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Is network TV dying? Hardly Add to ...

Robert Greenblatt, president of NBC Entertainment, is talking about NBC’s recent history, specifically the period when General Electric owned and ruled the venerable network. “I think there was a sense that it’s a declining business, and let’s just sort of manage the decline and hope we can get the best out of it.”

This feeling is not confined to some non-showbiz number crunchers at GE. There is a vague but widespread belief that the traditional network, or “broadcast television” industry, is fading. Every new advance in technology – from the growth of specialty cable channels to the spread of Internet access to the iPad to the success of Netflix – causes a small army of pundits to suggest that the end of old-fashioned television is nigh.

There is no doubt that, according to traditional measurements, the number of people watching network TV in the United States is steadily shrinking.

Look at comparisons between viewers last season and the 2010-2011 prime-time broadcast season (which ended in May): ABC was down 9.7 per cent, CBS was down 8.1 per cent, Fox was down 5.8 per cent and NBC was down 15.5 per cent. Still, these numbers don’t tell the whole story. In the case of Fox, if the staggering number of viewers for this year’s Super Bowl broadcast – a TV audience of 111 million people – was removed from the equation, the broadcaster would actually be down 18.4 per cent. And if the Winter Olympics coverage were added to NBC’s total, the decline would only be 2.2 per cent from the previous season.

At the same time, viewing numbers for many of the top 10 shows during the 2010-11 season actually went up slightly. This is the result of DVR viewing being added to the calculations. The Nielsen ratings now count viewers who watch a show on their DVR within seven days of the broadcast. As Kevin Reilly, president of Fox Entertainment Group, said during the recent TV critics’ press tour in Los Angeles, where broadcasters present the fall shows, “Sometimes my head spins with the complexity of the ratings.”

There are countless issues facing network TV. One is the fact that it has been years since a scripted drama or comedy was the No. 1 show for an entire season. The last was CBS’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation in 2003. Mind you, rough figures for international sales and viewer numbers would suggest that CSI was the most-viewed show in the world in 2010.

However, for all the turmoil, in talking to executives from the four major U.S. networks here, it emerges that nobody is worried about the end of network TV. Everybody is concerned about changing viewing habits, and the challenge of creating hit TV shows that transcend network TV to become popular-culture phenomena.

Nobody sees other technologies as replacing television. Everybody sees opportunities to reach more consumers on new communication platforms and everybody knows that advertiser-supported broadcast television is still the major content provider for those platforms and the most visible entertainment form on the planet. If there are concerns, they are about creating the content that matters to consumers – the content people want to watch, whether it’s on the traditional TV set at home, streamed to their computer or downloaded to their tablet or smartphone.

Certainly that’s Greenblatt’s principal concern. He took over at NBC six months ago and his job is to take the network out of fourth place. That’s what Comcast Corp., NBC’s majority owner since January of this year (GE still owns 49 per cent), wants. Comcast is the largest cable operator and home Internet service provider in the United States. It’s not GE; it’s a communications company.

Once, NBC was No. 1 among the four U.S. networks and crowed about its ability to deliver an endless stream of super-successful shows – ER, Cheers, Seinfeld, Friends, to name just a few. Then the stream dried up. CBS took the lead with enormously popular sitcoms and police procedurals, and Fox destroyed the competition in the ratings with American Idol. NBC became best known for disastrous programming errors, including airing the cheap-to-make Jay Leno Show at 10 p.m. and the ensuing farce of its cancellation and the resignation of Conan O’Brien from The Tonight Show.

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