Does Network TV Matter Anymore?

An interesting article in the New York Times asks if the business model behind network television is irreparably broken. It's a good question. But it got me wondering something bigger. Something I never thought would cross my mind: Does it even matter?In the article they refer to the General Electric's sale of NBC and its affiliated cable networks to Comcast (a deal that has since closed) and point out that the cable networks – USA, SyFy, Bravo & CNBC – are worth more than NBC, the pillar of broadcast media itself. And I literally thought, "Why wouldn't they be worth more?" and then I thought, "Wow. Did I just think that?" But it's a pretty logical question in a time when:

  1. The vast majority of Americans have cable. Probably a bigger percentage than had an antenna that picked up "all three networks" clearly 40 years ago.
  2. Internet-based streaming and downloadable TV is sitting on the verge of becoming a mainstream reality. We're an iPod -type device away from the walls crumbling.
  3. Non-premium cable networks deliver a significant portion of the original shows I record & watch on my DVR on a weekly basis. Narrow it to shows premiering in the last 2 years and it's probably half. Add in Showtime and HBO and it's easily over half.
  4. Cable networks have flexibility. They have no traditional seasons or models to follow. So they do what works for them, not what they have to do because of advertisers, tradition, government regulations and all the other baggage from a 50+ year history at the center of American culture.
  5. People cut cable networks some slack because expectations are low. They accept lower production value, lesser stars and different schedules. It probably won't always be that way, but who knows, I can't imagine it'll get as rigid and hypercritical as it is with broadcast networks. The funny thing about this is that cable shows, even non-premium ones, are now attracting big names who are drawn by the quality and creativity of the programs.
  6. People say no one cares about what network a show is on and there is no loyalty. True if you're CBS. But cable networks have actual brands and fans. Why? Because they have focus. They don't have to be all things to all people, which is the very definition of the Big Four. Do you like Sci Fi? Watch SyFy. Want news? Watch CNN. Shocking to say this considering where they where a few short years ago, but if USA has a new series, I'll probably give it a shot because I like their stuff lately (Psych, Burn Notice, Monk, White Collar, Royal Pains). I don't think I've ever thought that about NBC.
  7. Cable networks have less ego. They are willing to fail. They'll try something new. They'll sign a weird integrated sponsor deal. Their offices aren't filled with people who are filled with assumptions. They ask "Why not?" They don't have the sense of entitlement or the pressure that network execs have. Cable staffers are hungry. And because of it, they make better TV.

UPDATE: Since I originally wrote this (on my iPhone at 1am sitting outside a tour bus in St. Paul, MN, by the way), Oprah has announced she's leaving broadcast to start the her Oprah Winfrey Network, OWN, which replaces Discovery Health. And more and more articles are asking if the network TV model is in trouble. But I don't hear many folks ask if it matters. Ultimately, to save the system, it has to evolve. It won't ever be what it was, but it can still be special. And there are some good shows out on networks. Big Bang Theory brought the sitcom back. Modern Family is the best new show on television. But I have to say that a system that has given itself over to The Bachelor #12, CSI Des Moines, To Catch A Predator Bloopers and five nights of prime time Jay Leno deserves what it gets.