The top 10 overall streaming programs in 2023 were not streaming originals, but traditional format shows that originated on old-school TV.
The list includes “Suits,” “NCIS,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Big Bang Theory,” according to a recent report from Nielsen, which is one of a handful of companies that measures streaming activity.
Clearly, audiences are still drawn to long-running shows with 22 episodes a season. Maybe these shows have serialized elements. But even so, each episode is a stand-alone story. You can dip in and dip out at your leisure.
And yet, despite viewer preferences, streamers aren’t making these kinds of shows.
But broadcasters still are.
With that in mind, should broadcasters set their sights on attracting younger viewers who grew up on streaming and never considered what might be available on linear TV, i.e., the very types of shows they already like? Could this be a way to revitalize the ratings?
I posed the question to TV veteran Preston Beckman, a former network executive who was at NBC and Fox.
Q: Is this idea ridiculous or is there anything to it?
A: Well, nothing is ridiculous. I mean, the whole business is ridiculous, so your ideas aren’t any more ridiculous than (Warner Bros. Discovery CEO) David Zaslav’s. Seriously.
Basically what you’re saying is: Do a marketing campaign that says the shows you like are on broadcast television?
Q: Yes! If you were still at NBC or Fox, wouldn’t you be thinking: Gen Z is streaming the kinds of shows we still make. That’s an audience we want. We need to change the narrative so they come back to us.
A: No (laughs).
I’d be thinking: How can I get the biggest audience possible? And that’s more about the programming than a marketing effort. It’s what the broadcast networks are still doing to this day. The biggest audience isn’t just 50-plus, it’s everybody. It’s just that younger viewers aren’t watching the prime-time lineup live, they’re streaming it the next day because all the networks are part of a larger ecosystem of streaming: CBS with Paramount+, NBC with Peacock and ABC with Hulu.
But we know the difference with streaming is that you’re watching on your own schedule. So, for that reason, I don’t think younger viewers are going to come to broadcast television.
I mean, look, there might be a big hit on network TV that attracts a younger audience. But that will be because of the show, not because of a marketing effort from the network.
Q: Conventional wisdom for the past few years is that network TV is dying. And I want the broadcasters to be able to stick around and still make these kinds of series, even if I’d like more variety beyond cop shows and hospital shows.
A: Well, I don’t think it’s dying, I think it’s leveling off. I was looking at the ratings last night and most shows have been drawing a pretty consistent audience over the last couple of years.
So you’re not going to see the kinds of big numbers you used to, other than live sports events. But I don’t think we’re anywhere near the point where there isn’t a prime-time schedule of scripted shows.
I don’t worry about broadcast television. It will be around in some version for quite a while.
Q: A lot of streamers have embraced aspects of the old broadcast model with weekly releases and ad-supported tiers. So younger viewers, who grew up accustomed to bingeing shows commercial-free, are becoming familiar with this more traditional setup.
A: The reality is, people don’t really mind advertising. And streamers are starting to make shows that could easily live on a broadcast network, like “Virgin River” on Netflix. That’s a classic example. There’s nothing about the show that wouldn’t work on a broadcast network. And there are more and more shows like that. “The Lincoln Lawyer” on Netflix is another.
Q: But for the most part, streaming originals don’t have an episodic story-of-the-week structure, even though the data shows that people clearly want that.
A: Here’s the thing to remember: We’re always talking about a moment in time, as opposed to stepping back and saying, “Where is this all going?”
And my theory about television is that everything regresses to the mean. When streaming first started, the idea was that viewers want to control the experience. “Oh, streaming doesn’t have commercials.” Well, now they have commercials. “Oh, all the episodes drop at once.” Well, now they drop things weekly.
So I kind of chuckle because I always thought the TV business would revert back to what it was, just with a different delivery system.
Q: It’s almost like you’re saying this is what TV is meant to be. It’s what it wants to be and what it will be, regardless of the technology.
A: Yeah! What happened with streaming was, the technology was driving it rather than the essence of what it was.
Q: I think one aspect of broadcast TV that’s enjoyable is the regularity of it. From the fall through the spring — nine months — you live with this show and you live with these characters each week. And ending a season on a cliffhanger doesn’t sour audiences because the show will pick back up again three months later in September rather than two years later, which is typical with streaming originals.
A: Right, and you will probably see streaming services start to create a cycle. It might not be exactly like a broadcast network. But there could be something where this show returns at a set time every year rather than, “I don’t know when ‘Virgin River’ is coming back.”
Nothing is stagnant in this business. It’s chaotic and random and driven by luck and fear. But I think the streaming services are going to eventually look more and more like the broadcasters.
Q: It’s taking longer than I would have thought!
A: You don’t change until you have to in this business.
(Nina Metz is a Chicago Tribune critic who covers TV and film.)