Stand-alone streaming is coming to HBO—and, in the “not-too-distant future,” Showtime. The Internet is abuzz with talk of two Netflix series, one old (“House of Cards”) and one new (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”). Amazon has more pilots on offer than you can shake a stick at, Yahoo’s revival of “Community” premieres next week, and there’s more competition for the attention of viewers, advertisers, and, yes, TV critics than ever before. What’s a broadcast network to do?
As the 2014-2015 season hits the home stretch, after six months largely defined for the Big Four by trial and error, here are four takeaways about ratings, quality, and finding an audience in the medium’s rapidly evolving landscape:
Diversity matters. The word on everyone’s lips is “Empire.” FOX’s deliriously entertaining hip-hop melodrama is a smash, the only series since 1991 to improve in the Nielsen ratings more than four consecutive weeks after its debut. (The count currently stands at eight.) But “Empire” isn’t the only series this season to embrace diverse audiences by representing those too often excluded or sidelined by the networks.
ABC’s “TGIT,” with three Shonda Rhimes-produced primetime soaps that feature women of color and LGBT people, has been a rousing success: “How to Get Away with Murder,” “Scandal,” and “Grey’s Anatomy” were all among the top ten broadcast series of 2014 in the key 18-49 demo. (Though their ratings are less impressive, acclaimed comedies “Cristela,” “Black-ish,” and “Fresh Off the Boat” have only burnished ABC’s reputation as a home for new faces on television.)
FOX and ABC have begun to discover that there’s a large, largely untapped audience for diverse programming, and with “Empire” and Shondaland flying high it seems likely the other networks will follow suit.
Comedy demands risk. As Vulture’s Josef Adalian wrote in December, the networks are in the depths of a “Great Sitcom Recession”: aging comedies “The Big Bang Theory” (CBS) and “Modern Family” (ABC) were the only half-hour series among the broadcast top twenty last fall, and with the conclusion of “Parks and Recreation,” NBC’s once-famed bench of popular, praiseworthy comedies has all but emptied.
In our more fractured media landscape, cultivating audiences for comedies is harder than ever, and the networks would do well to remember that risky gambits tend to draw the most attention. For example, NBC’s decision to pass on Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” now seems like a missed opportunity. Sure, the pair’s follow-up to “30 Rock”—which never amassed the ratings to match its pile of Emmys—is proudly, even aggressively, eccentric, but it’s the most buzzworthy new series since, well, “Empire.” Can you even name a comedy currently airing on NBC?
The audiences for ABC’s aforementioned slate—or, for that matter, FOX’s “New Girl,” “The Mindy Project,” and “Last Man on Earth,” all of which seem designed for small, passionate followings—may never approach “The Big Bang Theory,” but even CBS has struggled to parlay Chuck Lorre’s magic touch into a full complement of solid comedies. As Netflix, Amazon, Comedy Central, FX, HBO, and others continue to eat into the broadcast networks’ half-hour monopoly, one possible solution is clear: take chances, and give viewers something to talk about.
No one likes a copycat. “‘The Slap’… [is] a firm example of broadcast’s failure to imitate cable,” Indiewire’s David Canfield wrote last month, in an excellent analysis of NBC’s dreadful new drama, and he’s correct in more ways than one. “The Slap,” an attempt to capitalize on the current vogue for both limited series and TV remakes, is damning proof that original ideas still matter.
Indeed, as I argued in December, the networks’ increasing reliance on preexisting properties is as worrisome as it is unsurprising, an indication of the same search for the guaranteed hit that’s made the multiplex little more than a clearinghouse for franchises. Though the results of this season’s retreads, remakes, franchises, and spinoffs have run the gamut—from NBC’s “Allegiance” (reviled, unpopular) to CBS’ “The Odd Couple” (reviled, moderately popular) to “Marvel’s Agent Carter” (highly praised, beginning to struggle)—one hopes the networks will at least have learned that there’s no such thing as a “sure thing” anymore. Execution counts.
The cord-cutters are coming. HBO Now. Amazon Prime. Netflix. SlingTV. The cord-cutters are coming, and though a pitched battle among viewers, cable providers, broadcast and cable networks, premium channels, and artists is all but assured, the cord-cutters are here to stay. With the exception of CBS, which launched a stand-alone streaming service in October, the networks have been slow to respond to the trend, but it appears increasingly unlikely they’ll be able to hold out much longer. (According to CBS head Les Moonves, the service now counts more than 100,000 subscribers.)
I signed up for the one-week free trial of CBS All Access late last year—to catch up on “Madam Secretary” and “The Good Wife,” natch—and found the experience preferable to my cluttered DVR or the ads that come with streaming series for free on the networks’ websites. Nevertheless, I abandoned the service, because even at the eminently affordable $5.99/month price point, there’s little else on CBS I care to watch with any regularity.
The ultimate influence of cord-cutters, then, may not only be changing the technological definition of “television,” but forcing the networks to develop features—web-series, miniseries, extras, and “Talking Dead”-type recap shows, for instance—that merit the kind of subscription fees that I pay over to Netflix, Amazon, HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax without question.