ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC were all down in the ratings this past season. The top-rated scripted show, "The Walking Dead," is on cable. And the broadcasters were just shut out of the Emmys Outstanding Drama Series category for the second consecutive year.
But on Saturday, NBC entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt mounted a vigorous defense of broadcast TV, and especially his own network. He said at a Television Critics Association panel that broadcast networks have to produce far more shows than cable networks do, and that NBC plans more live programming and big event programs to lure viewers into watching in real time.
One reporter asked him if broadcasters were "incapable" of turning out shows that get best drama nominations.
"I don’t think there’s inferior product, or I wouldn’t have taken this job or wanted to work in this space," Greenblatt said.
NBC entertainment president Jen Salke interjected: "There’s some inferior product."
But we're sure she wasn't talking about any of the shows on NBC.
Greenblatt (pictured with Salke and Michael J. Fox) made the case that NBC was the only broadcaster that is flat in the ratings this season, and that "flat is the new up." But whether he's right about being flat depends on how you define the season.
The four biggest networks were all down in the key 18-49 demographic through the traditional season that ended in May. But third-place NBC says it is flat with a 1.7 rating through the week of July 7.
Traditionally, broadcasters count summer ratings separately from the rest of the year because they air fewer original shows in the summer.
"But what’s the traditional season anymore?" said Greenblatt. "It’s an arbitrary number from September to May that was created by advertisers. … We try to look at the whole year. And when we add in the summer, which is an important time period for us… that’s the result."
Greenblatt, who came to NBC from Showtime, noted that cable networks and streaming services like Netflix can pay more attention to individual shows because they air fewer of them.
"Showtime can put on one show a year and trust me, if we could put on one show a year, it would be the best show you ever saw because we’d have 85 million people working on one show, handcrafting every word," he said.
He said the broadcast decline in the ratings is nothing new. "Let me also say the decline year to year in broadcast television from a 5 to 7 percent has been happening for the last two decades," he said. "So it isn’t just a recent phenomenon, and it’s been happening partly because cable is just taking viewers away."
But broadcasters have several plans to lure back viewers, including airing more live shows that viewers will want to watch in real time. One example is the network's upcoming game show, "Million Second Quiz."
He said networks are also moving "very aggressively" into event series, including NBC's upcoming Hillary Clinton miniseries and Mark Burnett's "AD: After the Bible." He also pointed to ongoing series including the upcoming "Believe," "Crisis," and "Dracula."