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CW will cutback, and the other networks should take note

May 5, 2009 |  1:37 pm

As General Motors has finally been forced to learn, making a Chevy Camaro and a Pontiac Firebird really does not make sense anymore.

It's time for the broadcasters to realize this with their own Camaros and Firebirds: Friday and Saturday nights. 

CWimage Now that the CW has wised up and indicated that it will likely bail on trying to program Sunday nights, it might be a good time for the other broadcast networks to reassess how much programming they are putting out there and make the appropriate cuts as well.

As TV Week's Joe Adalian smartly noted recently, viewers are being flooded with more content than ever and perhaps it's time to think about less being more. While technology makes it easier to keep track of everything, how many of us have DVRs and TiVos full of stuff we think we'll get around to watching some day?

KigjftncLENO NBC has already acknowledged this with its decision to put Jay Leno at 10 p.m. While their competitors have criticized the move, it did keep Leno from going to ABC (where he likely would have trounced them) and acknowledged that the network was having problems filling 22 hours a week. If it doesn't work, it was still worth the shot.

A quick fix for the networks would be to just cut a night of programming and the most obvious ones are Friday, and especially Saturday. Both have been hemorrhaging viewers. The total audience for ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox on Saturday is 22.4 million viewers, down more than 25% from just five years ago, according to Nielsen. The picture is slightly better on Friday, where the combined viewership this season is 25.6 million, a 14% drop from five years ago.

Unfortunately, while gutting an entire night sounds great on paper, in reality it may be shortsighted. Sure, Saturday has become a dumping ground for movies, reruns and reality fare that few are watching. But the networks need at least one dumping ground night to try to amortize programming costs.

"It's narrow-minded to say give up a night," says one network scheduling executive, who notes that the reruns that litter Saturday "are making it feasible to hold onto some of your bigger ticket dramas." Of course, the way the numbers are dropping, how long can it be used to effectively spread costs? 

OK, for now we'll play along and say that eliminating a night or two would do more harm than good to the bottom line of the broadcasters.

Instead we'll advocate losing an hour of prime time across the board. The question is which one?

Affiliates would love to have the 10-11 p.m. hour, but the networks would be insane to give that up since ad rates are often peaking at that time of night. No, the hour to lose is the 8-9 p.m. hour. People get home from work later these days and then they are dealing with their dinners, their kids, the dog and tons of other distractions before they plop down in front of the television. We already know that the nightly newscasts airing at 6:30 are an anachronism, it won't be long until the 8 p.m. hour follows suit.

The biggest hurdle the networks face in cutting back on the amount they program is their own ego. They are still under the misguided perception that because they are broadcast networks more is expected of them and that some how they will lose face by acknowledging that it's not 1975 anymore. Viewers today, we all know, do not distinguish between broadcast and cable. Heck, even the Federal Communication Commission rules that defined what was and wasn't a network no longer exist. 

Comparisons with how cable networks operate (fewer original series, lots of reruns) are usually dismissed by network executives who counter that the business model is different. That's true. Cable networks are blessed in that they get not only ad revenue, but money from the distributors who carry them. Broadcasters have just an ad revenue stream so their thinking is we must spend more on programming.

-- Joe Flint

Photo: Carlos Osorio / Associated Press