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Television viewers shifting from broadcast networks to cable

It may not feel like it, even for regular television viewers. But there is a pivotal shift under way in the TV business, a tipping point beyond which television changes forever. Since the start of 2013, nearly every new or returning show on the big broadcast networks has hit serious trouble. NBC's take on Jekyll and Hyde, Do No Harm, lasted two weeks; ABC's series featuring ER alum Anthony Edwards in a thinly-veiled Da Vinci Code ripoff, Zero Hour, died in three weeks. Experts don't expect ABC's new drama about a mobbed-up mom, Red Widow, to do much better.

Returning series are struggling, too. Dana Delany's Body of Proof is earning some of the lowest ratings in its history, as is Fox's American Idol, which was beaten by CBS' ancient NCIS among young viewers last Tuesday. (Idol aired for two hours, and NCIS aired for one.)

And NBC's Smash, which was supposed to turn around the network's fortunes with a rebooted second season this year, got smushed instead with less than 3 million viewers Tuesday.

So far, film star Kevin Bacon's Fox drama about an FBI agent struggling to stop a serial killer's cult of personality, The Following, is the only 2013 show with staying power — drawing 8.5 million viewers last Monday to become the night's top-rated broadcast show.

If the networks can't put on shows anyone wants to watch this year, who can?

Think cable TV. On March 3, cable offered History channel's The Bible (13 million viewers), AMC's The Walking Dead (11 million viewers) and History's Vikings, whose 6.2 million viewers beat or equaled Body of Proof, The Biggest Loser and ABC's Nashville. Days earlier, A&E's Duck Dynasty set ratings records for the channel, returning for its third season Feb. 27 with 8.6 million viewers.

"We may be seeing a tipping point here," said Brad Adgate, an analyst with New York-based Horizon Media. "This may be where the walls between cable and network fall away."

For many years, broadcasters complained that cable TV channels only need one or two signature hits drawing small audiences to succeed. But these days, some cable TV shows earn viewership as high as any network show.

And there's the money. Standard cable TV channels earn money two ways: from advertisers and from fees paid by cable systems such as Comcast or Bright House Networks. But broadcasters rely entirely on advertisers, making it tougher to turn a buck on some controversial or explicit shows.

Already, a generation of viewers weaned on YouTube and Netflix have grown up with little distinction between broadcasters and cable channels.

Television needs to be more compelling than ever to draw an audience, which could explain why Bacon's violent, suspenseful series is succeeding where tamer network shows have failed.

You would expect the networks to respond with a raft of challenging new shows for next fall.

And you would be wrong.

What they do have, though, is more. According to Adgate, the five broadcast networks have ordered 104 pilots for consideration this year, 17 percent more than in 2012 or 2011. NBC, which has seen the bottom fall out of its season after winter hiatuses for football and The Voice, has 30 pilots on order.

Right now, the networks are locking down casts and starting production on pilot episodes that can cost up to $5 million each.

Among Adgate's highlights: Eddie Murphy is executive producing a TV version of his hit comedy film Beverly Hills Cop as a drama (huh!?) for CBS (he is expected to appear occasionally as Axel Foley, father to a younger detective who is the actual star); The Avengers director Joss Whedon is executive producing Marvel's S.H.I.E.L.D., a drama for ABC about the spy organization from the movie; Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar are a father/daughter business team in CBS' pilot Crazy Ones; Michael J. Fox is a husband and father with Parkinson's disease in an NBC comedy; and Greg Kinnear is a dysfunctional defense attorney in the Fox's Rake.

There's an NCIS spinoff starring John Corbett likely called NCIS: Red and a Vampire Diaries spinoff called The Originals. Both shows will air "back-door" pilots made as episodes of their mothership programs this season.

And there are concepts from shows airing in Australia, England and Israel modified for American tastes.

What none of this feels like is the kind of innovation the networks need to beat back the wolf at the door: a legion of young consumers who would rather watch a bunch of wacky Louisiana guys in camouflage hunt ducks than another spinoff series or watered-down concept.

Clock's ticking, guys. And time is running out for network TV's lock on a larger television audience.

Television viewers shifting from broadcast networks to cable 03/10/13 [Last modified: Sunday, March 10, 2013 7:08pm]
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