“Primetime” has become a fairly nebulous concept for TV viewers over the last few years, as the rise of streaming, video on demand, TiVo, what have you, has largely freed humanity from the tyranny of television networks dictating when you, a living human being with something resembling autonomy, should have to be somewhere in order to receive your latest doses of Laws and Orders, situational comedies, etc.
Now, NBC is apparently mulling plans to make that idea of primetime even nebulous-er, with Variety reporting that the network is contemplating cutting the hour of programming it runs from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. on weeknights, ceding the territory back to its local affiliates. (Coming soon: The 11 o’clock local news, except all the anchors talk three times slower to fill the space!)
And while we can joke about the diminishing number of people who actually watch primetime TV during primetime in 2022, this hypothetical decision (which, to be clear, wouldn’t take effect until fall 2023, at the very earliest) is one that could have pretty huge effects on NBC’s programming and the creators who make it. That is, after all, five hours of TV a week that wouldn’t be getting made that we’re talking about—just looking at NBC’s upcoming 2022 schedule, that’d mean no more room for Chicago P.D., New Amsterdam, Law & Order: Organized Crime, and, of course, the Quantum Leap reboot, the show that dares to ask: How long can you hold off on dropping an “Oh boy” into a script before fans of the original series go into full and open revolt?
Just by raising the issue of cutting the 10 p.m. drama slot, NBC has already resurrected the specter of one of its biggest periods of scheduling boneheadism in recent memory, i.e., that time it tried to appease denim-clad ratings demigod Jay Leno by giving him a nightly hour-long talk show in that timeslot after Conan O’Brien took over The Tonight Show. As it turns out, people used to watching crime-heavy dramas in a particular time slot do not tune in to hear Leno muse about funny headlines; the plummeting ratings of The Jay Leno Show also royally pissed off the affiliates, who complained that their new lead-in was killing local news ratings. (And then, when NBC tried to course-correct again by moving Leno to 11:30, thus bumping The Tonight Show into being the Very Early Tomorrow Morning Show, O’Brien himself revolted—but at this point, we’re just getting into the meat of a Bill Carter book.)
The point is, screwing with the last hour of primetime can have a lot of heavy effects for a network, and especially its relationship with its affiliates. The 11 p.m. news broadcast is a sacrosanct engine for ratings for local stations and networks alike, even in the streaming era; anything that disrupts it is going to ruffle some feathers somewhere.
Interestingly, NBC has said that it’s not approaching a potential 10 p.m. cut from a budgetary point of view, which suggests that at least some of the shows that would get orphaned by such a move might just move elsewhere—with the most likely destination being the network’s affiliated streaming service, Peacock. Variety quotes sources saying that the possible move, instead, is about what “might be made to best utilize the broadcast brand and relationship with affiliates vs. its streaming and cable options.” (The idea, as best we can parse it, is that NBC might be able to get more out of a show if it runs on streaming or over on one of parent company Comcast’s cable companies rather than leaving it to flounder in a more “prestigious,” but lower-rated, primetime slot, which the affiliates could maybe make better use of)
And, again, the biggest question here is how the affiliates will respond to all this, especially since the Variety piece suggests that NBC probably won’t be moving up its late-night talk shows to fill the new gap. The most likely model to look to is probably how affiliates for Fox and The CW—neither of which have ever taken an interest in programming the 10 p.m. slot—handle the extra time, usually by extending out their news coverage and spackling in syndicated shows to fill the space.
Again: All of this is still just hypotheticals—albeit hypotheticals happening at enough intensity to get picked up in the trades. NBC made a straightforward (but non-committal) statement about the conversations, saying that, “While NBC is the number one network, we are always looking at strategies to ensure that our broadcast business remains as strong as possible, As a company, our advantage lies in our ability to provide audiences with the content they love across broadcast, cable and streaming.” They declined any further comment.