How the NBC primetime shortening strategy could shake up TV

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The Wall Street Journal broke the news that NBC executives are reportedly mulling cutting back primetime an hour to end at 10 p.m. or 9 p.m. central — but what could this mean for the TV landscape?

Although no decision has been made, and such a move is likely at least a year away if it were to happen, the network would give the 10 to 11 p.m. hour (9 to 10 p.m. central) to local affiliates.

On a broad scale, the move could be read as a sign that the traditional network-affiliate distribution model is becoming outdated, with direct-to-consumer streaming and on-demand video growing in popularity.

The plan could result in significant cost savings for NBC, which will be able to cut back its primetime schedule by, presumably, at least five hours a week.

Although the exact amount varies greatly, primetime shows typically can cost between six figures to millions of dollars per episode to produce, depending on the talent, genre and success of the show.

Conservatively, NBC could save at least a few million dollars per week by dropping an hour each weeknight, though it would also give up millions in ad revenue.

Having one less hour to fill could also mean the network would be able to cut back on the number of new series it orders each TV season, which could result in broader savings from reduced need to develop shows, produce pilots and launch and market new shows that, more likely than not, won’t make it past one season.

One potential downside of removing an hour would be that it could break up the network’s “Chicago Wednesday” and “Law & Order Thursday” blocks, which each air three shows from the same franchise back-to-back two nights a week (incidentally, all six of these shows, “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago Med,” “Chicago P.D.,” the revival of “Law & Order,” “Law & Order SVU” and “Law & Order Organized Crime” all come from Dick Wolf and are set in the same universe).

That said, there’s never any guarantee that all six of these shows will be around in a year or so. The network could, for example, opt to cancel the lowest rated of each franchise (in that case, it would currently be the “Law & Order” revival and “Med”).

Keeping all six series around is still an option, of course, but all of the “Chicago” shows couldn’t air on the same night — and neither could all the “Law & Order” shows, but NBC could always opt to split one from each night off onto a different night — or combine the two “orphan” shows on one night, filling the entire primetime schedule.

Another potential issue is that “P.D.” and “Organized Crime” currently air in the latest hour of primetime, 10 p.m. eastern, so they tend to be a bit darker with more mature subject matter and plotlines that might need to be considered of the shows move up to an earlier time.

Of course, another big question is what would affiliates do with that extra hour?

Most are likely to be keen to the idea of getting a whole hour back since they typically keep all of the ad revenue generated during hours the network doesn’t program, whereas they only get a small portion of the ad revenue during network-provided primetime shows.

Perhaps the most likely candidate to fill the 10 p.m. (9 p.m. central) timeslot would be another edition of local news, which is often comparatively less expensive to produce than many other types of television. This would result in back-to-back 10 and 11 p.m. newscasts in most markets (9 and 10 p.m. central). Such a move would put NBC stations up against Fox stations, which often air news at 10 p.m. eastern. Some also continue past 11 p.m., so there’s an existing model for how two hours of local news could work.

The hour could also be filled with syndicated programming, either repeats of network shows or first-run programming.

Should NBC move in the direction indicated by the WSJ sources and stations turn to syndication over local news, there would likely be a spike in syndication offerings because for now, most well-rated shows are spoken for.

However, syndication can be relatively expensive and also often means local stations don’t get all the ad revenue, so this scenario is probably not as likely.

It’s also possible that some of the larger station ownership groups could opt to pool their resources to produce their own programming in the hour and air it in all or most markets where it owns the NBC affiliate.

This could take the format of content suitable for a nationwide audience with the option to insert local content if the station is able to produce it, a format that was previously used under the “PM Magazine” format and is also similar to the hybrid national-local newscasts CBS launched in select markets where it owns stations under the “Now” branding earlier in 2022.

The flip side of NBC giving back an hour to affiliates is that its own production division and studios might not be keen to give up the often hefty prices NBC pays them for primetime shows. This represents significant revenue for these units, but they could also ultimately realize savings from having to invest less in program development. It could also potentially shift their focus to streaming development, which often falls under a different revenue model than broadcast TV.

NBC already shook up its afternoon schedule for the fall of 2022, announcing iconic soap “Days of Our Lives” would be moving to its streamer, Peacock, with “NBC News Daily” taking its place, a possible indication that the network is taking a close look at its schedule.

NBC also famously launched the 10 p.m. (9 p.m. central) “Jay Leno Show” back in 2009. The show aired every weeknight in primetime. In today’s broadcast TV scene, most networks do not air the same show every night in primetime; that’s typically reserved for daytime and late night talkers.

However, the Leno experiment was short-lived as the show underperformed and affiliates began seeing their local late newscasts drop in the ratings due to a less-than-ideal lead-in.