Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Desperately chasing the audience

Jay Leno’s new (old) show is about to premiere on NBC the network, his home for the past 17 years. This event dovetails with a discussion we’ve been having about audiences. In the case of NBC, the network where the Leno program will air, the number of viewers has been steadily dwindling from the era of “must see TV” when programs like Seinfeld garnered millions of viewers. The network will be happy if Leno can pull an audience of 5 million, which is more than their lack-luster late prime schedule of the past couple of years. If you understand that television is merely a vehicle to deliver an audience to an advertiser, perhaps you can understand why the defection of the network TV audience to cable stations or the Internet is cause for concern. Yes, there are some “reality” shows, like American Idol, that can still pull 30 million viewers on a good night, but even their numbers have been trending down (for myself: no Paula, no watch). But there are no more late prime-time dramas that seem to have the kind of pulling power to which the networks had become accustom. Mainstream media have been writing about Leno’s new/old show as if it were the death-knell for the network; the best hope is that this program becomes the new model for late prime-time network programming. Like reality programs, this one is cheap to produce, especially when compared to an hour-long drama. And, you know how ads are weaved into American Idol in a somewhat seamless manner? Well, Leno will be doing live commercials as a guard against the Tivo effect. At a certain price-point a low-cost variety program could be profitable to the network, and it might also satisfy advertisers looking for a moderately sized audience of 50-plus middle Americans – not exactly the group many advertisers wish to reach, because they just don’t buy the way younger consumers do. On the other hand, that older group is 96 million strong, so I wonder if we’re likely to see the program peppered with ads for erectile dysfunction, high cholesterol, incontinence and the like. Is the future of network TV doomed? Or can we just take a pill to cure what ails us?

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