We could be on the verge of the most unfortunate case of “shrinkage” seen on NBC since “Seinfeld’s” George Costanza explained what happened to a man’s privates in cold pool water.
The size of the network’s primetime schedule may shrivel up if it goes through with a proposal that would reportedly turn over the 10 pm time slot to its affiliates next year in order to cut costs.
It’s a move that comes off as shocking considering that hour has been programmed by NBC since the dawn of TV as a medium yet not all that surprising, really, considering the current state of said medium.
The Wall Street Journal first reported the network’s 10 pm shift as just a possibility, but I’m inclined to believe it’s going to happen. The report feels like a deliberately leaked trial balloon, sent up to gauge the industry reaction before NBC embarks on any kind of formal process that would conclude by the start of the next fall season.
It’s perfectly prudent of NBC to be pruning its primetime schedule at a time when the entire industry is pivoting to streaming. Every entertainment conglomerate has had to divert dollars once meant for expensive scripted production on traditional TV to either s expensive sports rights or the seemingly limitless content inventory required to battle in the streaming wars.
For NBC parent company Comcast, one could only hope this will translate to more support for Peacockwhich has been an also-ran barely nipping the heels of Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max and Amazon Prime Video.
Because streaming is slowly draining the lifeblood of linear TV, broadcast has been in a tailspin for years. Primetime is filled with shows with diminishing ratings that would have gotten them quickly canceled 10 years ago. The VIP+ report “Fading Ratings” offers a comprehensive sense of how bleak the outlook is.
NBC affiliates should be plenty happy at the prospect of placing their own programming into 10 pm Jimmy Fallon, however, may be less than thrilled that his lead-in at 10:30 or 11 pm is likely to be local news in this new setup. “The Tonight Show” will supposedly get a leg up on its late-night rivals on CBS and ABC by airing before they do at 11:35 pm, but I’ll believe that’s an actual advantage when I see the ratings.
The ghost of late-night controversies past hangs over this decision because it is so reminiscent of a somewhat similar shift NBC made back in 2009, when then-CEO Jeff Zucker had the audacity to remove scripted programming from its traditional 10 pm home and strip Jay Leno from Monday through Friday instead. But that gambit backfired badly in a matter of months, as experienced affiliates ratings drops for their own programming at 11 pm Then moving Leno back to 11:35 pm alienated Conan O’Brien, whose inheritance of “The Tonight Show” proved short-lived .
Perhaps the only about-face in media history executed worse than that was Netflix’s ill-fatated Qwikster launch in 2011.
What’s most unfortunate in this latest 10 pm turnover is it shrinks the episode pool of available time slots for the kind of 22 hourlong orders that were once a staple of broadcast TV, the kind that turned crime-drama impresario Dick Wolf an obscenely rich man between his “Law & Order” and “Chicago” franchises.
If NBC is smart, they won’t cut its scripted supply too steeply. There’s an opportunity here to bolster its remaining two hours of primetime with a steady cadence of fresh originals year-round and cut down on filler content.
That could give NBC an edge on its fellow broadcasters, which May very well be prompted to make similar moves if their rival successfully withdraws from 10 pm What’s more depressing is this retreat would be just one sign of a slow disintegration that will also make its way to other dayparts, from the morning shows to late night.
Which isn’t to say linear TV is going to disappear entirely in time; Advertisers will always need its peerless ability to reach the biggest audiences watching together rather than hopelessly fragmented across a million different on-demand choices.
As Costanza once taught us, shrinkage is indeed a sad fact of life.