The Shifting Identities of TV Networks

…or Why NBC is Run By a Batch of Baboons

Television networks work very hard and spend millions of dollars trying to build a brand, so that when viewers think of ABC or Fox, they associate that network with specific traits and ideas. Of course, the networks want to control how we think about them and what we associate with them. The reality however, is that viewer conception of networks comes from a mix of the networks trying to brainwash us, the shows they actually put on the air, and a nostalgic, hazy feeling of what those networks used to be when we were younger and more impressionable.

Network identities have shifted over time as they evolve (or devolve) along with the shows they currently air, and reflecting the demographics of their audience. Moreover, a network’s image or self-image often has a direct impact on the fate of its shows. Quality shows get cancelled and intriguing pilots get rejected because they don’t fit the brand, while mediocre shows live on for years past their shelf life because they reinforce networks’ self-belief. Let’s examine how these brand identities have changed over the past 30 years.

ABC

The American Broadcasting Company struggled to define itself for much of the 1980s. It entered the decade airing a mess of dying ’70s shows well past their creative primes: Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Three’s Company, Mork & Mindy, The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. ABC still did well in the ratings, trading on the glories of the previous decade and using Monday Night Football and TV movies as tentpoles. As those hits went from “declining” to “dead,” ratings followed suit and ABC foundered for much of the ’80s. The network had hits — Who’s The Boss, Moonlighting, Webster — but they were largely fleeting in nature, weak in quality, and disconnected from each other. ABC as a brand was lost and in disarray.

Then came TGIF.

In 1989, a network exec named Jim Janicek came up with the marketing brilliance of throwing family-friendly fare on Friday nights, giving the block a catchy title, and selling the whole night of programming as one product instead of a selection of disparate television shows. TGIF, led by Full House and Family Matters and augmented by rotating crap like Step by Step and Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, established ABC as the major network for children and teens — and the parents who buy them the things they want.

Other than occasional outliers like Roseanne, the TGIF brand extended its tentacles beyond Friday night to the rest of ABC’s programming, which soon came to be defined as safe, bland and kid-friendly. Home Improvement was ABC’s biggest hit for years and serves as a good microcosm for the network in the ’90s in its complete inability to take risks. While this strategy led to a short-term ratings boost, the creative bankruptcy at is core eventually caught up to ABC.

When young audiences grew more sophisticated than the Friday night programming they grew up on, ABC was slow to react. When viewership bottomed out, executives grew desperate. Soon, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire was airing five times per week, a short-sighted strategy that not only helped wear out that hit’s welcome sooner than necessary, but took valuable airtime away from shows that needed developing and audience-building. ABC took the good fortune of a fluke game-show hit and spat in its face.

In the Aughts, the network gained traction by sticking to its strengths: safe, predictable fare. This manifested itself in drama (Grey’s Anatomy, Brothers and Sisters, Desperate Housewives) and reality programming (Dancing With the Stars, Extreme Makeover) instead of sitcoms as in the ’90s. Now, in 2011, ABC’s identity is that of the prototypical television network, with a slight bent toward remaining family-friendly. It doesn’t take a lot of chances, its shows are typically neither great nor horrible, and its tries to reach the broadest audience possible.

CBS

When did CBS become the punchline to a million jokes about old people?

Andy Rooney was appearing on 60 Minutes from time immemorial, so perhaps it’s always been thus. This was the network, after all, of Angela Lansbury and Trapper John, M.D. In the first half of the 1980s, for sure, CBS featured a schedule for geriatrics that included Scarecrow and Mrs. King, The Equalizer, Simon & Simon, and George Burns Comedy Week (!).

Eventually, The Tiffany Network developed a reputation for having the ability to develop smart comedies: Newhart, Designing Women, and Murphy Brown, but it was never able to achieve the same level with dramas. As the ’90s unfolded, the specter of demographic-killers like Walker, Texas Ranger, Touched by an Angel and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman loomed large. All performed solidly in the ratings, but helped turn the net into the aforementioned punchline.

With the launch of Survivor in 2000, though, CBS managed to improve its fortunes without really changing its identity. The network began a relatively quick rise to the top of the overall ratings heap, where it has remained ever since. The touchy-feely dramas from the ’90s became grisly, one-note police procedurals, and viewership went up even though the breakdown of the audience didn’t much change. Young people simply don’t watch the CSIs, NCISes, etc. Meanwhile, CBS regressed in the comedy department, at least in terms of quality. Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, and the other shows they’ve carried to Monday night success, are smash hits but are also pandering slop that pale in comparison to the network’s comedy hits from 20 years earlier.

So CBS is what it is at this point: a ratings machine that doesn’t try all that hard to get younger, even as it knows that most of its viewers will be dead soon. Led by Les Moonves, it clones what it knows works and doesn’t try to get cute.

The CW

ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Fox

Rupert Murdoch’s special baby debuted in 1987 with all the desperation and hunger that being the new kid in a room filled with 50-year-old institutions would entail. Fox screamed for attention, and right from the start, did a decent job getting it. Any brand new network is going to struggle in the ratings initially, but Fox managed to do more than merely survive.

While most of the other series it debuted with died quickly, Married…With Children buoyed the network and helped definite its brand as crass and envelope-pushing. The Simpsons joined Al Bundy a couple years later, and any questions of whether or not Fox would survive disappeared with the proliferation of “Eat My Shorts” T-shirts across America. Then in 1990, Fox premiered two monumental shows. One of them was not destined for greatness:

But the other one…

With stalwarts like The Simpsons and 90210 (as well as its offshoot, the ephemeral phenomenon Melrose Place) leading the way, Fox made the transition from cranky newborn to rebellious teenager. It developed a duality: one part willing to air edgy fare like The X-Files, the other part at the forefront of lowest-common-denominator reality programming like Cops and Temptation Island. Even into the Aughts, the likes of Arrested Development nestled snugly with the American Idol juggernaut on the same network.

As we move into the current decade, though, Idol and its ilk seem to have won the day. Fox throws both Idol and The X-Factor on as many nights per week as it can get away with, while its well of original programming has dried. The Simpsons will seemingly go on forever, joined by Family Guy and its various putrid spin-offs. The willingness to be edgy and attention-grabbing may still be there, but the execution is gone. Even though Idol props up the ratings, there may be big problems waiting once it’s gone (or no longer successful).

NBC

And lastly, we come to NBC, thanks to the dramatic convenience of alphabetical order.

The story of NBC from 1980 on is probably the best known of any of the broadcast networks. NBC was a consistent last-place performer in the 1970s into the early ’80s, until its fate was turned around by a combination of a few massive hits and the programming genius of honcho Brandon Tartikoff. Under Tartifoff’s tutelage, NBC showed patience with struggling but promising series like Hill Street Blues and Cheers, and then enjoyed the fruits of watching them flourish.

Soon, the network built its heralded Thursday night comedy block around Cheers and the newly minted blockbuster, The Cosby Show. Everything was blue skies and Nielsen gold for a while. NBC became the home for quality: not just its comedy juggernaut (Cheers, Family Ties, Seinfeld, Frasier, NewsRadio, Friends, The Office…truly impressive) but also dramas like L.A. Law, Miami Vice and ER. “Must-See TV” became one of the most known and efficacious TV marketing campaigns/branding exercises ever. NBC was what we all aspired to be.

Until they overplayed their hand in the ’90s and early Aughts.

NBC began to spread their quality programming too thin. They thought the power of their brand, and specifically of Thursday night, could make anything a hit. They thought they could throw any old garbage between Friends and Seinfeld and laugh their way to the bank. The Single Guy, Cursed, Four Kings, and many, many other disasters proved them wrong. New show after new show failed, leading to panic moves like “super-sizing” episodes of their hits or airing back-to-back episodes of Friends and The Office instead of devoting that airtime to developing new hits. It was the same mistake ABC made with Who Wants to be a Millionaire, but on a grander scale. The weak shows and the illogical programming decisions diluted the brands of both Thursday night comedies and the network as a whole.

Meanwhile, ER went away and NBC tried to replace it with…The Apprentice. Friends, Seinfeld et al. also left and viewers left with them. Probably permanently. Incompetent chief executives like Jeff Zucker, Kevin Riley and Ben Zilverman were ill-equipped to refill the pipeline with decent shows and even less capable of navigating the company through rough waters. That’s why we have Kabletown today.

So in the end, the one asset NBC had left was a handful of critically beloved, little-watched sitcoms: 30 Rock, Parks & Recreation, and Community. That’s all that remains from the halo effect of Tartikoff’s heyday. That’s all that’s left of NBC’s identity. Maybe (definitely) those shows will never attract large audiences, but without them, NBC has nothing. Which is why shelving Community is such an idiotic decision.

Here’s what NBC doesn’t understand (among many other things): the heyday is never coming back. The best they can hope for is to survive in the new reality of broadcast television. The exodus of viewers from networks is never going to stop. Audiences will continue to shrink until they are gone. So the smartest things the broadcast nets can do right now is to firmly define their own identity, to become the home for a certain type of show. To become cable networks.

When we think of HBO, we think of high quality. When we think of USA, we think of pulpy, breezy dramas. When we think of Lifetime, we think of the ladiez. Broadcast networks will never again be able to be all things to all people, so they have adopt a target demographic and cultivate it. NBC’s best chance was to be the network of choice for sophisticated, educated young viewers — not an undesirable demographic. Parks & Recreation, The Office and Community are the three most-watched shows among viewers with four or more years of college. In all its wisdom, NBC has decided to alienate its base by putting Community on the bench. It would be like if Fox News decided to fire Bill O’Reilly and take a turn toward the middle. You gotta dance with who you came to the dance with.

NBC’s executives don’t get it, and so they’re putting their own future in even more danger than it already was.

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1 Comment

Filed under Music Has AIDS, The Dilemma

One response to “The Shifting Identities of TV Networks

  1. Pingback: The Whitney Cummings Era: Weeks Eight, Nine, Ten | Pop Culture Has AIDS

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