Streaming Services Stole Their Viewers. Now Networks Are Fighting Back

From more events to ‘urgent’ shows, how broadcast and cable channels have shifted linear strategies

Stills from Jeopardy, New Amsterdam and WWE Friday Night SmackDown
Adweek spoke to several network execs about their plans to hold on to viewers. Getty Images, NBCUniversal, FOX
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Key insights:

It’s been a brutal few years for broadcast and cable networks. Many are seeing annual double-digit ratings declines as audiences increasingly turn their back on live linear viewing and flock to streaming services.

Now, the networks are fighting back.

Many have rolled out new programming strategies in an effort to leverage the power of linear TV over its streaming rivals. “I think any network has to look at themselves right now and say, ‘We have to shift to the audience’s tastes,’” said USA Network and Syfy chief Chris McCumber.

Adweek spoke to several network execs about their plans to hold on to viewers.

ABC: Event of the month

In January, ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke unveiled plans to air at least one live and tent-pole event every month, like last month’s Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time tournament, which averaged 14.5 million viewers and a 2.2 rating in the 18-49 demo. That includes a combination of longtime events like the Oscars, new specials like next month’s Highwire Live, featuring daredevil Nik Wallenda, and “eventizing” current shows, like Feb. 11’s live episode of The Conners.

It was a strategy that Burke has wanted to implement since she took over in November 2018.

“I’d spent a lot of time reflecting about, what does broadcast do best? And how do we play to our strengths and not try to chase streamers and what they do best?” said Burke. While events “aren’t the only thing, they are really unique to broadcast. And luckily for me, there are already things in development that I could green light and get behind right away.”

That included Live in Front of a Studio Audience, which was so successful last May that ABC ordered two follow-ups, airing last December and this May. “That had been sitting on the shelf. Nobody really knew what to do with it,” said Burke. “We had no idea if that was going to work.”

NBC: Long-term plans

The broadcaster is also expanding its event slate, but instead of thinking monthly, it’s looking years ahead.

“It is really about having a vision for where we are now as a network and where we want to be,” said NBC Entertainment chairman Paul Telegdy.

To that end, NBC has already signed Amy Poehler and Tina Fey to return as hosts for next year’s Golden Globe Awards, given medical drama New Amsterdam a three-year renewal and ordered The New World, a 10-part global documentary series from BBC Studios’ Natural History Unit, which won’t air until after the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.

“Our year-round development strategy is already evolving from the traditional ‘season’ mentality, and the longer roadmap is really just an extension of that philosophy,” said Telegdy. NBC’s New World announcement, he added, offers “a good peek behind the curtain at how we’re mapping out our schedule and have meaningful, long-term plans that are all part of a larger strategy.”

Fox: Bulking up on sports

The network is on track to win the season in adults 18-49 for the first time in eight years, thanks to its newly implemented fall approach of using its four-day sports lineup: Thursday Night Football, WWE Friday Night SmackDown—which arrived last October—Saturday college football and Sunday NFL games. They will build momentum for its entertainment shows the rest of the week, including The Masked Singer, which is the No. 1 entertainment show in 18-49 this season.

“It’s a really potent combination of sports and entertainment, both working well together to build the whole,” said Fox Entertainment CEO Charlie Collier, who took over in October 2018, a few months before the network was spun off as part of Fox Corp. ahead of Disney buying most of 21st Century Fox’s assets last March. “It’s great to come out of the fall leading, but by no means is that, for us, the end of anything. It’s a nice benchmark, and we think our best days are ahead.”

Airing Super Bowl LIV earlier this month, and using the game to promote its midseason lineup, was “a great place to build the momentum and head into what we hope is a great rest of the television season,” he said.

Still from Silence of the Lambs, Rosario Dawson as a character in Briarpatch and Killing Eve
Many broadcast and cable channels have rolled out new programming strategies in an effort to leverage the power of linear TV over its streaming rivals.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 24, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.