It’s time to have an uncomfortable talk about mortality. Television as we know it—the traditional over-the-air, broadcast network television that you and your father and your father’s father grew up watching—is in the process of dying a slow, painful death. The “big” networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX and The CW) are scrambling to fix their ratings downturn. But it ain’t gonna happen. HBO has been snatching all the Emmy awards away from the networks since “The Sopranos” debuted. Netflix is busy making original series like “Arrested Development.” Amazon just jumped into the game with “Zombieland.” Today’s viewers are watching sitcoms on their DVRs, their cell phones, their iPads—anything but a creaky old television set. And cable TV is flat-out kicking broadcast television’s ass in the ratings game.
On Wednesday, April 24, A&E’s “Duck Dynasty”—a reality show about a family of rednecks who manufacture duck calls, might I remind you—smashed records. More than 9.6 million viewers tuned in to the show’s third season finale. That’s the biggest audience ever for the show. Also the biggest audience ever for the network. In the ultra-coveted 18-49 age bracket, the show outscored FOX’s “American Idol”—a show that was once unstoppable in that demographic. Overall ratings for season 3 of “Duck Dynasty” were up 95 percent from season 2. Again, this is a show about people who sell duck calls.
But it’s not simply about the surprise success of one cable show. Ratings are in for the first quarter of 2013, and they don’t look good for networks. Over on AMC, “The Walking Dead” attracted 11.4 million viewers. History Channel’s soon-to-be-repeated mini-series “The Bible” brought in 11.3 million converts. Even smaller success stories are pulling in record numbers of viewers. Discovery’s “Gold Rush” regularly digs up 4.6 million viewers. USA’s “WWE Raw” pins down 4.6 million as well. HBO’s “Game of Thrones” is averaging 4.3 million viewers per episode (and likely to climb higher this season). Disney Channel’s “Good Luck Charlie” charms an easy 4.2 mil. Bravo’s “Real Housewives of Atlanta” gets 3 million. Nickelodeon’s “Victorious” and truTV’s “Hardcore Pawn” each reach 2.9 million fans. Syfy’s top program is “WWE Smackdown,” which pins down 2.8 million viewers. TNT’s “Dallas” wrangles 2.7 million. ABC Family’s number one show, “Pretty Little Liars” gets an average of 2.6 million viewers. BET’s top show, “The Game,” hooks 2.5 million each week—the same number as MTV’s “Teen Mom 2.” FX’s top show, “Justified,” hunts down 2.4 million viewers. Lifetime’s “Dance Moms” and Cartoon Network’s “Regular Show” also nab 2.4 million fans in their slots. TLC’s much talked-about “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” gets 2.2 million viewers. TBS’s revived “Cougar Town” pulls 1.9 million, as does VH1’s “Love & Hip Hop.” “Kourtney & Kim Take Miami” on E! takes in 1.5 million viewers.
Add all that up, and what’s left for the networks? Not much at all. The top-rated network shows (NBC’s “The Voice,” CBS’s “Big Bang Theory,” FOX’s “American Idol”) pull in upwards of 14 million viewers. For now. Currently about 80 percent of U.S. households have cable/