The decline of zeitgeist network TV

"You asked for Olivia Pope. You got Olivia Pope." Olivia Pope, "Scandal"

When the new TGIT (Thank God It's Thursday) lineup debuted in the fall of 2014, it was an immediate hit. Despite going up against the NFL, the all Shonda Rhimes all the time lineup drew in impressive numbers. It was led by "Scandal," possibly the hottest show on network TV.

Later that season, in the winter of 2015, a new scripted series, "Empire," snatched the title of hottest scripted series on network TV. But both it and "Scandal" remained hot topics of conversation.

A year later, both are still hot topics of conversation — and that is even sometimes because of their content. But both series, which burned bright, appear to be seeing their star fade. "Scandal" looks ordinary on Thursday nights, and TGIT has lost a lot of its ratings luster. In fact, aging "Grey's Anatomy" is the only show holding strong and holding steady.

"Empire," meanwhile, is nearing the end of its expanded second season. It's still the strongest scripted series on network TV, but it's no longer putting up record high numbers. Instead, it's just putting up good ratings — ratings that continue ebb down this Spring after the series returned following a four month layoff to finish out its second season.

And those two aren't alone. In fact, even series that started this year strong — like NBC's hit "Blindspot" — are seeing their ratings slide away. Also on NBC, the Peacock's once proud "Blacklist" is continuing to fade down. It's putting up good numbers relative to NBC's lineups, but it's not putting up good numbers.

The question is why? And the answer is a little complex. All those series were based on cutting edge premise and sought to chew up a lot of story with exciting twists, turns, and arcs. But all of them are stuck with the bloated network season episode counts and expectations. In fact, "Scandal," "The Blacklist" and "Blindspot" will air more episodes this season than "Game of Thrones" does in two full seasons. "Empire" isn't far behind, moving from 13 episodes in its first season to 18 this season.

In other words, the network model for scripted series isn't ideal for this kind of serialized storytelling. Where as cable series only have to do 10, 12, or 13 episodes a season, network series are pushed to 22, or more. By the end of its fifth season, "Scandal" will have 90 episodes. And that's with the advantage of two shortened seasons. By contrast, "Game of Thrones" will hit episode 60 at the end of its sixth season, and may only due 73 episodes total if reports are to be believed.

This pushes the stories to places that cause it to lose viewers. "Scandal," which has been known for pushing the envelope, has to keep pushing. As a result, in its fifth season, it's been fair to wonder at times if there is any reason to keep watching the show at this point. Judging by the ratings, many have answered that question by changing the channel or cracking open a book.

As we limp to the end of another broadcast season, it's clear that viewing habits have changed. The highest rated show on TV that doesn't have NFL in the title is a cable series. Ratings that used to get you cancelled on networks are now carrying the night. And even the most popular series appear to be burning out faster than ever.

This month the big networks — NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX and The CW — will trot out their schedule for the fall and the next broadcast season. But more so than at any point previously it's fair to wonder, will anyone be left watching come next May?


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