MBPT Spotlight: Why Most New Broadcast Network Shows Will Flop

CBS’ Madam Secretary is one of my wife and my favorite shows. The last episode we watched had a promo for new TNT show, Proof, premiering in June. It looks interesting, and we are probably going to at least check out the first episode to see if it’s worthy of being placed in one of our DVR queues.

Some of my favorite original scripted series are on TNT. But other than those and sports I don’t watch the network much. So I wouldn’t have known the June start date of one of my favorites, The Last Ship, if I hadn’t seen it promoted on ABC’s Marvel Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Cable networks long ago came to understand that the best way to grow their audience was to appeal to those who were watching similar shows on other networks. They also understood that it didn't really hurt them much if other cable networks did the same. If everyone gained viewers, more advertising dollars would shift from broadcast to cable, and everyone would eventually benefit. Yet the broadcast networks still stubbornly refuse to see that the reverse is also true. They will, strangely enough, take advertising from their real competitors — ad-supported cable networks, HBO, Showtime and even Netflix, but not from one another.

It is not the 1980s or 1990s anymore. A broadcast hit on one network actually benefits all networks. When an Empire takes off, people start believing in the power of network TV again. Except for the very occasional cable phenomenon like The Walking Dead, no other platform is currently capable of generating the audience size of a successful broadcast network show.

Looking over the primetime schedules just announced at the broadcast upfronts, there are numerous candidates for cross-promotion. Some obvious examples — new medical dramas, Heartbreaker (NBC), and Code Black (CBS) should be promoted on Grey’s Anatomy (ABC), the new FBI drama Quantico (ABC) should be promoted on Criminal Minds (CBS) and The Blacklist (NBC).

Why in the world wouldn’t all five broadcast networks cross-promote new series Supergirl, Heroes Reborn, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow and returning shows Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Gotham, Flash and Arrow? They are all trying to reach basically the same audience. The networks can and will have heavy online presences leading up to the new series premieres, but that is dwarfed in both size and impact to promoting them on air in shows that appeal to the same audience.

The last time I raised the issue of the broadcast networks' refusal to promote one another's series, an anonymous network source was actually quoted as saying "it's an ego thing."  He couldn't come up with a single valid reason not to do it.

Putting ego aside for a moment, the broadcast networks should realize that every time networks cross-promote their products, ratings soar. Just look at NFL Football ratings over the past few years, or the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.

In what other instance does a company refuse to advertise its product to the largest and most easily measurable audience?

Let's be clear. These aren't just random consumers the broadcast networks are choosing not to pursue. These are the best possible prospects, who the networks know are already watching similar programming, and are at that moment at their most receptive toward receiving a message about programming.

They are viewers who are already watching and engaged with the exact type of program the networks are trying to promote to them. I don't know how to say it more clearly.

There is absolutely no question in my mind that if the networks started cross-promoting one another's shows, new series success rates would rise dramatically, and overall broadcast ratings would stabilize (or decline less).

It is interesting to note that at the upfront schedule presentations, the networks still relish talking about how they are No. 1 at this or that, but seldom show any actual ratings anymore.

If they continue to not advertise to their largest chunk of available and engaged viewers, three years from now a broadcast network will be bragging about being No. 1 with 1.0 adults 18-49 primetime rating (if they are still talking about demos — which is another topic for another time).

Steve Sternberg has more than 30 years of television and video analysis experience, having held top research posts at Bozell, TN Media, Magna Global and ION Media Networks. He also authors the TV industry blog, The Sternberg Report (sternbergreport.com).