Helpful hints to avoid network erosion

TV Analysis

So here it is, another fall about to dawn at the networks. As usual, the talk is of the dreaded “E” word, namely erosion. It’s the same thing every year. The networks lose another few percentage points of the viewing pie to cable, everyone puts their hands on their cheeks and looks appropriately horrified, then no one does anything about it.

Like so many rookies in an emergency room, the network chieftains seem rather baffled over just how to stop the bleeding in an era when primetime viewing of the biggest four networks (ABC, NBC, ABC and Fox) hovers around the 60% mark. And in fact, there have been weeks this summer when the nighttime audience tuned in to cable has exceeded that of the broadcast webs.

In the late 1970s, the nets claimed 90% of the primetime pie. Of course, that was when the Big Three really were Big. Now, with the WB and UPN part of the puzzle, they instead resemble the Littler Six. But no monopoly can be expected to hold in the face of more than 100 choices, rather than six or seven.

Most industry experts agree that the erosion has a leveling-off point. The questions is where that point might be. Is it 50% of the audience? Maybe 40%? Less?

And perhaps more to the point, is there anything the webs can do to stem the tide in the face of that supposedly ever-imminent 500-channel universe?

There is likely more agreement on the topic of what the networks shouldn’t do, including:

Going out of business every summer by going off on a three-month original programming hiatus and allowing the biggest cablers like TNT, USA, Lifetime, HBO and Showtime to step in and snatch that audience with high-profile product.

n Moving shows around the primetime map with such urgency and regularity. This fall, on the six webs, 27 existing shows are moving to new nights or time periods. Combine that with the 41 debuting series, and more than half of the schedule is unfamiliar to the audience.

n Picking up shows from other networks — like CBS grabbing “Family Matters” and “Step By Step” — when they are on the wane. New and innovative probably makes more sense than old and tired.

Yet no matter how slavishly the networks work to turn things around by altering their viewer-indifferent behavior, there is a certain inevitability to the slide, believes Rob Lee, a partner in Elephant Walk Entertainment (producer of the UPN comedy “Malcolm & Eddie”).

“Some water is simply going to come into the boat because of the massive amount of choice,” Lee says, “but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to have the water come in more slowly and stabilize at a certain point.”

Part of the problem for the broadcasters, figures Lee, is that you have a collection of cable networks with brand-name identities and growing reputations in the original programming arena.

“TNT, USA, Lifetime, these are brands people trust these days,” says Lee.

That does not, however, mean that the broadcast webs should throw up their hands and surrender, Lee stresses.

“The networks still have the best distribution system and the best location as far as channel numbers,” he says. “Their chief problem now is the need to appeal to such a varied audience base —and snap up such big ratings — to remain viable. But they still have the biggest and most efficient delivery service going.”

Agreeing with Lee’s assessment is Lawrence Lyttle, prexy of Big Ticket TV (which produces the E! talkshow parody “Night Stand,” the UPN comedy “Moesha” and the syndicated courtroom show “Judge Judy”).

“I prefer to look at the glass as being half full,” Lyttle says. “OK, so we know that the broadcast networks have lost a third of their audience to cable. Fine. We’re also in a world where people have 70, 80, 100 choices. If you have a DBS dish, that’s 160 choices. Given that equation, to have a handful of networks still pulling in six of 10 TV sets in primetime ain’t so bad. I would even call that extraordinary.”

That number could be even better if the networks were able to more actively court, and serve, the audience rather than slavishly reacting to ratings fluctuations, Lyttle acknowledges.

“But it’s just no longer possible to put a show in one spot and leave it there for the audience to find it, because the risk-reward ratio is so intense,” he says. “The pressures on a network today are so huge that they can’t afford to ride with a show that isn’t yet delivering the audience.”

Lyttle sees the network erosion floor “at about 50%” of the primetime audience, which won’t arrive until cable penetration (currently at about 70% of American households) matches broadcast penetration (presently close to 100%).

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