Chillin' out till it needs to be funded
With one sweeping shift this week, the ailing NBC network reordered the playing field of prime-time television. The introduction of a five-night-a-week program starring Mr. Leno, beginning next fall, was a concession that TV norms cannot continue, at least not at fourth-place NBC.
The programming and viewing habits of the last 50 years — exemplified by the checkerboard of competing programs on the broadcast networks — are being replaced by an Internet-influenced time-shifting model of scheduling. As a result, the very definition of prime time may be changing.
“We do have to continue to rethink what a broadcast network is,” Jeffrey Zucker, the chief executive of NBC Universal, a unit of General Electric, said at an industry conference Monday, hours before the news of Mr. Leno’s new assignment emerged. He warned that if changes were not undertaken, “the broadcast networks will end up like the newspaper business or, worse, like the car companies.” Maybe Mr. Zucker has seen the future; after all, his network has lost 50 percent of its 10 p.m. audience in the last three years.
The announcement of Mr. Leno’s show continues to reverberate on studio lots and executive corridors here, as the Monday-through-Friday “strip” is unprecedented in the modern network television era. NBC framed the decision in terms of competitiveness and cost-effectiveness, because it defuses the risk of Mr. Leno’s move to another network and saves untold millions of dollars a year. But it also reflects the increasing irrelevance of the network schedule.
The irrelevance is partly because of digital video recorders, the bane of many a television executive. Viewers in the 28 percent of homes with DVRs are recording programs at 8 and 9 p.m. and playing them back later in the evening, hurting the 10 p.m. hour. Of the 10 prime-time programs that gained the biggest audience from DVR usage this year, none were on at 10 p.m.
The biggest gainers from DVR viewership were dramas. According to statistics on time-shifting released by Nielsen Media Research on Friday, the NBC series “Heroes” benefited the most from DVRs, with a 35 percent increase in its audience after seven days of time-shifted viewing. The new Fox drama “Fringe” experienced a 26 percent increase, and the ABC series “Lost” had a 25 percent increase.