Network Television: End of an Era?

Television viewers throughout the New York City metropolitan region sighed with relief on New Year’s Day, when the FOX television network belatedly reached an agreement with Time Warner Cable (TWC) to continue broadcasting to TWC customers throughout 2010.

College football fans who subscribed to TWC rejoiced; they could watch FOX’s Sugar Bowl broadcast after all! And fans of American Idol could look forward to another year of watching Simon Cowell singing the praises of talented performers, and hurling epithets at the talentless ones.

A different negotiation involving TWC, though, may ultimately signal the end of an era of network television. In addition, NBC’s ongoing negotiations with a pair of its brightest stars are portending the end of an era as well.

Blaming Ken Lowe

Apparently, at the same time that TWC’s contract with FOX was expiring on New Year’s Eve, its contracts to broadcast the Food Network (FN) and Home & Garden Television (HGTV) were expiring as well. In fact, TWC needed to freeze the clock to complete its contract negotiations with Scripps Networks, the owner of FN and HGTV.

Freeze the clock? Is that a metaphor for our chilly winter weather? No, it’s actually an expression that negotiators use when they keep working together – even though their contract has technically expired – because they believe that they’ll soon finalize a contract extension. In this case, TWC and Scripps agreed to continue televising Food Network and Home & Garden to TWC’s audience through the wee morning hours of New Year’s Day because they knew that they’d soon reach an agreement; in addition, TWC and FOX had agreed to do so as well.

However, another cable television provider – Cablevision, which services the hugely lucrative New York City media market – was also negotiating with Scripps to renew its FN and HGTV broadcasting contracts for 2010.  Unfortunately for Cablevision’s viewers, their negotiations collapsed in a series of angry recriminations; thus, as of New Year’s Day, Cablevision’s subscribers are no longer able to enjoy those two networks.

Amazingly, senior executives at Scripps and Cablevision continue to blast away at each other with public denunciations. Scripps, for instance, has established temporary web sites where Cablevision customers can log complaints about their loss of FN and HGTV. And Cablevision has retaliated by publicly encouraging its subscribers to contact Scripps’ CEO Ken Lowe to blame him for their loss.

Leno or O’Brien?

Meanwhile, at the NBC television network, negotiations are now becoming contentious about the future of its venerable Tonight Show. Last year, NBC decided to move its highly successful veteran host Jay Leno to the 10:00 pm time slot to replace costly traditional programming with a new and relatively inexpensive prime time talk show. It then decided to give the Tonight Show (and its 11:35 pm time slot) to Conan O’Brien, a less experienced host who appeals to a younger generation.

Unfortunately for NBC, Leno’s new talk show is attracting far fewer viewers than the traditional programming that it replaced at 10:00 pm. In addition, O’Brien’s new Tonight Show is attracting far fewer viewers than Leno’s original Tonight Show at 11:35 pm. Furthermore, local television stations are angry because their 11:00 pm news reports, sandwiched between the new Leno and O’Brien shows, are losing viewers as well.

NBC has now asked Leno to host the first half hour of the Tonight Show’s traditional 11:35 time slot, and O’Brien to accept a de facto demotion and host a different show after midnight. That would permit NBC to restore traditional prime time programming at 10:00 pm, but O’Brien and Leno have begun hinting that they might prefer to abandon NBC for different networks. Goodbye NBC, hello FOX and CBS!

Goodbye, Network Television

So where do these events leave the network television industry?  It appears that large numbers of cable television viewers in New York City must now accept that network staples like FOX, the Food Network, and Home & Garden can be dropped at any time. And viewers of NBC’s Tonight Show, a show that has anchored broadcast television’s midnight hour since 1954 and that made Johnny Carson a cultural icon, might now be torn in half and split between two competing hosts.

So what is the future of television program delivery? If viewers can no longer rely on TWC and Cablevision to transmit a full array of network programs, whom can they turn to?

Time will tell, of course … but don’t be surprised if Apple revolutionizes the television business in the manner that its iPod product line and iTunes service upended the music business. After all, its upcoming Tablet computer is rumored to be capable of broadcasting live television signals, and Steve Jobs has reportedly discussed the development of a retail television transmission service with Disney, CBS, and others for $30 per month.

In other words, the future of television might well look like a cross between a MacBook and an iPhone.