more things to distract them. The Internet, video games, DVDs. They still want to watch TV. We just have to get our shows noticed. That's why we have to be on all platforms possible and use all the distribution systems possible."
At Fox, Reilly echoes Poltrack's concerns about getting the attention of viewers. "I think the measuring stick gets a little trickier," he says. "We're increasingly in a less linear universe where people are consuming things on their own schedule and their own time, and we have got to demand their attention."
For this reason, Reilly is a firm believer in the potency of live events that just can't be put aside for later. "Advertisers love that. A 30-second spot on broadcast television moves product. It's better when we can assure the advertisers that the ad is being seen exactly when they want it seen, not days or weeks later. [Network TV] is still the biggest platform for advertisers. The big events for advertisers – Idol, the Super Bowl, the Oscars – are broadcast television events. That's when they launch national products. Nobody launches a national product just by using the Internet."
Reilly also cites sports as an example of the vigour of network TV. "An example of the power of broadcast TV, I think, is the expansion and success of the NFL. Unlike other sports that went to cable TV, the NFL just grows and grows. Broadcast TV has made the NFL a national game."
Reilly also points to Glee. "That came out of nowhere on Fox to become a phenomenon. The songs sell on iTunes, there are stage shows by the cast and there's Glee: The 3D Concert Movie. Only network TV can launch something like Glee" (in terms of reaching a mass audience, not the niche audience of cable).
At ABC, an Oxford-educated Englishman and former BBC executive, Paul Lee, is president of the Entertainment Group, a position he's held since July, 2010.
Lee has little time for gloom about network TV. His job, he says, is to reinvigorate a network that has aging hits such as Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives, the latter a show now going into its final season.
"The platform, network television, is potent and meaningful," Lee says. "I think it's our job to create television that questions how people feel in the world. So we didn't sit down and go, 'Oh, there are the employment figures. Let's build some shows [about that]. For this season, we found shows that made us cackle with laughter, and we put them on."
In fact, for this coming season, ABC, part of the Walt Disney Co., has made more new scripted shows than any of its three rivals. The focus is on women viewers, and the hope is that the almost all-female drama Pan Am will take over from Desperate Housewives and a new drama coming mid-season from Shonda Rhimes, the Grey's Anatomy creator, can replace Grey's as a must-see drama for women.
Lee is unwilling to make grand predictions about network TV. But he does say that networks have to take "some risks in broadcast" and, he adds, "I've been in the business long enough to know that you stumble as much as you succeed."
The upshot, then, is that network execs feel that broadcast television might be stumbling, but is far from experiencing a fatal fall into irrelevancy.
As Fox's Reilly says, "The advertisers don't debate about whether broadcast television matters more or less than it used to matter. They've stuck with us. I started in this business in the 1980s when the term 'dinosaur' was applied to network TV. The reports of its death have been very premature."
The top 10 prime-time network shows of 2010-2011
Here are the top 10 prime-time network shows from the 2010-2011 season. Ranking is by average viewership ratings per episode.
1. American Idol, performance show (Fox): 25.9 million
2. American Idol, results show (Fox): 23.8 million
3. Dancing with the Stars, performance show (ABC): 21.9 million
4. Sunday Night NFL Football (NBC): 21.4 million
5. NCIS (CBS): 19.4 million
6. Dancing with the Stars, results show (ABC): 18.6 million
7. NCIS: Los Angeles (CBS): 16.5 million
8. Sunday Night NFL Pre-Game Show (NBC): 15.9 million
9. The Mentalist (CBS): 15.2 million
10. Criminal Minds (CBS): 14.1 million