Dying primetime: Loss for live viewers, win for binge-watchers
By Robyn Cawley
With every passing fall season, primetime networks attempt to launch new shows that appeal to audience demands of nonrepetitive love stories and “Not another lawyer show” — but not at the cost of losing dedicated viewers of their programs.
And, yes, it’s a smart fiscal choice. But it’s certainly not the progressive, revolutionary choice.
As a dedicated television viewer, I know the excitement of waiting for live episodes week-by-week. And no, it hasn’t gone away, thanks to CBC’s “Anne with An E.” However, I’m accustomed to watching “Schitt’s Creek” all at once, and the thought of waiting weekly breaks my heart — and attention span.
But 10 years ago, I was a kid who had a half-page homework assignment and plenty of time to do dishes in between commercials. Being a college student, those breaks slow the pace and I wish I was around to watch “Stumptown” at 9 p.m. on Wednesdays.
And streaming networks know that I will be around at one a.m., while primetime knows not to wait up for me.
Networks’ programming pairs with their viewership — knowing who their demographic is allows for networks to cater to what their audience wants to see. Those who love shows like “NCIS” alum Michael Weatherly will return to watch him lead “Bull,” just like those who love seeing ‘Executive Producer: Shonda Rhimes’ will watch the next dramatic serial she crafts.
The main networks — ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, The CW — air primetime programs from seven p.m. to 10 p.m. Shows are divided into time slots based on their genre, content rating and their success with fans.
Nielsen ratings, which compare viewers to the number of households, are essential to whether shows are renewed, receive extended episode orders or switch to a better time slot. The budget for shows in tandem with ratings are integral to series renewal.
With the prevalence of streaming and DVR, ratings now take into account when shows are viewed overnight, as well as three and seven days after air.
Primetime airtime slots — Mondays through Thursdays — are chosen based on show genre, lead actors and blocking tv shows, which is when four sitcoms run back to back as “Comedy Thursdays.”
Fridays are where shows that are losing ratings or not doing well compared to other programs go. Every network has a collection of shows that make their way to the end of the week, some successful and some crossing to their death.
One of my all-time favorites, ABC’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” successfully survived after a demotion to a Friday airtime due to a steady fanbase, while “Quantico” viewers lost the show after gradually they lost interest. This is the graveyard shift of TV programs known as “Friday night death slot.”
Shows are valued based on viewership — if the audience does not watch them, they don’t stick around to air typically beyond their first series. Jokes fall flat, storylines are often overdone, characters are not given the depth they deserve — and thus, people stop watching.
Therefore, this poses a question: Do networks cater programs to their audience or do audiences shape the roster for a season’s TV shows? It’s not far from the chicken or the egg metaphor.
Each network has a general audience they focus their efforts on — CBS favors procedural series’ and NBC explores relatable, melancholy dramas — to get the biggest turn of viewer engagement.
Out of all of the main networks, CBS was the most-watched in 2018-’19 season. “Blue Bloods,” “Hawaii Five-0” and “The Big Bang Theory” are among their most popular shows, running for years with a consistent fanbase. Procedurals — episodic and self-contained with each forty-two minute periods — are a favorite among audiences that don’t binge, don’t have the time to watch it live and are not deeply invested in the characters.
Those folx watching CBS shows often are not millennials looking for a show to binge. Instead, it’s often middle-aged and elderly viewers finishing their dinners while an episode of “S.W.A.T.” fills the living room.
Historically, FOX has been considered a conservative network, especially in their broadcast news segments. In fact, while the program “Lucifer” aired its first season, a collection of mothers said the program “mocked the Bible” and “mischaracterized Satan.” After three seasons, the show was cancelled and picked up by Netflix in a matter of weeks.
FOX attempts to reach to a broader audience — ”Brooklyn Nine-Nine” called it home for five seasons, while “Prodigal Son” is one of the best new shows of fall 2019. However, their attempts to reach to a broader audience are built on heteronormative storylines and predominantly white casts.
The backbone of ABC is Shondaland. “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder” are among Shonda Rhimes’ most popular programs — and the ones garnering the most attention with the public. Thursday nights on ABC — TGIT — is the network’s most popular night.
ABC attempts at progressivism are successful among their audience, except their programs focus more on diverse appearance then inclusive storytelling. ABC is not the only one — in fact, all of the major networks with primetime shows have yet to promote programming that is truly inclusive in nature.
Yet, NBC attempts are the most appealing to audiences who love to binge. Between Michael Schur’s comedies and “This is Us,” they both have moments where narratives of Black folx are written by Black folx, and “The Good Place” balances morality and equity within the comedic walls of Ted Danson’s architecture.
NBC knows who their audience is and knows where they are looking to head. Much like Shondaland, shows live in the same universe — “Chicago Med,” “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago P.D.” are headed by one executive producer: Dick Wolf. Narratives intertwine and spill over into the next night, encouraging fans of one show to stay tuned for the remainder of the week.
The CW is the network for millennials — most narratives feature young adults tackling identity, sexuality and race in their daily lives. It has the lowest ratings of them all, but it’s not shocking knowing that many of the networks shows — “Jane the Virgin,” “Riverdale” and “The 100” are among the most popular now streaming on Netflix.
The freedom of their network to attempt storylines nearing inclusivity shows in their Nielsen ratings. Numbers that prove that a show is doing well on The CW is a failure to any other main network. They know who their audience is — and how many of them are watching live TV — and they cater to it.
But the best networks are the ones that both look at their audience and challenge them. FX does this with “Pose,” much like AMC does so with “Preacher.” Through sexual freedom, language use and gory fights with vampires, both shows push boundaries of familiarity. They are in control of the audience — not vice versa.
And this is where a lot of primetime networks slip up. Shows that build narratives around a specific number of seasons, limit the number of episodes per season and explore avenues that viewers are not rooting for are the ones that are the most creative.
They are not afraid of getting canceled, because at least they were able to complete the story they had in mind. Yet again, the value of streaming continues to climb because freedom of expression is where streaming sites are able to excel.
The reality is many live TV viewers are not college students or folx spending long hours at their jobs. Folx that work the normalized nine-to-five-hour workday are the ones able to watch live programming on a weekly basis. Primetime is for an old generation of viewers, while streaming is made for folx looking to the future of television.
Primetime shows are attempting to be more inclusive — they want to engage the same audiences with new content and also dip into the success of streaming platforms like Hulu and Netflix.
When “Lucifer” moved to Netflix, it was sexier and darker — dedicated fans admired the writers’ room’s ability to push boundaries it wasn’t able to on FOX. The same thing happened to shows like “The Mindy Project” and the spinoff of “Full House,” “Fuller House.”
If primetime networks want to move with the future of streaming — becoming more impossible with each passing day — they need to tell stories that reflect current viewing patterns, as well as focus on narrative structures that allow for connections between characters and viewers.
And that’s a big ‘if.’
But instead of thinking about what could be, it’s time to face the facts: primetime is dead; streaming is the present and the future.
While primetime television programs will continue to rake in viewers, the future of television viewing will be drastically changed 10 years from now. And one thing is for certain — live viewing will not be a part of that revolution.
No More Ratings: How success is measured on streaming services
By Lauren Souza
Each fall, the time-old networks push out a plethora of TV shows, hoping to garner more viewership that tries to keep up with the times. These shows will plead with the networks to get more episodes or the blessed renewal. Sitcoms, dramas, procedurals will aim for the highest fall ratings to show their talent — they will fail.
There has been a question buzzing around the TV industry and amongst popular networks: Is traditional TV still relevant?
We are living in an age where streaming, cord cutting, cord shaving or cord-never is normal. Roughly 10 years ago, if someone was asked what cord-cutting was, they would have been so confused.
I grew up needing to DVR all my favorite shows if they were going to be shown at the same time. It was a battle in my house to get to the remote first when the clock struck 7 p.m. because if you didn’t, there wasn’t a way to watch that show. Now, kids are growing up immersed in the likes of Netflix, Hulu and the future of Disney+.
It’s happening now. The evolution of TV has already begun in the form of streamings. Let the wars begin.
The legacy of traditional networks and TV shows holds a nostalgic place with older generations but the young people did not have that exposure growing up. It’s like hearing your parents discuss having a corded telephone that they had to share with their family. The horror of it all.
But now, it's hard to imagine a world where Netflix and Disney are not cherished for all the content and access they provide.
TV is showing up through an ethernet cable, not a coaxial cable anymore.
There will be a point where all of TV is delivered over the internet, because it’s better, it’s faster, it’s cheaper — at the moment. There will no longer be a dependency on ads concerning viewership.
Ratings are no longer the key to a show’s success.
The world of television survived off of ratings — now, it’s become a lot more complex factors. This is not to say that we are living in a post-ratings world — at least not yet. As long as advertisement remains a crucial aspect of the network TV model, ratings will always matter.
When I say matter, I mean showing what kind of series is garnering attention and bringing in a big profit.
Ratings — the Nielsen’s rating system — tabulates viewership for every given household but while evolving TV, the system is struggling to remain relevant. Despite the changing form of broadcasting and primetime, networks continue to hold basic ratings accountable as to whether the show will make it or not.
One of the main reasons that ratings continue to exist is to help networks determine how much to charge when it comes to ad time. However, the less important ad money becomes, the less important those ratings are.
The emphasis on live viewership has decreased dramatically in recent years, especially since the transition to online streaming cannot yet be counted for purposes of ratings.
This is the network’s dilemma.
The shortcomings of the Nielsen rating system — particularly the millennial demographic, who are more likely to watch streaming services — are forcing networks to reevaluate the importance of ratings.
It is a perfect storm: streaming is bringing in delayed waves of viewers while ratings are down across the board, making it harder for networks to change their shows or cancel them. Back then, it would take three to four weeks to determine if a show had traction. Now, it takes at least eight episodes to determine if it's good.
The drops in ratings is a prime example that the consumption of TV and media is changing. Streaming means there will be less traditional viewers recording their favorite show and fewer ads being displayed.
When this fall season came around, 13 shows were entering into at least their 10th season or higher, such as “Grey’s Anatomy” (15th season) and “The Simpsons” (30th season). However, their viewership is down at least 70 percent from their records.
The depletion of ratings in response to internet media growth shows that change is imminent. This will force networks to target certain audiences rather than working with producers to make the next big hit. It will force the network to loosen the grip of their formulaic system to make something distinctive.
The internet forever changed television just as how television adapted to cable back in the 80s.
The shifts in what is being renewed, what is being canceled and what is being picked back up are driven by a multitude of factors. It’s a generational drift that is causing these lower numbers due to the gap between primetime and streaming.
The saying, “I’ll wait till it’s on Netflix,” has become the norm. I’ll admit to feeling the same way on whether or not I can realistically set aside time to watch primetime shows live.
The network USA was very popular when I was growing up. It had some of my all-time favorites: “Graceland,” “Covert Affairs” and “Suits” to name a few. I can still recall going to a friend's house every Thursday to watch “Graceland” live, but now I can find half of those shows on Amazon Prime or Netflix and never have to worry about missing it.
Case in point as to how shows or networks as a whole lose their loyal viewerships. Especially given my age when the internet became a thing, I do not think I would have finished half these shows if they were not offered on a streaming service to binge or catch-up on a season. The shift of moving to streaming as a means to watch my shows heavily impacted the ratings of these staple series.
The networks were not lost on the decrease of ratings and viewers. “Graceland” was canceled after three seasons due to poor ratings. (Still salty about that).
Interestingly, despite the lower rating success, it is causing shows to remain on air with no real evaluation. “Madam Secretary,” shown on CBS, has entered into its fifth season despite a nearly 50 percent drop in total viewers.
In terms of primetime, it's become easier to stay on the air but much harder to get on the air. There is no real balance of shows, it’s either good or bad television tipping the scales every season.
Jumping back in time when broadcast television was the thing, there was an emergence of networks and channels causing cable to become even more expensive. However, providers realized it would be easier to group these channels, charging consumers one fee.
The age of streaming came and blew cable out of the park. In response to the ever-increasing cost of cable bundles, streaming is presenting itself as an alternative. It is important to note that none of this would have been possible without cable and satellite companies.
Primetime paved the way for streaming.
The revolution for streaming sites did not happen overnight. Take HBO for example, it dipped its toe into the streaming operation through HBO Go — a feature that came with a cable subscription or Amazon Prime and HBO Now — their actual streaming option.
All of our screens are now TVs, there is no more linear television — a time when viewing patterns were predictable and controllable. The platform of the internet has opened up a world of possibilities.
When it comes to the internet, it’s always changing, and it’s changing fast. The shift to streaming has brought on the streaming wars — a race to launch a new streaming subscription. It was only fitting that this would happen after the decline of the traditional cable bundle after the influx of households cutting the cord each year to services like Netflix.
The worries of getting the best primetime slot have been long forgotten and in its stead is the focus on the number of subscriptions a streaming site can generate. In the streaming world, pulling a large audience isn’t crucial to a show’s survival.
The services being offered are Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Disney+, Apple TV and NBC. Who knows which network will offer one next.
Multiple things can go wrong with this race to rule streaming. To match the reigning champ, Netflix, competitors are working to spew out new content distancing itself from prestigious TV and into something new — an age of anything goes. There is a budding tension between quality and quantity, but nothing is perfect.
The answer to the question, “Is traditional TV still relevant?” is no.
The legacy of TV is becoming extinct. It won’t happen tomorrow, but soon. The quick pace of streaming services has resulted in this race to be on top. The goal is for one of these sites of many a few to be able to own and make all the content.
Half of these streaming sites have not been released yet and there are already predictions of what will come next. The future streaming bundle — meaning subscriptions to a bunch of streaming services for a carriage fee, making it more affordable than ordering each service or “cutting the cord.”
When it comes to the internet, anything can happen. In the 80s, the creation of a cable bundle was all the fuss, now it’s streaming. What’s next?
Robyn Cawley is the Editor-in-chief of the Daily Cardinal. To read more of her work, click here.
Lauren Souza is an Arts Editor for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of her work, click here.