This is a must read editorial by Alan Sepinwall in the NY Times. Sepinwall, a television critic for the Star Ledger, has a keen sense of the direction that broadcast TV is taking. I too miss the quality dramas that once filled prime time. But as broadcast begat cable TV, broadcast is now acting more and more like cable children. This downward spiral begs the question, with nothing to watch on broadcast today, what will cable TV have in the next 10 years to fill its air waves. If it's user generated videos, I'm gone.
The article is copied below:
I’M a runt of Generation X, which means 1) I’m supposed to define myself entirely through ironic references to pop culture, and 2) as a member of the last generation to come of age in an era of only three TV networks, I assume everyone will understand when I drop a quote from “Scooby-Doo” or “The A-Team.”
But the generation immediately after mine has never known life without cable, and the generation after that won’t know a life without streaming video. Having only three TV channels to watch must sound as quaint to them as radio plays do to me. Today’s entertainment universe provides endless variety for every demographic and taste, and the things that everyone actually wants to watch together are few and far between.
That’s what makes NBC’s decision to surrender its weekday 10 p.m. timeslot to a new Jay Leno talk show as inevitable as it is sad.
NBC at 10 p.m. was once the birthplace of dramas like “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere, ” “L.A. Law, ” “Law & Order,” “Homicide: Life on the Street" and “E.R.” These were groundbreaking shows and, for the most part, mass successes — the kind of hits that plenty of people at any school or office would be able and eager to talk about. Now, because the expanding television universe is shrinking individual audiences, and because NBC has shown depraved indifference to the idea of program development for the last decade, the network has no better option for the hour than moving Jay Leno from late night to prime time.
Next fall, when Mr. Leno assumes his new timeslot, NBC will continue to schedule football on Sunday nights and repeats on Saturdays. That leaves only 10 prime-time hours for original programming, and knowing the way NBC operates these days, at least four of those will likely go to super-sized editions of “The Biggest Loser” and “Deal or No Deal.”
This reminds me of a joke Tina Fey told at the Television Critics Association awards ceremony. She thanked us “for making ‘30 Rock’ the most successful cable show on broadcast television,” and added: “Oh, it’s a great time to be on broadcast television, isn’t it? It’s exciting! It’s like being in vaudeville in the ’60s!”
We all laughed, but it was the sort of laughter designed to fight off tears, you know? The big networks have all been trending inexorably downward for years. Shows that pulled in an audience of 20 million or more viewers only a couple of years ago are now happy with numbers in the mid-to-high teens, and the acceptable slice of the demographic pie is getting ever narrower. (Expect a press release someday soon boasting that a reality show won its timeslot among redheaded girls ages 11 to 11 ½.)
As the audience shrinks and the networks increasingly program for niches instead of the general public, they resemble cable channels more and more.
There’s a lot to be said for the cable model, where lowered expectations and a smaller inventory of original programming has led to instant classics like “The Wire,” “The Shield” and “Mad Men.” But while “Mad Men” is a wonderful show, it gets two million viewers when the winds are calm and the planets are aligned. It’s in no danger of becoming such a big hit that people at the post office will laugh at your Freddy Rumsen impression.
We’ve been heading to this point for decades, long before NBC picked Conan O’Brien to take over “The Tonight Show,” even before Jay Leno was chosen to succeed Johnny Carson.
In the late ’80s, Fox recognized the financial advantages to looking like a network without being one: the fledgling channel deliberately didn’t program the 10 o’clock hour because that would have made it, under the F.C.C.’s definition at the time, a broadcast network and subjected to much stricter regulations. (Back then, Fox couldn’t have owned its own shows, for instance.)
The F.C.C. has since relaxed those rules, and Fox is now technically a network. But the very concept of a network has lost much of its meaning.
Of course, the networks still do good work — even in its end-of-empire days, NBC has given us “30 Rock,” “The Office” and the deliriously funny “Chuck” — and on occasions like the Super Bowl or an “American Idol” finale, they even bring in big ratings that evoke the good old days of a mass medium for a mass audience. But several generations now think of NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox as just four channels in a 500-channel spectrum. Really, the only thing that distinguishes them from the cable channels is that they still try, most nights, to be broadcasters, generalists in an age of specialization.
To use a pop culture metaphor that everyone should (I hope) understand, the networks are Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff. So long as they pump their legs and assume there’s solid ground beneath their feet, they get to keep moving. But as soon as one of them gives up and looks at where it is, as NBC has with the Jay Leno deal, there’s nowhere to go but way, way down.