Quietly, the TV big 4 (CBS, ABC, FOX, NBC) are having the same type of drop-off in ratings that CD sales did a few years ago. The competition and increased availability of niche channels like AMC and HBO and the ability for viewers to DVR or download their favorite shows has cut ratings way down in size
Essentially the pie for the networks' brand of TV is now halfed in size. Despite half the demand, networks are producing a supply to feed TV viewers like it's the 90s. They are hoping what worked then will work now if only their shows are good enough.
What really needs to happen is for networks to start producing shows at a level that meets the demand for network TV. This might come in the form of the number of networks shrinking via a merger, but for now let's assume all 4 continue to stay on the raft as competitors. What they should do then, is simply produce a lot less hours of television. Within a half decade I could see networks slates looking like this
- The season lengths becomes 13 episodes instead of 22. One of the lessons of the last decade of quality TV is that 12 to 14 episodes is the optimal amount for a great television season. It's much more difficult to run a storyline without long delays and filler episodes over a 22 episode year. 13 episode seasons are shorter but sweeter.
- The Sunday to Thursday weekly programming is cut to 5 to 7 hours. Using NBC as an example, I could see a day where a schedule using present shows looks like this. Sunday night they play a movie if not sports/awards, Monday night is the Biggest Loser, Tuesday night is the Voice and a pilot like Smash, Wednesday night is the Voice and a combination of the Office and a pilot like Whitney, Thursday night is Community, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock and a pilot like Up All Night - and that's the schedule. The shorter season lengths however would let networks put out a fresh batch of shows and pilots at midseason.
- The number of new pilots each year are cut in half if not more. Last fall NBC debuted these shows: Up All Night, Free Agents, The Playboy Club, Whitney, Prime Suspect, and Grimm - adding Smash, The Firm and Who Do You Think You Are? at midseason and Betty Whit'e's Off Their Rockers in April. You can see exactly which of those pilots debuted just so NBC could have another show to throw against the wall in hopes of it sticking. In the future I see networks being selective with pilots, but marketing their selective amount more and giving them a gravitas of importance. Instead of 3 comedies Up All Night, Free Agents, and Whitney all debuting at once, perhaps it's only Up All Night, but with a huge campaign behind it. Likewise, NBC could choose 1 of the Firm, Prime Suspect, and the Playboy Club to focus its efforts on making a hit, instead of doing a poor job with any. Perhaps Up All Night and the Firm are the fall's new pilots and in midseason, Smash and Who Do You Think You Are?
At the end of the day the concept is quite simple. There are a lot less network TV viewers than there was a decade ago, but there's just as many network TV shows and pilots. Thus the adjustment for the networks is likely to stop overshooting the market, instead aiming for half the quantity, but twice as much focus on each show. The present system of so many shows and pilots is a holdover from when days were great for network TV, but those days are gone. The luxury of rolling out 15 shows a week and hoping there's enough viewers for them simply because people have to watch some form of TV, is gone.