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The future of broadcast TV was bleak. The pandemic has made it worse

Alan Pergament

Broadcast TV already was in some trouble with viewers fleeing to cable, pay-cable and streaming sites.

But evidence is mounting that the coronavirus pandemic could be the end of broadcast TV as we know it.

Western New York has always been one of the stronger markets for broadcast TV and viewing here even has gone down substantially.

Many prime-time series get live household ratings in the 2s, 3s, 4s and 5s, which is a fraction of what they used to get only a few years ago.

The evening newscasts – which not too long ago were thought to be dinosaurs – now get ratings higher than almost all TV series.

It won’t get any better this fall and is likely to get much worse since productions are shut down in Los Angeles and New York and the networks are scrambling to fill their schedules.

The first two broadcast networks to announce their fall schedules are planning to premiere only a combined five new shows. Fox had to add two series that have already aired on cable, “L.A.’s Finest” (Spectrum) and “Cosmos: Possible Worlds” (National Geographic Channel), to fill out its schedule.

Toronto TV critic Bill Brioux tells me the Canadian medical series “Transplant” on CTV will air on NBC and the CBC drama “Coroner” is going to the CW to fill the programming gap and there may be more series coming to American television from north of the border.

The networks also had to prematurely end the seasons of some shows, which meant viewers had more reason to try out streaming sites. That means the older audience that has helped keep network TV alive has by necessity learned how to stream Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Disney Plus and other sites.

And many of them have liked the smorgasbord of offerings and the ability to binge watch.

I recommended the coming-of-age Netflix series "Never Have I Ever" to several senior citizens recently and they enjoyed it.

I doubt all of the senior citizens experimenting with streaming will be coming back to network television unless there is a financial necessity to drop streaming sites and pay-cable channels.

And the more that older people with decent-size budgets learn to stream the less likely they will watch broadcast shows.

Full disclosure: This TV critic regularly watches only a handful of broadcast TV shows – “The Good Doctor,” “This Is Us,” "A Million Little Things" and “Blue Bloods” – among them.

Broadcast TV also is suffering because some of its most popular network shows have ended their long runs in the past few years. “The Big Bang Theory” ended its CBS run in 2019 and “Modern Family” ended its ABC run in 2020.

The networks try to keep producing their hits as long as they can, but “Chicago Fire,” Chicago Med,” “Chicago PD,” “Law and Order: SVU,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and all the “NCIS” series can’t last forever, can they?

Younger viewers already have abandoned network TV in large numbers.

When I ask my college students how many of them watch a broadcast TV show, some of them don’t even know what broadcast TV is and only a few of them say they watch any network television shows.

And more streaming sites are coming from the media conglomerates.

Warner Media’s HBO Max, which offers HBO shows and programs from the Turner networks and is ramping up original productions, is set to premiere next week.

The Peacock Network, NBC’s new streaming site, is premiering this July and reportedly plans to air its late-night shows in prime time before they air on affiliates like WGRZ-TV in late night.

The prime remaining audience for network television likely may be older viewers  and families who don’t have the money to purchase the streaming sites.

They also are less likely to be attractive to advertisers, who, unlike pay-cable and streaming programs, are the backbone of network TV.

In addition, popular and prolific writers and producers are heading to pay-cable and streaming sites where the content can be more realistic, they have more freedom, don’t fear the censorship of broadcast regulations and don't have the stress of producing 22 episodes a season.

The diminishing number of TV critics working for newspapers also means network television gets less media attention than it has in the past.

The semi-annual meetings of the Television Critics Association in Los Angeles, which promotes new upcoming shows of all kinds, was canceled this summer because of the virus. The cancellation made sense because the networks and cable channels probably don’t have many shows to promote.

The broadcast networks also could suffer more if the fears of attending movies in packed theaters lead to more and more theatrical movies to opt for streaming their films to viewers at home who have an additional reason to ignore free TV offerings.

I’m not saying broadcast television is going to die. They are owned by media conglomerates that can afford to keep them around and undoubtedly will find ways to make it work.

Broadcast TV has always found a way to survive. When cable came along, the networks bought or created may of the channels. For instance, NBC Universal has CNBC, MSNBC, USA Network, Bravo, E!, NBCSN, Oxygen, the Golf Channel and Syfy in its portfolio.

CBS is associated with Viacom, which has Showtime, CBS All-Access, MTV, VH-1, TV Land, Comedy Central, CMT, Nickelodeon and BET in its portfolio.

Disney’s portfolio includes, ABC, ESPN, the National Geographic Channel, Disney Plus, Freeform, Lifetime and FX.

The owners of the broadcasting networks now have their own streaming sites, which means programs that may not be highly-watched on broadcast TV will ultimately repeat on those sites for generations.

Broadcast TV may continue to lose viewers to an alarming degree and no longer produce many must-see TV programs.

But if history is a guide, even if it doesn’t carry L.A.’s finest programs and the cosmos of television is in uncharted territory, broadcast TV should still find a creative way to make money and survive.

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