Network TV Can Still Save Itself. Why Does It Refuse To Do So?

Nielsen, the 98-year-old research firm that is practically synonymous with television ratings, recently rolled out a new metric it calls The Gauge. The Gauge can effectively now determine how many viewers consume television on streaming platforms as opposed to the old-fashioned way. What Nielsen learned may be surprising: 64 percent of viewers continue to watch television the old-fashioned way, on cable or network television, while only 26 percent of their time is spent watching television on a streaming platform.

Granted, streaming platforms are growing at a brisk clip, gaining about six percent on cable and network television each year. Nevertheless, the numbers are surprising to anyone who follows the television industry because all of the attention remains fixed on streaming television series. The conversations online almost always concern streaming shows. Ted Lasso has been a huge break-out hit in this last year, Bridgerton on Netflix is reportedly its most popular show ever. Lupin is a massive global hit. Seemingly hundreds of posts each week are dedicated to Marvel series on Disney+. Kaley Cuoco had a massive hit with The Flight Attendant on HBO Max, and Amazon has, well, seven seasons of Bosch. Meanwhile, practically all the major awards these days are given to streaming series while broadcast network television has been practically shut out.

And yet, broadcast network television still commands a much bigger audience, especially relative to everything else. Mare of Easttown, for instance, is probably the most talked about show online of the last few months, but the number of viewers who watched it topped out at around 3 million over the Memorial Day weekend. Meanwhile, NCIS fetches an average of 12 million viewers, while Grey’s Anatomy is quietly seen by over 8 million viewers a week in its 17th season. Over 90 million people watched the Super Bowl this year — a down year with a blowout win — which means that the ceiling for network television is still at least 90 million viewers!

In other words, network television is still the biggest game in town. It is technically free and has a reach that far exceeds any of the streamers. And yet, it continues to fade as viewers increasingly turn their attention toward the streamers. Hell, even the networks themselves often seem to be more interested in their streaming networks — Peacock (NBC), Paramount+ (CBS), Hulu (ABC) — than they are in their 100-year-old properties.

Yet, with all the advantages of network television, it almost seems as though they have conceded the fight to the streamers already. Each season, the networks seem more determined to play it safe in an attempt to cling to as much of their dwindling audience as possible instead of directly challenging the likes of Netflix or Disney+. CBS has 11 one-hour police procedurals scheduled for the fall, including three FBI series and three NCIS series. NBC has booked a full night of Chicago series and another night of Law and Order dramas, while ABC seems determined to run The Bachelor series and Dancing with the Stars fully into the ground. Fox, meanwhile, is basically the NFL and The Masked Singer or bust.

Network television has essentially given up. It’s dying, but instead of seeking treatment, it’s decided to continue doing the same thing until its heart gives out. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s no reason one of the networks couldn’t take a defibrillator to its chest and resurrect itself. There’s no reason Ted Lasso couldn’t have aired on NBC, where it could have been seen by millions more than on Apple TV+. The Netflix hit, Sweet Tooth, could have fit right at home on one of the networks, where it could have grown its audience week over week. ABC could have resurrected Cobra Kai, while even John Krasinki’s Jack Ryan series could’ve fit right in over on CBS. Apple TV+’s family-friendly mystery series, Home Before Dark could’ve found a welcome home on Sunday night on network television while Girls5Eva could have played just as well on NBC as on its streamer, Peacock.

Even when the networks try, they only do so with half a heart. NBC gave it a shot with Manifest and Debris, but they were watered down so much in an effort to appeal to broader audiences that they ultimately failed. ABC’s Big Sky has the DNA of a good show, but it insisted on being an interesting show for network television instead of simply an interesting show. It would probably help, too, if the networks stopped letting their biggest talents leave for the streaming world (Kenya Barris and Shonda Rhimes, to name two) and instead fight (and pay) for top-tier talent. It’s not like they don’t have the money. Audience sizes aren’t what they used to be, but it’s still by far the biggest name in town, so advertisers are still all willing to pay top dollar to exposure their products and services to the largest amount of people.

The Big Four are still the Big Four, for a few more years anyway. There’s no reason one of them can’t decide to try and stop the bleeding by curating better content and putting shows on the air that are designed to attract buzz and critical acclaim. What do they have to lose? It’s not like any of them have a potential The Office or Seinfeld currently airing. They would only have to peel off three or four shows from the streamers to reinvent themselves as a network worthy of watching again. If Fox can build its entire schedule around The Masked Singer, there’s no reason a network couldn’t also do so around Shadow and Bone or You or the next, great true-crime series. Instead of losing millions of viewers each year while trying to cater to the largest audience possible, one of these networks should take a risk and decide, instead, to make great television and wait for the audiences to come to them.