Five ways television can save itself in 2014

Talent shows are on their way out.
Talent shows are on their way out.
Image: Reuters/Phil McCarten
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This was a game-changing year for the television industry, as Netflix—and the rise of other streaming video carriers—forever altered the way that we consume TV. So how are the networks supposed to thrive in this strange new world of streaming, stacking and binge-viewing? By making, and following, these five resolutions for 2014:

1. Cultivate more event programming

While fewer viewers are watching “live” programming each year (see below), the monster ratings for NBC’s The Sound of Music Live! (18.6 million viewers, its highest non-sports Thursday night ratings since 2004) prove that audiences will still flock to live TV for event shows. In June, 13 million Discovery viewers held their breath while Nik Wallenda successfully wire-walked across the Grand Canyon (live, of course).

For years, the highest-rated shows have been “DVR-proof” live events like the Super Bowl (108.4 million viewers in 2013), the Academy Awards (40.4 million) and the Grammys (28.4 million), while football is routinely the top-rated program each week during the fall. NBC has already ordered up another live musical (they haven’t announced which one) for next December, and other networks should follow suit by mounting other event programming that will drive live tune-in.

2. Make “live plus 7” the new advertising standard

Audiences are increasingly waiting longer to catch up with their favorite shows via DVR or video on demand, but most advertising space is sold on “live plus 3,” which factors in DVR/VOD use over a three-day period in addition to the initial “live” tune-in (also known as C3). That means that advertisers don’t pay for viewers who watch later, which is why networks are pushing for a shift to “live plus 7” (C7) to more accurately account for current viewing habits. In March, CBS chairman Les Moonves predicted the shift to C7 as the industry standard would come “within a year,” but he backed off that timetable  in recent weeks.

This delay is a mistake. Advertisers may be wary of paying C7 rates for time-sensitive material like a weekend’s new movie releases, but “live plus 7” is the new reality, and is essential for the networks to properly monetize shows that double their audiences when “live plus 7” ratings are factored in (like The Americans and The Bridge). And why stop there? Moonves is already (smartly) making a push for “live plus 30.”

3. Plan for life after talent competitions

For the past decade, talent competitions like American Idol and Dancing with the Stars have dominated the TV landscape, but across the board, almost all of those shows are showing signs of fatigue. Idol, Dancing, America’s Got Talent, and The X Factor’s  ratings were all down sharply this season (only relative newbie The Voice is still robustly chugging along), despite various attempts at shuffling formats and judges.

Even with the ratings drop-off, most of these shows are still solid performers, but they are definitely closer to the end of their run. Given the vast amount of real estate they occupy on their respective networks, it’s time to come up with contingency plans for when these shows do take their final bows. Otherwise they’ll be repeating the mistakes of ABC and NBC, whose respective schedules took years to recover from overreliance on the likes of Who Wants to be a Millionaire and The Jay Leno Show. It could be argued that they still haven’t recovered.

4. Sometimes, less is more

For decades, miniseries were staples of the networks, but they’ve largely fallen out of fashion in recent years. Next year, they’re making a comeback as “limited series” on networks like FOX (which will bring back Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer next summer for 24: Live Another Day), NBC (which landed A.D., the follow-up to Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s The Bible miniseries, which was a ratings smash for History) and FX (which unveiled an ambitious “limited series” slate, including a new take on the 1996 Coen Brothers film Fargo). This is an ideal solution in a TV environment in which many series seem tailor-made for brief runs but are then forced by their success to extend their runs for years too long (hello, Dexter and Homeland).

What’s more, an increasing number of networks are breaking from the traditional 22 episode broadcast model in favor of smaller, cable-sized seasons, including new hits like Under the Dome, Sleepy Hollow and The Following. It keeps the storylines—and audiences—focused and less susceptible to the usual midseason bloat that plagues most broadcast shows.

5. Take back the thunder that Netflix stole this year

Netflix dominated the conversation about television in 2013, and while the streaming service is currently in the best position to take advantage of the changing ways in which we consume television, it’s time for the networks to step up and compete.

For starters, they must embrace the binge-viewing audience, which told Netflix in a recent study that they enjoy watching two to six episodes of the same show in one siting,. In other words, binge-viewing is here to stay, so in addition to pushing for C7 ratings, the networks also must fight the studios that produce each of these shows for in-season stacking rights, the rights to all episodes of a show’s current season (and not just the most recent five episode, as is the industry standard).

It’s also no accident that Netflix’s most popular new series this yearOrange is the New Black – is also its most innovative, featuring actors and characters (especially its richly-layered female roles of various ages and races) that simply cannot be found anywhere else on television. Much like HBO expanded the scope of what was possible on TV 15 years with shows like The Sopranos and Sex and the City, the best way to compete with Netflix is to offer truly unique, fresh new shows. For starters, how about dramas that center around characters other than doctors, lawyers and cops?

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