In an effort to curb costs amid the reality of streaming competition, the network is considering shaking up primetime in a big way
If NBC follows through on a proposal to ax its primetime programming at 10 p.m., an idea first floated last week, the move would be a dramatic concession to market realities that could reshape the broadcast industry amid the hard reality of streaming’s growing dominance.
“By taking out 10 o’clock, you’re starting to put a very big wave in the middle of your ecosystem,” Brian Frons, digital analyst and former president of ABC Daytime, told TheWrap.
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Despite successful scripted series such as “New Amsterdam” and prolific producer Dick Wolf’s roster of reliable “Law & Order” and “Chicago” franchise series currently stationed in the 10 p.m. spot on two different nights, NBC executives have been mulling the possibility of handing that hour back to local stations to air programming of their choosing (and collect all the ad revenue from that hour).
Though reports stress that nothing is official and NBC remains in discussion about the idea, here’s what it might mean for the network, the fans, top producers and the future of broadcast TV. (Representatives for the network didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.)
How much money can NBC save?
Most of NBC’s 10 p.m. hour is devoted to scripted dramas, which can be expensive to produce especially given the need to have programming year-round. Eliminating those shows from the budget could save hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
Hour-long broadcast drama episode generally costs between $3 million and $5 million, though production costs can vary depending on where a show is filmed, if there are big-name stars involved and if CG or other pricey production values are required. While major cable players like HBO and streamers such as Netflix cough up $15 million-$20 million per episode for their biggest series, most broadcast shows also produce two or three times as many episodes per season (up to 22 or even 24).
Moreover, broadcast TV has seen a sharp ratings decline over the last decade. In 2012, for example, the stage-musical drama “Smash” debuted to 11.4 million live linear viewers (the show was canceled after two seasons). For comparison, NBC debuted new series “Ordinary Joe” in the Monday 10 p.m. slot last fall and it garnered just 3.8 million live linear viewers (it was canceled after one season).
Still, NBCU secured more than $7 billion in ad revenue commitments from this year’s upfront sales presentations across all of its primetime hours. That’s actually a half billion more than the $6.5 billion the network drummed up in 2017. Perhaps billions of dollars doesn’t go as far as they used to.
Will NBC and other broadcast networks still compete in the scripted drama game anymore?
NBC is the only broadcast network to score an Emmy nomination for Best Drama Series in the last six years — for “This Is Us,” which ended its six-season run last spring (and failed to land a series nomination for next month’s ceremony). Since premium cable networks and streamers now dominate the awards race, it’s fair to wonder if a move out of the 10 p.m. slot would set the stage for NBC — and perhaps other broadcasters — to eschew the expensive scripted drama genre entirely.
After all, the network has more ratings success with awards shows or live sports such as NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” — which was routinely the network’s most-watched weekly broadcast in 2021, with total viewers ranging from 14 million all the way up to 27 million. And for all the flack the Oscars get amid its ratings slips over the last decade, the ceremony still pulled in 10.4 million linear viewers for ABC last year — far better than the 7 million live linear viewers the most recent season of “Chicago Fire” averaged.
“Maybe we wake up five years from now and NBC is only news and sports,” Frons said. “If Disney+, Hulu, Netflix and Amazon are making bigger, better dramas for five times the money, maybe you shouldn’t be in the drama business.”
What does this mean for NBC affiliates?
By handing the 10 p.m. hour back to local stations, those affiliates can suddenly cash in on a very lucrative piece of nightly real estate — collecting all of the ad revenue for that hour. Decades ago, networks paid affiliates to air programming. These days, affiliates often pay the networks while the two sides split a percentage of ad revenue. NBC’s potential pullback creates an opportunity for affiliates to fill that missing time either with syndicated programming or local news shows.
“There’s value in having that hour to program, but they have to do so in a way that makes money,” Ian Greenblatt, J.D. Power’s managing director and GM, tech/media/telecom Intelligence, said.
Since NBCUniversal owns 12 local stations, including in top markets like New York, L.A. and Chicago, there’s a possibility to launch a new syndicated show that could get a bigger platform (and potential audience) than anything airing in daytime. “It’s a good vehicle to launch a new property with broad clearance — and its ad pods in 60 minutes of network lead-out time slot. Consider those as a currency for local broadcasters to use to offset other programming costs, or to sell themselves to generate additional revenue,” Greenblatt added. “Will it be enough to slow or reverse the inevitable slide of broadcast television? Not hardly, but it may provide the potentially affected NBC affiliates a short-term cash flow pop to improve their valuation.”
A spokesperson for Gray TV, which owns 61 of the network’s 223 affiliate stations, declined to comment; Nexstar, which operates 37 other NBC affiliates, didn’t respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.
What would happens to shows that air at 10 p.m., such as Dick Wolf’s anchor dramas?
The earliest any change would happen is next fall, there’s plenty of time for the network to shuffle its programming plans. Tuesday’s 10 p.m. series, “New Amsterdam,” is already set to end in 2023, while Monday’s show is a brand-new revival of sci-fi favorite “Quantum Leap” that may be vulnerable if it doesn’t deliver viewers. Also at risk is Friday-night staple “Dateline,” which lost ratings ground to ABC’s “20/20” in its 30th season that ended in the spring. It could find another home on Peacock, which already debuted a streaming-only spinoff “Dateline: The Last Day.”
As for the Dick Wolf shows, Frons suggested that “Law & Order” and “Chicago PD,” which currently cap off a three-hour franchise block at 10 p.m., would likely move to another night at 8 or 9.
“I don’t think it’s going to bother Dick Wolf as long as he gets his money,” Frons said. “The Dick Wolf shows are making good money, both in terms of what they do on the network, what they do on Hulu, and then whatever the national sales they have.” (In fact, most of these series will be jumping from Hulu to Peacock next month as NBC’s deal with Hulu has expired.)
But even Wolf’s shows aren’t bulletproof. Despite crossovers with the more popular “SVU,” the Christopher Meloni-led “Organized Crime” saw a 29% drop in ratings in 2021-22 in the 10 p.m. slot. “Chicago PD” had a Season 9 finale surge and seems solid — until you realize that viewership dropped 4.1% overall last season and that its contract is up in 2023. A time change might boost its numbers, or NBC may decide that two “Chicago” shows are enough. (A fourth show, “Chicago Justice,” lasted only one season.)
Reps for Wolf Entertainment didn’t respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.
What happens to late-night TV?
If NBC exits the 10 p.m. block, then “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” could conceivably move up to either 10:30 p.m. or 11 — though some analysts suggested that he’s more likely to stay put at 11:35 p.m.
While any timeslot change would remove direct competition with CBS’ Stephen Colbert and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, “The Tonight Show” would go head to head with some of those networks’ biggest dramas.
“I don’t think that’s a solution,” Frons said.
Let us not forget the lesson of Jay Leno. NBC previously took the half-measure of setting up “The Jay Leno Show” at 10 p.m. in 2009, but it was a highly-publicized flop that likely hurt affiliates leading into the 11 p.m. hour. No one wants a repeat of that mistake.
What does this mean for Peacock?
While NBCUniversal could pocket the savings from losing those seven weekly hours of programming, the company can also reroute at least some of the money from the profitable but declining linear divisions to streaming, where Peacock subscriber growth has flattened.
“It becomes an interesting question of whether this decision forces Comcast and NBCU to move faster to evolve Peacock as a consumer product, or whether the same dynamics with the consumer that have led to Peacock having slow and stagnant growth persist,” Andrew Rosen, former Viacom digital media executive and founder of streaming newsletter PARQOR, told TheWrap.
Peacock has yet to deliver a broad appeal breakout hit similar to Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Apple TV+’s “Ted Lasso” — each of which helped brand the platform and spurred subscriber growth. While Wall Street may have pulled a 180 on the streaming business model this year amid subscriber drops at Netflix, it remains a key cog in the long-term strategies of most entertainment media companies such as Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery.
“If you’ve lost a third of the time period, your business just got smaller. But if [networks] are smart and proactive, they can [tell creatives], ‘Let’s do a show on Peacock,'” Frons said.