One month into the launch of the new fall season, some new network brands have begun entering the viewer mix. Or have they? While the industry pundits debate the relative merits of each new broadcast show on the schedule, several cable premieres have not-so-quietly entered the scene. The most notable is AMC’s The Walking Dead, which premiered 1st in its time period and 4th for the week among all programming sign on to sign off. Cable has been airing alongside broadcast for
decades now, but only recently has begun airing originals against broadcast’s best. So how have they fared so far? Fair. With the exception of The Walking Dead, there were only 4 other original series that made the Top 100 programs last week – and only one of them was a brand new show — FX’s American Horror Story: Coven (ranked #55 among Adults 25-54). Most of the new entries finished between 15th and 50th for the night among viewer choices.
Why is this so? The success of network television has always been about the strength of the bench more than the highly promoted new shows. Sure, you need to knock one out of the park every few years – but the core schedule is the key. Advertisers know this, too. Buying new shows is like buying a lottery ticket. If the show doesn’t work, it will be replaced with something that does better. But if you’re in a winner, you ride the wave of cultural currency. So, it’s win – WIN BIG.
What broadcast networks do particularly well is build nights of television with audience flow. Throw all your Big Data on TV viewership into a giant algorithm and you’ll find that one of the strongest predictors of any show’s success is still its lead-in. And when you actually look at how program fans cluster together, again you’ll find that shows that air on the same nights are the strongest predictors of each other.
This is why, despite the appearance of a few bright spots in cable television, viewers are not congregating and staying with cable content throughout a night in the same way they do with broadcast. There is content there, but collectively, it’s not much of a draw. It takes more than a handful of original shows to create a destination for viewers. Each program is a building block of not only the night’s entertainment, but the network’s brand identity.
So why, with infinite choice, control and personalization, do audiences still flock to broadcast television? Still watch TV in a linear progression? Still spend 40% of their time on a handful of networks?
Barry Schwartz knows why. It’s the paradox of choice. Despite the belief that more choice breeds greater freedom, Schwartz argues that infinite choice is paralyzing and actually makes us unhappy. Which brings us back to Broadcast television, a known entity with original, high-quality content every night of the week. New characters are surrounded by, familiar ones, and we settle in for the night. We know what to expect, and anticipate some entertaining surprises. And that makes us happy.