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The Weekend Movie Takeaway: NBC’s Latest Move Reflects The Diminishing Role of Broadcast Television

August 18, 2020
2 min read time

As America heads into election season and the ramifications of COVID-19 on the film industry continue to be felt, larger trends in the business of screen narrative are making themselves known, showing 2020 to be a turning point for the industry in more ways than one.

Immediately following—but seemingly unrelated to—an investigation into the fostering of a “toxic cultureat NBC Entertainment, the company announced a massive restructure of its TV business. The corporate overhaul has placed Francis Berwick in charge of a variety of NBC-owned networks in a new streamlined approach, while Paul Telegdy, the NBC Entertainment chairman mostly associated with the aforementioned toxic culture, is out. And his role is not being filled.

With Berwick overseeing multiple outlets, the moves suggest a de-emphasizing of the role of the NBC network itself in NBC Universal's overall business. That's not to say the NBC network isn't central to NBC Universal, or indeed its primary outlet for scripted entertainment, but the network no longer has somebody whose sole job it is to develop and select programming. Which feels like a sea-change in the broader business.

For multiple generations, broadcast networks drove the television business, acting as beacons of popular culture. They constantly pushed forward to find the newest, hottest story, with a large emphasis on each episode of every series drawing as large an audience as possible. Every show had to justify its own existence week-in-week-out, and that brought a level of scrutiny to the narratives that demanded urgent storytelling.

This new structure suggests that NBC is merely one aspect of NBC Universal's larger portfolio of outlets, which of course now includes the newly-launched streaming service Peacock. It feels like a significant indicator that when it comes to popular narrative, broadcast networks are on the wane, and niche cable outlets (of which NBC has many)—and more importantly, streaming services—are on the rise.

We have already begun to see the impact this trend is having on narrative. From House of Cards (one of the first major Netflix originals) onwards, streaming shows had repeatedly demonstrated a more lackadaisical approach to storytelling that would never fly on a network series.

It reflects how streaming services lean towards a model of offering a little something of everything to everyone, rather than focusing on making one or two things so amazing that everyone has to watch them.

Netflix, the world's leading streaming service, offers an original series in almost every conceivable genre, allowing them to cover their demographic bases. But very few of these shows are cited as being exemplary examples of the genre they align with.

That's not to say that the broadcast model only produced good results—many great, deserving shows floundered under the ruthlessness of network programming, and many terrible ones flourished—but it cannot be denied that the model has defined popular storytelling enjoyed in the home pretty much since television was invented. It’s also important to note that the new streaming model doesn't only produce mediocre shows, there are plenty of great streaming narratives, but it definitely provides more space for mediocrity to prosper.

As always, the long-term effect on scripted narrative remains to be seen, but it doesn't seem to be heading in a particularly encouraging direction.


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