Is Network Television Dead?

Devin D. O'Leary
3 min read
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When the dust from the recent Writers Guild strike settled, TV executives were gloating as if they’d won the lottery. Sure, some networks were forced to give refunds to aggrieved advertisers, but five months of not paying anyone (other than the executives) any salaries more than made up for that. The pittance eventually granted the writers was also recouped (and then some) by canceling countless development deals and dumping the traditional “upfront season” in which dozens of TV pilots are filmed and then whittled down to the one or two that will actually make it onto the airwaves.

But how successful were the rulers of the major broadcast networks in slashing costs and maximizing profits? Have they, in the process of streamlining television, managed to kill it off entirely?

Even while the strike was raging, executives from the FOX network were smugly unconcerned. They knew ratings powerhouse (writer-free) “American Idol” would debut in January. Far and wide, pundits proclaimed this season of “Idol” would be the biggest ever. The show launched its seventh season with 33.2 million viewers, further proving the networks’ wise decision to start shedding expensive scripted series for cheap-and-easy reality shows. But something funny happened on the way to the Nielsen ratings. The season premiere of “Idol” was actually the lowest-rated in four years, down 11 percent from 2007. Now, that hasn’t stopped “American Idol” from topping the charts every week, but it represents the defection of millions of viewers. And the show isn’t alone.

“Lost” is down 7 percent from a year ago. “The Wire” shed a quarter of its viewers in its final season. “Survivor” is off 20 percent from last year. The Academy Awards telecast plunged 24 percent from 2007. Even the NCAA Championships have lost a third of viewers when compared to last year.

To be fair, networks were losing viewers steadily before the Writers Guild strike came along. But the extended lack of new shows only reinforced in viewers’ minds why network television is an antiquated system. Why do we only get to watch new shows in fall, midseason replacements in spring and reruns all summer long? Earlier this month, ABC announced the network would be adding
absolutely no new shows in the fall season. Translation: Like it or lump it, jerkbags! You’ve got more “Wife Swap” coming!

Bored with reruns and uninterested in game shows and reality shows (no matter what the network promos claim), viewers found other forms of entertainment during the strike. Video games, iPods and computers got a big boost in popularity, further shifting Americans’ attentions toward so-called “alternative mediums” (ironic, considering that’s what much of this Writers Guild strike was about). With the launch of effortless download sites like, people are finding it easier and more reliable to just program their own entertainment schedules. Hulu’s next generation of streaming video went live on March 12 and allows fans to download full-length TV shows and movies for free.

Networks, meanwhile, are handing viewers the same old gruel and acting like we have no choice in the matter. We do. Cable networks, digital satellite TV, pay-per-view, TiVo, portable digital media and Internet downloads are changing our viewing habits daily–a fact to which ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX seem dangerously oblivious.
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