The year kicked off with a daytime TV pairing straight out of 1997: Katie Couric co-hosted NBC's "Today" with Matt Lauer last week while Savannah Guthrie is on maternity leave. As you might remember, Couric was "America's Sweetheart" when she joined the veteran morning franchise in 1989 as a political reporter, and she was just the face NBC needed when Jane Pauley's replacement, Deborah Norville, went on maternity leave (and, ultimately, was not asked back). Ten years after her departure, there she is again, moonlighting from her current position as Global Anchor of Yahoo News.
Say what you want about the rise of digital, but I predict that more people will see Couric this week on "Today" than in an entire season of her Yahoo show.
During Couric's last tenure on "Today," the story of note in broadcasting was the rapid rise in basic cable networks. They were popping up everywhere, finding their niches by focusing on specific programming themes. Back then, the early success of scripted entries like FX's "The Shield" and "Nip/Tuck" and AMC's "Mad Men" (which launched in July 2007) led many to wonder if the five broadcasters could survive this cable influx.
Now, looking into 2017, this current era of "Peak TV," where more than a record-breaking 500 scripted series will be competing for audiences, across all platforms, leads us again to question, will the five broadcasters—and cable—remain afloat?
According to FX Research, 455 scripted series aired in 2016 on broadcast, cable and digital streamers, a new record set last year. This was an 8 percent increase over 2015 and a staggering 117 percent up from the 210 scripted series of 2009. This year, the expected breakdown is 150 original scripted series for the broadcast networks, 50 for the premium cable networks, 180 for basic cable and 130 for the digital streamers.
"When I pointed out the 'Peak TV' phenomenon at the Summer TCA (Television Critics Association) Press Tour last year, I wrongly predicted that we'd hit the peak in 2015 or 2016," noted FX President John Landgraf at summer gathering in 2016. "It now seems clear that at a minimum that peak will be in calendar 2017, and there's enough inertial momentum here that we could well see the growth trend carrying over into the 2018 calendar year."
Naturally, this increase in content is a direct result of the rise of the digital streamers, which is the "in" thing at the moment. Unlike the broadcasters, which are still defined by their staunch primetime line-ups, there are no rules in the world of digital, where the consumer creates programming schedules. Outlets like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon thrive on subscriptions and their success isn't based on who is actually watching. More quality content is available than ever before. And, more often than not, you can even watch a complete season of your favorite show in one sitting.
But I wonder just how deep the pockets are among these digital platforms. Netflix, for example, is shelling out a reported $60 million to comedian Dave Chappelle for just three specials. Chris Rock's reported payday, for two Netflix specials, is $40 million. And all these new original series cannot come cheap.
Additionally, won't the deluge of scripted programming only cloud the overall experience? We cannot watch everything, after all. I think one of the reasons the ratings for annual events like the Primetime Emmy Awards keep dropping is because audiences haven't seen, or even heard of, many of the nominated series.
Broadcasters are not in danger of extinction. Despite the increased competition, the networks are still drawing audiences. The traditional ratings for the five broadcast networks' season (through Jan. 1) is 34.58 million viewers, nearly the same as the year prior.
Plus, nearly nine in 10 millennials are still consuming television the old-fashioned way, according to market research company eMarketer. The 18- to 24-year-old demographic averages 2 hours and 17 minutes on nondigital TV consumption per day, and 25- to 34-year-olds average 2 hours and 50 minutes. So for those who think the only people still watching TV on TV are the older demos, there is more to the equation.
I certainly recognize the value of the digital experience, just as I did the rise of cable during Katie Couric's stay on "Today." In a perfect world, there will be room for everyone. Just like cable was extension of the broadcast experience, I think digital streaming too is an extension, not a replacement, of broadcast.
Still, I think Couric, at 60, would be enjoying a higher profile today if she had remained on network television.