What's the Future of Primetime Network Television?

Recently Disney moved its popular “Dancing With the Stars” series to Disney+ after 17 years on ABC. (Image credit: Disney)

Since NBCUniversal confirmed to The Wall Street Journal earlier this fall that it is considering ending its network programming at 10 p.m. and giving that hour back to its affiliates, speculation has been running rampant about the decline of network primetime programming.

I’m surprised by this reaction since this trend is nothing new and has been going on for a long time. It is part of a slow, gradual shift of scripted programming toward online streaming media from over-the-air primetime broadcasting. If NBC does cut back its primetime schedule—and it very well might—no decision will be made until next year. 

Common Sense
Let’s use a little common sense here. The handwriting has long been on the wall for top-tier scripted programming on over-the-air television. (Let’s be clear—this does not include live sports, events or late-night programming, which will remain broadcast staples for the foreseeable future.) The burst of streaming media choices, however, was bound to put financial pressure on the networks’ primetime schedules. 

Television began with only three networks competing among themselves in the 1950s. Now there are dozens of networks—many with very compelling programs. The competition for eyeballs is more ferocious than ever.

So, of course, costs are not only a concern for the broadcast networks, but also for highly competitive streaming outlets as well. Even NBCU’s Peacock, the network’s new streaming media arm, is ramping up its spending on new shows. That is bound to put pressure on the costs at the NBC on-air network.

The fact is there are some great shows being made today—perhaps the best in the history of the television medium. The problem is, to watch most of them requires much agility on the part of the  viewer and fees to a range of streaming services. A lot of us do “free trials” to watch shows we want to see and then forget to cancel the service. I get it—that’s a clear business model for streaming services.

There is also the issue of commercials. Yes, network television is supposedly “free” (that’s another argument), but many of us now have developed an intolerance for commercial breaks. We got that from paid streaming media services, thank you.

All television is fragmenting in different directions and that is part of the complications for the traditional over-the-air networks."

Also, hybrid broadcast-internet late night shows have changed television. I can’t remember ever watching “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” on a live feed; I always watch it the next day on the internet. All television is fragmenting in different directions and that is part of the complications for the traditional over-the-air networks.

Let’s face it, though most of us enjoy watching good, creatively produced television programming, where we watch it is definitely changing. Broadcast network television is no longer the big dog in the viewing game. 

“Networks are at an inflection point in terms of costs,” a broadcast veteran told Hollywood’s Deadline. “Live sports have emerged as the main driver going forward, and their high prices are putting pressure on costs for the rest of the lineup. The question is whether affiliates would like fewer hours of primetime network programming.”

I see the internet as a game-changer that will gradually erode over-the-air primetime broadcasting, especially if the best shows (and most costly) continue to move to pay services. There is only so much good programming and where it is shown will determine where the audience follows.

NBCU, which owns 43 NBC and Telemundo affiliates, could see cutting its network primetime programming to enhance those local broadcasters. But again, what viewers want to watch in that late primetime hour will be determined by program quality and little else. My guess is some affiliates will strike gold, while others will flounder. It all depends on the quality of the programming the station puts in that hour.

ABC, owned by Disney, is mainly focused now on Disney+, ESPN+ and FX/Hulu. Recently, Disney moved its “Dancing with the Stars” to Disney+ after 17 years with the ABC network. That’s a sure sign of changing priorities.

Though there is no change yet afoot at CBS, Fox has slimmed down its primetime lineup and altered its programming due to the Disney-Fox deal. Since the merger, Fox has mainly focused on sports, animation and non-scripted entertainment.

Of course, driving all broadcast primetime is advertising. That number has been reduced to the over-the-air networks from its high point of $70 billion several years ago. Five streaming services—Hulu, HBO Max, Discovery+, Paramount and Peacock—accounted for 65% of online spending last year.

It should be noted that NBC, ABC and CBS are the only English-language broadcast networks that currently air shows at 10 p.m. each weeknight. Those shows are usually dramas. It also should be noted that each of the broadcasters has experienced primetime ratings declines over the past decade. Other networks that have reduced their primetime schedules over the years include The CW and Fox.  

Television is transitioning very slowly, but it is clear that traditional broadcast networks are gradually being cut back in order to fund streaming. This trend is not new and continues at a steady pace.

The lesson is this: great programming will always have viewers. Where audiences watch it is constantly changing. 

Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.