February 28, 2013

UPDATED: The Cycle of Failure (and Success) at a TV Network — Or How Matlock Replaced The Office and SVU Last Night

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Written by: Mitch Metcalf
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UPDATE:  The Hollywood Reporter followed up on our story, and interviewed WKYC’s General Manager, who claims that the Matlock preemptions (which will continue next week), are merely to make up for the fact that the Academy Award telecast left Griffith out of its “In Memorium” segment.  (“We thought it would be a nice tribute.”)  We’re sure that Cleveland viewers look forward to future primetime network preemptions featuring the film work of fellow Oscar snubbees Phyllis Diller, Larry Hagman, Alex Karras and Japanese director Nagisa Oshima.

EARLIER:  A lot of sand from the shore of Lake Erie was kicked in the face of 98-pound weakling NBC last night.  In Cleveland (a top 20 market — ranked 18th and covering 1.30% of the US), NBC affiliate WKYC decided to drop the 9-11 pm block of The Office (repeat), 1600 Penn and Law & Order: SVU (repeat) in favor of a two-hour Matlock movie that originally aired (on NBC) November 19, 1992.  Matlock?  A 21-year old mystery program?  Back at the dawn of the Clinton administration, NBC barely tolerated Matlock, one of the oldest-skewing programs on TV (in the uber-AARP league of Murder, She Wrote and Father Dowling Mysteries).  But Andy Griffith delivered a reliable audience: lots of households, just few people under 50 watching in them.  As opposed to today’s NBC (non-Voice) audience profile of extremely few households and a dearth of viewers of any age.

As in sports, winning and losing are contagious for television networks.  A few hit shows in rapid succession ignite an inferno at a network or channel.  Suddenly, every promo is seen by more people, and success can spread rapidly to other nights of the week and other dayparts.  Top writers and actors want to work with the network.  Advertisers start to pay a premium to be on the hit shows and are even willing to spend more to get into mediocre shows if it guarantees continued access to the hits.  Revenues and profits rise, making a successful network even more willing to invest in future success.

On the flip side, a losing network’s failures breed even more severe declines.  One time period drags down another.  Nights fall like dominoes.  The network doesn’t get the pick of creative talent.  Even promising, quality shows fail to get traction because promos are less effective, and off-channel advertisements have to fight against a perception that “nothing good is on that network.”  As revenues shrink, budgets are cut and the culture becomes risk averse at precisely the wrong time.  The downward spiral of failure becomes a nosedive.  Even worse, a failing network is vulnerable to local pre-emptions.  The network’s own stations decide an old movie or a state high school basketball tournament or a Billy Graham revival special is a better bet than a terrible network line-up: the ratings might be just as low, but at least the local station keeps all the commercial time (10-12 minutes or more per hour) instead of the stingy normal local allocation (2 minutes per hour).  This is what happened last night in Cleveland.  The problem with pre-emptions are many: they undercut already soft ratings, but even worse they embolden other stations to flip the network the bird and take some easy money.

Ratings Update:  The Matlock movie in Cleveland ended up doing the same as the 9-10 pm comedies in the other NBC markets, but Andy Griffith significantly fell below the SVU pace.  WKYC should have pre-empted the 8-10 pm comedy clock and left SVU alone to maximize ratings, revenue, and the lead-in to its late local news.  More important, it would have sent a much clearer message to the network.  Nevertheless, discontent from the heartland will be registered in Universal and New York today.

Household Rating — Nielsen Local Meters

Thursday Feb 28, 2013

55 other markets Cleveland WKYC
9:00  Office (R) 1.7 Matlock (R) 1.6
9:30 1600 Penn 1.7 Matlock (R) 1.8
10:00 SVU (R) 2.9 Matlock (R) 2.1
10:30 SVU (R) 3.2 Matlock (R) 2.4



About the Author

Mitch Metcalf
MITCH METCALF has been tracking every US film release of over 500 screens (over 2300 movies and counting) since the storied weekend of May 20, 1994, when Maverick and Beverly Hills Cop 3 inspired countless aficionados to devote their lives to the art of cinema. Prior to that, he studied Politics and Economics at Princeton in order to prepare for his dream of working in television. He has been Head of West Coast Research at ABC, then moved to NBC in 2000 and became Head of Scheduling for 11 years.