You may be watching the slow death of broadcasting.
Not of broadcast networks – they'll be fine. But the notion that shows can try to appeal to all might be as dated as the image of an old-time farmer broadly casting seeds. This season, some of the most narrowly targeted shows are proving to be the most successful.
Few could have predicted that three weeks into the season, NBC would be the top-rated network so far. Or that the biggest premiere – aside from football — would be a cable show about zombies. Or that the top new network show would be essentially a sci-fi Western. (See chart, left.)
Few if any nationally-aired shows meet the most narrow definition of narrowcasting, which is targeting a specific, small audience, especially in one geographic region. But shows like "Revolution," "The Walking Dead," and "Go On" all have built-in elements that could be a dealbreaker for some audiences. And still they are succeeding.
While NBC is up this season, ABC, CBS, and Fox are down (see chart, below) – largely because their attempts to appeal to the masses haven't worked like they used to. Not all of NBC's have, either. The network pledged this season to go for broader comedies, but on Thursday canceled one of its highest hopes, "Animal Practice," a veterinary sitcom with a monkey as one of the leads.
You can't get much broader than that, except with singing shows and football. Football is thriving. But singing competitions are down. Fox's "X Factor" has slipped in part because of much tougher competition than it faced last fall. NBC's "The Voice" didn't air then. But the show has fallen hard from midseason, when it got a huge boost from a Super Bowl lead-in.
You can't get much more potentially off-putting, meanwhile, than AMC's "The Walking Dead," which nonetheless scored TV's highest scripted-show ratings in a year with Sunday's third-season premiere. The episode featured a discussion of what would happen if a baby turned into a zombie in the womb, which might turn off lots of viewers. But 10.9 million people were at least willing to give Sunday's premiere a shot. The show has grown dramatically since its debut, while getting gorier and gorier.
Narrowcasting at its best means locking in on one audience with not trying to please everyone. No show does it better than "The Walking Dead." Not including football, its 5.8 rating in the key 18-49 demographic Sunday was the best since the "American Idol" finale in May, and the best for a scripted show since a "Modern Family" episode last October. "Modern Family" ended last season the top scripted series on TV.
The success of a few decidedly different shows doesn't mean it's time to carve up television into small niche networks – though that's certainly what's happening in cable and online, as more and more channels devote themselves to cooking, cars, and a given sport.
Despite the triumphs of narrowcasting, when mass-appeal programming works, it really works. The top-rated show on television is NBC's "Sunday Night Football," which is down very slightly this season to a still-excellent 8 rating in the demo. But as much as they might like to, networks can't air football around the clock.
The lesson of this season may be that you can't please all the people all the time, but that you don't need to please everyone to score some very respectable ratings.
Take "Sons of Anarchy." The FX biker drama isn't for most. (This week's episode featured a man being beaten to death with a snow globe.) But FX's highest-rated show has repeatedly bested its Tuesdays-at-10 competition this season. Its network rivals — NBC's "Parenthood," CBS's "Vegas" and ABC's "Private Practice" — are all decidedly middle of the road.
CBS is the broadest of the broadcast networks, and has the numbers to prove it. Though NBC leads in the key demo this season, CBS has easily the largest overall audience. It can thank its safe, comfortable mix of procedurals and sitcoms.
But even that approach isn't working as predictably as it used to. CBS's most successful new show is also its weirdest. The Sherlock Holmes update "Elementary," in which Watson is a woman, is second only to NBC's even weirder "Revolution," which imagines life after all power sources go out. (The latest episode of "Revolution" features a fun update on a classic Western train robbery – something we haven't seen since, um, AMC's "Breaking Bad," did it over the summer. But "Breaking Bad" is a famously, wonderfully insane show.)
Many of CBS's most conventional series are down. Last season, all of its Monday comedies scored a huge boost from curiosity about how Ashton Kutcher would score on the new season of "Two and a Half Men." This season, against competition from "The Voice," the Monday comedies have slipped.
Now "Men" has moved to Thursdays with the broadly appealing "Big Bang Theory," where they make life much harder for rivals "X Factor" on Fox and NBC's smart but little-watched Thursday comedies. NBC has made no bones about its plan to go for broader comedies this time out.
But only one of those comedies – the most daring – is scoring big. The Matthew Perry comedy "Go On" tries to mine comedy from a group of people dealing with grief. Viewers seem to appreciate it: "Go On" is the top-rated new comedy of the season.
"Animal Practice," a show more likely to look for laughs by putting a cute monkey in a costume, is gone, along with the CBS underdog procedural "Made in Jersey," the first show to be cut this season. NBC's "Guys With Kids" is also struggling for viewers.
But NBC climbed to No. 3 in the ratings last season after years in fourth through another form of narrowcasting: Choosing easier fights. Rather than unveiling big shows against serious competition in the fall, it debuted "The Voice," its biggest show besides football, in April 2011. It then aired it in midseason, instead of the following fall, where it nearly tied "Idol" as the No. 2 show on television after "SNF." Then NBC used its strength this fall to launch "Revolution," which airs Mondays after "The Voice."
It's not surprising that "Revolution" debuted to strong numbers. The surprise is that it's held on to a solid audience, at least so far.
The J.J. Abrams-produced "Revolution" is similar to many shows that have come since his ABC hit "Lost": One huge event changes everything and mysteries pile up. But as the mysteries get more confusing, or don't seem to move toward solutions, viewers tend to fall off, as they did for "The Event" on NBC, "FlashForward" on ABC, and Abrams' "Alcatraz" on Fox.
Part of the problem is serialization. "Lost" was not an easy show to start watching five episodes in.
But "Revolution," interestingly, is. Your humble correspondent watched the premiere, left the show for a while, and came back to this week's episode, No. 5. It was surprisingly easy to follow, and just eccentric enough. It added mysteries while solving some from the first episode. It actually worked.
It also gained in ratings over the episode a week before.
"Walking Dead" is also growing instead of shrinking. It has repeatedly broken cable records, and has a shot this season of becoming the highest-rated scripted show on TV. It would be the first cable show to do so.
The zombies aren't in the same league as football yet. But give them time.