The news that NBC is considering canning its 10 p.m. programming slot and handing it over to local stations may have farther-reaching implications beyond the 2023-24 season. Looking ahead, digital analyst and former ABC Daytime president Brian Frons sees that decision as a potential death knell for broadcast TV’s scripted drama programming.
“Maybe we wake up five years from now and NBC is only news and sports,” Frons told TheWrap. “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.”
The cost-saving plan would see NBC give up its 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. programming to its 200-plus affiliate stations in an unprecedented, but perhaps inevitable, move. According to reports, the idea is still in the discussion stage. The 2022 season would be safe, but the proposed plan could be implemented as early as fall 2023.
So what happens if NBC shrinks its original programming by several hours each week? Affiliates could air sports or news programs, while scripted content could be shuffled to an 8 or 9 p.m. slot. There’s even a chance that the reality of production budgets in the age of streaming could end up pulling scripted dramas off broadcast all together.
The former ABC executive laid out several reasons why NBC’s potential move could signal the end for scripted dramas on broadcast networks.
1. Streamers are vastly outspending the networks
“You have competition that makes you look like you’re spending no money on your shows compared to ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘House of the Dragon,’” Frons said.
Amazon spent a staggering $465 million to produce the eight-episode first season of its “Rings” prequel, “The Rings of Power.” That doesn’t include the reported $250 million cost for the rights from J.R.R. Tolkien’s estate, marketing and other expenses, which firmly places its cost above the billion-dollar mark for a planned five-season run. Then, there’s HBO’s estimated price tag for its “Game of Thrones” prequel at $200 million for the first season.
By comparison, an 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. And though broadcast seasons regularly run about 22-24 episodes, the total still doesn’t come close to many of the big-budget premium cable and streaming shows.
2. If networks can’t compete with scripted programming anymore, maybe it’s time to quit
Despite the popularity of Dick Wolf’s “Chicago” and “Law & Order” franchises — which currently air in three-hour blocks on Wednesday and Thursday nights on NBC — it’s hard to stay in the game when the competition’s spending exceeds that of some feature films.
“Maybe you wake up and say, ‘OK, that’s not how we’re going to compete.’ Maybe that’s the conceptual question that is on the minds of the folks in NBC: How do we compete?” said Frons.
Plus, even Wolf’s shows aren’t immune to the universal broadcast ratings decline. 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.
3. If the 10 p.m. slot goes, what’s preventing the 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. slots from also being axed?
“One might argue that if you’re trying to compete with scripted drama at 10 and you can’t, why do you think five years from now you’re going to be able to compete from 8 to 10?” Frons said. In fact, ratings for NBC’s scripted shows for 2021-2022 were pretty much all down from the previous season.
4. Audiences want more reality and game shows — and they’re much cheaper to produce
“All of a sudden, there are genres you could never have imagined in primetime, like reality and the return of game shows,” Frons said. It’s clear that networks are doubling down on game shows — many in primetime slots.
“Are we seeing the end of drama? Everybody’s constantly looking at ways to reduce the cost of their programming grid in primetime, that’s why you’re seeing stuff like [NBC’s] ‘Password’ and [ABC’s] ‘Family Feud [in primetime].’ It’s the most revenue per programming dollar cost.”
The Keke Palmer-hosted “Password” debuted to 4.2 million total viewers on Aug. 9 at 10 p.m., following the 6.5 million audience of lead-in “America’s Got Talent,” which aired its first live show of the season on that date. “Password,” which was introduced as a summer series, is not, as of this writing, on NBC’s fall schedule.
5. Maybe the 10 p.m. spot isn’t that relevant for viewers anymore
While it’s become common for networks to give time periods back to affiliates in the daytime, ceding primetime time slots is new. “It feels like a foundational change,” Frons said of giving up on one of the most visible drivers of the network’s profitability.
With the advent of streaming, does hanging onto an unprofitable time slot still make sense? Maybe abandoning the 10 o’clock spot isn’t so radical, given the drops in viewership for 10 p.m. shows: “Chicago P.D.” lags behind its franchise lead-ins and “Dateline” is now a runner-up to ABC’s “20/20.” Meanwhile, NBC’s newest and least-viewed “Law & Order” series, “Organized Crime,” trails behind “Law & Order,” and “SVU” in its 10 p.m. slot.
“[What if] 10 o’clock isn’t that important?” asked Frons.
Additional reporting by Brandon Katz.