It seems like yesterday that The Jay Leno Show was going to revolutionize the TV business. That didn't happen. But the 2009—10 television season did have its share of triumphs—and a few tribulations.
Comedies ABC's decision to schedule a block of four new comedies on Wednesday night looked risky a year ago. But Modern Family is a hit and that show, along with The Middle and Cougar Town, performed well enough to get renewals. Fox's Glee showed that laughs can be mined from the hour form as well. Look for more comedies next fall. The lesson is if shows are funny, people will watch.
10 o'clock dramas NBC thought dramas were doomed at 10pm as more viewers were playing back programs from earlier in the night on their DVRs. That led to the disastrous decision to replace dramas with a low-cost The Jay Leno Show. While the ratings bar for prime-time success is lower than ever before, ABC's Castle, CBS' The Good Wife and NBC's own mid-season hit Parenthood proved that it was too early to deliver last rites for scripted programs in the hour.
Cable It's not just viewers who are leaving the broadcast networks. Oprah Winfrey, Conan O'Brien, the Bowl Championship Series and the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament finals will all be cable-only entities over the next few years. "The playing field has flattened," says Turner Entertainment Networks chief Steve Koonin. "It's not a war anymore between cable and broadcast. It's television."
Cost-cutting Not to pile on Leno, but NBC's plan to use him to reduce its programming costs showed how hard it is to budget-slash your way to ratings glory at a time when the viewer is more demanding than ever. The network had to go on a spending binge for new scripted shows this spring in an
attempt to get back in the ratings game.
Serialized shows Goodbye to Lost, 24 and Heroes—all pop-culture touchstones that won't be easy to replicate (just ask the lapsed viewers of FlashForward, which started strong and then faded). As the networks want more accessible hourlong dramas that can draw audiences when in repeats, expect to see fewer series with complex
mythologies that require viewers to make a weekly commitment.
Veteran hits Age is catching up to the most popular shows that energized prime time in recent years. CSI, Desperate Housewives, House and Grey's Anatomy are a few of the many series that dropped 10 percent or more in their ratings. It won't get any easier for those shows going forward. Viewers have a dizzying array of choices, and the plethora of TV episodes online and on DVRs is just new competition that wasn't a factor five years ago. Hey, even Law & Order couldn't run forever.
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