the pulse

Early rollout of NBC sked plans probably isn't answer to prayers

In case you missed the news flash on Tuesday, NBC put out word that it's going to buck tradition and hold a news conference announcing its new 2008-09 schedule next week — a full six weeks before its broadcast network rivals. Most of America joins you in caring not at all.

Five years ago, this strategy might have been greeted with gasps. But at a time when everyone except the networks themselves seems to have gotten the memo that their days as an industry force are dwindling rapidly, a purportedly bold dice roll by NBC inspires merely another opportunity to toss out that handy shuffling-deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic analogy.

It's a little weird that NBC would bother making a schedule announcement at all given how it made so much hay of dumping the traditional May advertiser upfronts for a 52-week approach. Fall, winter, spring, summer — the seasons are all the same over there in beautiful Burbank. This way, evidently, the network can gift the competition with an even more lengthy and detailed road map of its plans.

NBC is hardly alone when it comes to denial of the obvious. Broadcasters are piloting and programming as if they're still the robust front-runner when in fact they're aging veterans struggling to remain in the lineup.

A just-released survey of some 1,200 cable and satellite viewers commissioned by the Hallmark Channel (and conducted by the research agency Millward Brown) reveals something we pretty much already knew: Baby boomers — here identified as ages 35-64 — watch far more television than the "millennials" (ages 14-31).

Why is this so? The study concludes that teens and young adults steer clear of programming content in large measure because they're more comfortable using new technology like streaming video, DVRs, VOD and PPV. (They're also clearly more comfortable with acronyms.) Moreover, 87% of the youthful millennial respondents admitted that they regularly forward through commercials and are more likely to switch channels and multitask while the TV set is on than are the more sedentary boomers.

It's true that Hallmark set up the study to underscore the point that its boomer target is far more likely to watch ads, stick to a single channel and exercise brand loyalty than are their younger and less-affluent counterpart. However, the responses also pointed up the inescapable fact that once this TV-bred generation goes on to the great Nielsen diary in the sky, those who succeed it are considerably more prone to click a mouse for their home entertainment than a remote.

The eroding numbers already are beginning to reflect the trend. The pie's pieces get sliced ever-thinner while its overall size decreases. Cable is at least doing what it can to stem the tide in the short term by pushing the creative envelope with increasing gusto, well understanding that if you don't give the people something they can't find anyplace else, they will seek out more provocative options.

What's dooming the networks to a fate of more immediate decline is the confounding self-delusion that they can still do things the way they've always done them and get by fine. Not anymore. They must instead adapt via becoming more Web-centric and imaginative — or steadily disappear into irrelevance.

Yes, NBC is floating a risky new gambit. Props to them for that. But if these guys honestly believe they can drive viewership by instituting a year-round season, packing their slate with unscripted garbage and doing everything on the cheap, I've got some hot Enron stock they may want to snap from my portfolio.
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