Television networks in Canada and the U.S. are crying for help. They all complain of dwindling viewership and ad revenue. Some say that the current problems are due to the global recession, while others have noted that viewers started abandoning conventional broadcast TV a while ago.
One sign that networks are in trouble comes from NBC. In a move that will see primetime viewing reduced to just two hours a night, NBC will fill the 10pm slot on weekdays with Jay Leno’s new show starting this fall. Well, it’s not really a new show; it’s essentially the Tonight Show, but with a different name and airing in what used to be primetime. Several NBC affiliates have protested and vowed not to carry the show. In effect, NBC will become a second-tier network, like FOX and CW, both of which provide two hours of primetime programming a day only, instead of the standard three.
For actors and scriptwriters, this is extremely bad news, as the 10pm slot used to be reserved for dramatic and scripted television, such as the now-defunct ER. In an already-troubled TV industry, this will mean less work for the creative types in Hollywood. If other networks decide to follow suit, say, if CBS moves David Letterman to 10pm as well, Hollywood’s television industry will really be in deep trouble.
Cable, however, seems to be doing quite well under the circumstances. Many of the recent TV cult hits, such as Mad Men and Monk, have been found on cable, rather than network TV. With a greater willingness to experiment and be daring, cable networks have earned viewers’ respect and loyalty over recent years. Another factor that has been driving demand for cable’s scripted TV has been the broadcast networks’ excessive reliance on reality TV, such as Survivor. Several years ago, most of the networks decided to go cheap and fill their schedules with reality shows. People were drawn to them in the beginning, but quickly lost interest. They wanted good old “regular” TV again, but the networks didn’t listen. So, cable networks jumped in and filled the void.
Even though the main networks have since largely given up on reality TV, viewers still remain with cable. It will take more effort to bring them back, but once they have tasted the quality of cable shows, most of which are of exceptional production standards, people are quite reluctant to return to According to Jim or Law & Order. NBC’s latest attempt with Southland to produce a “cable show”, complete with all the expletives, which are all bleeped, of course, may bear fruit, but it’s still too early to say for sure.
No matter what the networks end up doing, they should always keep in mind the following: In these troubled times, people need real entertainment and escapist TV more than ever. They want intelligent dramatic and comedic television shows that will help them forget their own sad reality for thirty minutes or an hour. Deliver that, and viewers will be there in their recliners, with their feet up and a bowl of popcorn wedged in their laps.
Canada May Soon Have A Lot Less TV
In Canada, meanwhile, the conventional broadcasters have been immersed in public hearings before the industry’s regulator, the CRTC. They demand, among other things, that cable companies compensate them for carriage and that the rules for producing local Canadian content be relaxed. The two main commercial networks, CTV and Global, have already threatened to close down several local stations, leaving many parts without local coverage, if the CRTC fails to comply with their demands.
In the U.S., cable companies pay carriage fees to the main networks, but no network has an automatic right of carriage, unlike in Canada where broadcast networks have to be included in the local cable TV company’s lineup. Another problem in Canada is the fact that most people cannot watch local TV just off the air. Transmitters are either too weak, or the steel and concrete structures in big cities block the signals. Relying on old-fashioned rabbit ears, therefore, will get you one, maybe two channels – mostly with grainy, snowy pictures. In other words, if the broadcast networks weren’t carried on cable, they would easily lose ninety percent of their viewers, since cable TV is their main, and in most of Canada their only, means of distribution. For that reason alone, forcing cable subscribers to pay around 50 cents a month for each of the conventional broadcast networks would be nothing short of consumer fraud and highway robbery.
But almost every day, the networks find themselves in front of yet another CRTC hearing crying poor. Yet, they have all spent almost a billion dollars (in Canadian dollars) on importing U.S. network shows. After years and years of bidding wars among them to land the next big hit from the States, they have pushed up the prices for U.S. shows beyond what is reasonable. These shows are available to most Canadian viewers via the original U.S. networks anyway, so paying such inflated prices for the privilege of acting as mere playback machines for American networks is not only short-sighted of Canada’s networks, but outright dumb. Networks are all branded, and each one must promote its brand and make it stand out from the rest somehow. But with Canada’s broadcasters being nothing more than appendages to American networks, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that viewers have left for stations on cable and/or satellite that have something unique to offer.
There is nothing wrong with Canadian broadcasters showing the occasional American import – even the BBC in Britain does that – but it shouldn’t be their sole purpose. If they want to survive, they will have to differentiate themselves and provide Canadians with real alternatives. Should this be too much for them to handle, they can always fall back on “Plan B”, as submitted to the CRTC among the possible solutions, and consummate their relationships with their American partner networks. This would see the Canadian broadcasters in their current form shut down their operations and re-emerge as rebranded affiliates of the American networks, e.g., NBC Canada, CBS Canada, FOX Canada, etc. With the Americans in charge, who really do know a thing or two more about how to do television, Canadians might actually get to see more local Canadian content than they do now on their “Canadian” TV networks.