“They don’t have the tolerance for risk,” said Kevin Aratari, managing director of the Los Angeles-based ad firm Mocean. “They can’t put a million dollars or more an episode (on the line) and have a show flop.”
TV bosses also hope their existing series will last long enough to catch on — much as “The Big Bang Theory” did for CBS. Once the sitcom about Cal Tech nerds found its way to syndicated reruns, the audience for fresh episodes exploded. As home of the hits “The Big Bang Theory” and “NCIS,” CBS looks poised to win this season in both total viewers and adults ages 18 to 49, according to Nielsen.
But even with a victory, CBS’ ratings will probably remain flat among viewers in that all-important demographic. Meanwhile, the other three major networks all saw their audiences shrink among 18- to 49-year-olds.
“This is an incredibly tough environment we’re in right now, and even getting people to sample shows is much harder than even just two or three years ago,” said Joe Earley, chief operating officer at Fox Broadcasting.
Although the broadcast networks may no longer have the benefit of being the first place viewers go to check out new shows, the sheer volume of programming they create compared to cable outlets continues to give them an edge, according to analysts.
“Broadcast networks have a deeper bench. AMC can have big numbers for ‘The Walking Dead,’ but it’s just one show,” Adgate said. “CBS has like 10 shows that do that number.”
To attract viewers who might otherwise flee to FX, HBO or AMC, the networks may need to break some old habits. One way may be to abbreviate seasons for some shows, from as many as 24 episodes, as is customary now, to 13 or fewer, where it’s easier to sustain a compelling narrative. Fox took a step in that direction midseason with 13 episodes of “The Following,” an edgy serial-killer drama starring Kevin Bacon that was a modest hit.