On September 10, 2007 the Today show added a fourth hour of programming. There wasn’t too much fanfare as the industry and most of the audience knew it was coming. It will be produced by my good friend and industry superstar, Amy Rosenblum and I’m sure her team will not disappoint. You can expect an excellent show everyday — Amy doesn’t know how to do it any other way.
What interests me about NBC’s decision to take the show to a fourth hour is the impact it will have on shelf space (the industry term for time slots available on linear television). When Today expanded to a third hour back in 2000 it helped some network affiliated stations more effectively compete against Live with Regis & Kelly and other syndicated fare. This was mostly because of the differences in the value chain. Syndicated shows need to be promoted heavily, they need a significant sales effort (locally) and they are only fresh for 39 weeks a year. You’ll see roughly 13 weeks of reruns or “best of” compilations with most syndicated daytime shows. By comparison, Today is live everyday; it is one of the oldest, easiest to sell franchises in TV and benefits from a ton of network promotion.
Obviously, all of the above goes for the new, fourth hour of the show. But what happens to the shelf space? In Detroit, WDIV-TV (Channel 4) runs Ellen at 10am where she’s pulling ratings in the high 2’s and flirting with a 10 share. Ellen is so strong; they’d be insane to move her out of her 10am time slot. The answer — air the fourth hour of Today at 11am. What will that do to the continuity and viewer experience of the Today show? Well, it can’t be good, but the value chain and all of the financial benefits of not having to find another syndicated show to fill that hour will still be in place.
On the other end of the spectrum, Ellen has moved to 11am on WBNC-TV New York. Putting her up against ABC Network’s, The View and CBS Network’s, The Price is Right. New York is the number one DMA (Nielsen Designated Market Area), what will that do to her numbers in syndication?
One important part of this story is that nearly 200 NBC affiliated stations no longer need a syndicated programming hour in the morning. This loss of shelf space is going to be hard to overcome for producers and syndicators who now must fight for an even scarcer resource. But it is also possible that the simple laws of economics will come into play and the scarcity of shelf space will force stations to pick the best, most profitable shows. This would ultimately be good for the few syndicators with great shows. There is almost nothing in the business that is as profitable as a hit show in syndication.
That being said, I’d like to spend a moment exploring the dark side of NBC’s decision. One of the very first stories to emerge after Ben Silverman and Marc Graboff replaced Kevin Reilly at NBC was the idea that the network was thinking of cutting its original programming on Friday nights because it was no longer profitable.
This begged the question: Will NBC be the first to metamorphose into an all-budget-programming network? And, to put a finer point on it: Is there room for more than three networks in an on-demand, post-digital transitioned world? There are currently eight: NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX, The CW, myNetworkTV, Telemundo and Univision.
It is possible that NBC is just going through a tough time. Those of us who are a bit long-in-the-tooth know that two great dramatic hours or a sit-com block can completely transform a network’s P&L. On the other hand, this could be a very clear indication that the end of the eight-network world is coming faster than we think.
News/talk is relatively cheap to produce. The shows Ben is most known for are very inexpensive to produce (although, to be fair, Ben does really great work, and his shows make money). And the game show formats don’t cost that much either. NBC, the news/talk/reality/game-show network. Ouch! That really hurts.
I’m not making a prediction either way, but this isn’t like when ABC put Who Wants to Be a Millionaire on four nights a week and then spent years recovering. The downward price pressure on production, the lack of shelf space and the problems being caused by wiwwiwwiw (pronounced: wee-wee-wee, an acronym for “What I Want, When I Want, Where I Want”) make this a unique time is network history.
The decision to add a fourth hour to the Today show isn’t the cause of any of this; it’s just a symptom. But, it really made me stop and think.