As linear TV viewing falls, NBC tries some pixie dust

Nielsen reported data this week that confirmed what most people in the TV industry already knew: People are spending ever-less time watching TV  in the traditional manner and ever-more time watching streamed content in a non-traditional manner.

According to the ratings company’s third-quarter 2014 Total Audience Report (formerly the Cross Platform Report), total time spent watching traditional TV among adults fell 4.4 percent from the same quarter last year, to 4 hours and 32 minutes a day, while time spent watching streaming video grew by 60 percent year-over-year.

The biggest falloff in linear TV viewing, not surprisingly, came among 18-24 year olds, who were down more than 19 percent. But even among adults 55-64, a core segment of the traditional TV audience, linear viewing as down 2.4 percent year-over-year. That group also spent more time watching time-shifted TV (up 6.1 percent) and more time watching video from the internet (up a whopping 63 percent, albeit off a relatively low base).

The trend, which has been underway and accelerating for at least the past two years, has sent average TV program ratings on a steady, downward slide, undercutting broadcasters’ advertising revenue.

About the only type of traditional TV programming that still cuts it as appointment viewing is live programming with a high urgency factor. While marketers increasingly are shifting dollars out of traditional TV channels and into digital platforms, advertisers will still pay a premium for a live audience that can’t fast-forward through the commercials. A 30-second spot in this year’s Super Bowl, for instance, went for $4 million. But the shift has left broadcast and cable networks ever-more dependent on live sports, which is still watched overwhelmingly in real time, and major live events such as the Oscars telecast or the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

Live sports rights are increasingly expensive, however, and there are only so many compelling awards shows and specials to go around. That’s left the networks and advertisers alike groping for other ways to get viewers to tune in at a designated time and and keep watching through the commercials.

NBC, currently the most ratings-challenged of the major broadcast networks, managed to pull off a rare ratings win this week with Peter Pan Live!, the network’s second attempt to bring back live musical productions to prime-time TV. Pan pulled in 9.1 million viewers on Thursday night. It’s 2.3 rating/7 share in the 18-49 demo was enough to win the evening for NBC and give the network its highest-rated Thursday in two seasons.

The results were a far cry from what NBC achieved last year, however, with its live broadcast of The Sound of Music, which pulled in 18.6 million viewers. But that production was pretty widely panned, making it difficult to judge whether the full off for Peter Pan reflected last year’s disappointment, the fact that the musical is neither as well known nor as generally popular as The Sound of Music, or if consumers are just not sold on the whole idea of live musical broadcasts. The reviews for Peter Pan were better than its predecessor but far from stellar.

NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt pronounced himself “pleased” with the ratings for Pan, noting that NBC won every hour of prime time for the night (though barely). But reports suggested NBC executives were actually pretty bummed by the numbers.

Either way, NBC is  all-in on creating more live programming beyond sports and specials, according to Greenblatt.

“In this day and age, with so many things on, there’s no compelling reason to watch something when it’s [first] broadcast,” he said at the Live TV|LA summit last month. “Live events change that mentality…Do you sit around with the kids in bed watching your DVR? There’s something about live, when everyone is watching together.”

Greenblatt said NBC is considering launching a live sitcom as well as feature-length productions such as a live version of the play A Few Good Men (the same one on which the Tom Cruise/Jack Nicholson movie was based). Additional live musicals are also planned. Greenblatt referred to such productions as “live movies,” to distinguish them from televised stage plays. The network is also thinking about trying to revive the live, prime-time variety show, according to Greenblatt.

“In order to get the viewers these days, you have to do something that feels like an event,” he said. “It’s no longer good enough to put on a good show. People have to feel compelled to watch it.”

Desperate times call for desperate measures, of course. And it’s far from clear that NBC’s strategy of ramping up live programming in prime time can bring back audiences. But the fact that a major broadcaster is even pursuing such a strategy is an indication of just how rapidly and profoundly the TV landscape is shifting.

As scripted, prerecorded programming increasingly migrates to on-demand platforms, it is the traditional broadcast platforms, whether on cable or over-the-air, that are being forced to try to differentiate themselves by developing new types of programming. What NBC has done so far has largely been to try to revive much older forms of programming, from an era when most TV was broadcast live, but that’s largely because it’s very early days yet in the reinvention of broadcast TV and those older blueprints were readily to hand. If linear TV is to survive it needs to make an asset of being linear.