Early last week, NBC CEO Jeff Zucker took a cue from his network’s long-gone hit, “Seinfeld,” and turned into the Soup Nazi. Facing the unappealing prospect of having to cut 700 jobs and $750 million from his floundering network, Zucker came up with the brilliant idea of punishing runaway viewers by giving them nothing to watch. “No emotional medical dramas for you!”
Zucker announced last Thursday that, in order to combat plunging ratings, his network would respond by ... making programming even chintzier. Among the ideas Zucker suggested was pulling all sitcoms and dramas from the 7 p.m. hour and filling the entire weeklong timeslot with nothing but cheap-to-produce reality shows and gameshows. “Most of the competition is already running unscripted shows at 8 p.m. [7 p.m. MST] anyway,” Zucker told Entertainment Weekly. (In reality, unscripted shows make up 83 percent of ABC’s early evening schedule, but only 33 percent of CBS’.)
On a purely cost-cutting basis, Zucker’s idea makes sense. The price of producing scripted series is skyrocketing. This season, NBC has dumped big bucks into early prime time shows like “30 Rock” ($1.6 millon per episode) and “Friday Night Lights” ($2.6 million per episode) with very little result. (“Rock” pulls in 6.9 million viewers, “Lights” gets a mere 6.6 million.) “The audience just isn’t there,” chairman of NBC Universal Bob Wright, told zap2it.com earlier this week. “We’re putting our best stuff at 8 o’clock [7 p.m. MST], and it’s struggling.”
NBC’s time-based contention seems to fall apart when confronted with 7 p.m. hits like “Ugly Betty,” “Jericho” and the unstoppable “American Idol.” In fact, of the top 10 shows on TV right now, fully half of them air in the 7 p.m. slot. On a financial level, however, Zucker’s idea is correct. Shows like NBC’s “Deal or No Deal,” ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” and (of course) FOX’s “American Idol” are bouncing off the top of the Nielsen charts, and they cost almost nothing to produce. I would argue this is nothing more than a temporary trend (remember how quickly “Who Wants to be A Millionaire?” burned out?), but then I don’t run a TV network.
So how bad is the situation? Well, Zucker even expressed in an interview with the Wall Street Journal his admiration for FOX and The CW, who only offer two hours of programming per night. While no one thinks NBC is ready to give up entirely on three hours of prime time per night, it is a bit defeatist to see the head of the now third-place network giving up and lumping himself in with FOX and The CW. (At least he didn’t suggest going “all telenovela” like MyNet.)
Despite Zucker’s pessimistic attitude, prime-time viewership levels have remained steady for the past five years. Factor in all the people watching cable, and I’m sure prime time is more active than ever. Networks have already given up almost all made-for-TV movies and relegated Saturday night to rotating reruns. Now they’re talking about dumping writers and actors? Perhaps--and, again, I’m no network TV exec--the key to luring viewership is to actually make good shows and to program them in the most appropriate time slots.