In the past we've talked about television physics. This is the simple philosophy that, much like actual physics, networks and television work in a set and predictable manner. For instance, networks count on objects in motion staying in motion. As an example, if the network gives you a great sitcom at 8:00 and another at 9:00, the network assumes that you will simply watch whatever trash they put in front of you at 8:30. And, in the past, this was certainly the case. Witness Jessie, a truly horrific display of comedy which, in its prime, garnered an audience large enough to regularly place it in the top 10 of weekly television viewing.
Today we talk about another piece of television physics, fluid dynamics. This is quite simply the theory that each network will, without forethought, take the shortest route possible to profit. If a show isn't making money, it will be cut. If a genre no longer performs, say goodbye to the entire genre. Stated succinctly, network programming will always take the easiest and most efficient route to profit. Given this truism, it's no surprise to see the latest Nielsen reports. More specifically, three categories jump out.
First, look at top shows for the year:
Top 10 TV Programs - Regularly Scheduled - 2006
1 AMERICAN IDOL-TUESDAY
2 AMERICAN IDOL-WEDNESDAY
3 DANCING WITH THE STARS
5 DANCING W/STARS RESULTS
6 NBC SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL
7 CSI: MIAMI
8 DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES
10 DEAL OR NO DEAL-MON
10 WITHOUT A TRACE
Source: Nielsen Media Research
At first, there is nothing all that surprising about that list. We all know that American Idol is a ratings juggernaut. It should surprise no one to see it top the list. Look a little closer and you start to see that 60% of the shows are unscripted. Episodic television is slowly disappearing from the list. However, it's not disappearing from all the lists.
This year Nielsen adds another category, most popular time-shifted shows. Here is where things get troubling.
Top 10 "Time-shifted" Primetime TV Programs - 2006
1 STUDIO 60
3 GILMORE GIRLS
4 AMERICA'S NEXT TOP MODEL
5 30 ROCK
5 FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
7 NINE, THE
9 ONE TREE HILL
Source: Nielsen Media Research
(Note: Time-shifted programs are ranked as a percentage increase between Live and Live+7)
With but one exception -- America's Next Top Model -- viewers overwhelmingly chose to record episodic television and to watch unscripted shows and sports events when they aired live. What does this mean? In addition to lackluster live ratings for these episodic programs, networks now also have to worry about commercials being skipped. As such, is it a surprise to anyone to see networks all but give up on scripted television? Earlier in the year NBC made the announcement that they would be reducing their primetime lineup from three hours to a two-hour block. What would fill the extra hour? You guessed it, unscripted entertainment (e.g. Deal or No Deal).
And it gets even worse for scripted television. Nielsen also included some analysis of product placement. If you're looking for non-traditional advertising (such as product placement) to save episodic television, think again.
Top 10 Programs: Product Placement, Broadcast Network TV - 2006
Total # of Occurrences
1 AMERICAN IDOL
2 AMAZING RACE
3 EXTREME MAKEOVER HOME EDITION
4 THE BIGGEST LOSER
5 AMERICAS NEXT TOP MODEL
6 HELLS KITCHEN
7 THE APPRENTICE
8 KING OF QUEENS
9 ROCK STAR SUPERNOVA
10 BIG BROTHER 7
As you might expect, it's easier to fit a product into the plot line if there is, well, no plot line. Viewers will sit patiently as a dozen wannabe pop stars dance around a Ford Escort as long as it's part of the show.
Does this spell doom for television? No, technology comes and goes. There is no doubt that product placement and targeted advertisements will make their way into television programs of the future. Likewise, advertisers will eventually learn how to use DVRs to their advantage. However, in the meantime, don't be surprised as more and more television becomes the type that you're more likely to watch live. After all, you don't want to walk around all day saying "Don't tell me who won Survivor." It turns out there is no such thing as a free lunch, and for the foreseeable future it looks like we'll all be eating more and more crap reality TV sandwiches.
If you have comments or suggestions for future columns, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.