Report: NBC may cut back prime-time hours


Move as a result of waning interest in linear TV

In what could be potentially the biggest shake-up in prime-time since the implantation of the PrimeTime Access Rule in 1971, NBC is mulling a plan to give the 10 p.m. ET/ 9 p.m. CT slot to affiliates – likely for them to program local news.

“While NBC is the number one network, we are always looking at strategies to ensure that our broadcast business remains as strong as possible,” NBC said in a statement released Friday, after the report surfaced in the Wall Street Journal. “As a company, our advantage lies in our ability to provide audiences with the content they love across broadcast, cable and streaming.”

NBC is looking to cut costs and is aiming at the 10 p.m. ET slot – one traditionally filled with hour-long dramas and other programming. One scenario being floated around includes NBC giving the last hour back to affiliates to program and starting The Tonight Show at 11/10 Central. It is not known how this would impact weekends, as NBC has Sunday Night Football in the fall and will have Big Ten football in primetime in fall 2023. SNF is television’s most-watched show.

Shows thriving in this hour for NBC ranged from Quincy to Hill Street Blues and from Miami Vice to Law & Order. One of television’s biggest hits in the 1990s was ER, airing on “Must See TV” Thursday night where at one point, the medical drama drew 40 million viewers a week.

But now with television fragmenting even further, ratings for the third and final hour of prime-time for NBC, CBS, and ABC has declined significantly over the years, making them less valuable to local TV stations as late-news lead-ins. Notably, competing local newscasts on Fox, CW, and independent stations have further eroded prime-time ratings for the Big Three in the hour. In Chicago, Nexstar independent WGN-TV and Fox-owned WFLD-TV long had 9 p.m. newscasts, dating back to the 1980s. Typically, WGN has scored higher late news ratings at 9 p.m. not only over WFLD, but also outdrawing 10 p.m. newscasts on CBS-owned WBBM-TV. Traditionally, NBC-owned WMAQ generally finishes second to ABC-owned WLS-TV in households and in 25-54. 

Back in 2009, NBC turned over the 10 p.m. ET time slot to Jay Leno five nights a week. The “experiment” lasted all of four months.

Launched in 1987, Fox never regularly programmed the final hour of prime-time as it was done by design. In the fin-syn era, Fox programmed fifteen hours of week in primetime (the early evening 7/6 p.m. CT Sunday hour didn’t count) under then-FCC rules on what defined a network as Fox technically was never officially defined as a network as it didn’t program the 10 p.m. ET hour slot to stay under fifteen hours a week. Had it did, Fox would’ve been forced to divest its lucrative studio and syndication operations as from 1970 until their official sunsetting in 1995, the fin-syn rules barred networks from owning them. In the post fin-syn era, descendants UPN, The WB, The CW, and My Network TV stuck with the same Fox two-hour-a-night primetime plan at launch. 

This is not the first time the networks have given time back to local stations in prime-time. When the FCC’s since-repealed PrimeTime Access Rule took effect in September 1971 – prohibiting the major three networks from airing more than three hours of programming between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. Eastern time, the networks gave the 7:30 p.m. slot back to affiliates to program and the 10:30 p.m. slot on some nights between 1971 and 1975, mainly Sundays. For example in 1972, WBBM ran syndicated drama The Protectors in the last half-hour of primetime on Sundays in a slot CBS didn’t program. In 1974, NBC-owned WMAQ ran a local show called Sorting It Out (who featured a pre-Cheers Shelley Long as co-host) in the same Sunday time slot.

In the early 1990s, several northern California NBC and CBS affiliates experimented with an early prime-time 7 to 10 p.m. schedule in order to run hour-long 10 p.m. newscasts. But the returns weren’t what the networks and their stations wanted, and it was soon abandoned. The only West Coast station currently running an early prime-time weeknight schedule is CBS-owned KOVR Sacramento, who shifted to early prime after moving from ABC to CBS in 1995, due to nearby KPIX San Francisco’s similar CBS schedule (KPIX scrapped early prime in 1998.)

In 2009, NBC decided to give the final weeknight hour of primetime to Jay Leno, after he stepped down from The Tonight Show months earlier. The Jay Leno Show was a disaster, hurting NBC affiliates’ news lead-ins and was dropped after four months. Leno returned to The Tonight Show in March 2010, forcing Conan O’Brien out after seven months.

The Leno fiasco also irked Hollywood producers at the time. “I feel they should take the American flag down in front of [NBC’s]building and just put up a white one, because they’ve clearly have given up.” said producer Peter Nolan at the 2009 Television Critics Association press tour for FX’s Rescue Me when asked about stripping Leno five nights a week. “They’ve clearly just said, ‘Look, we can’t develop. We can’t develop anything that’s going to stick. We have – clearly can’t find anything with any traction, so we quit.”  Given the explosion of streaming and high number of scripted programming in the marketplace, NBC’s potential move of eliminating an hour of prime-time wouldn’t generate as much outrage as it did in 2009 and 2010.

So will it happen? Earlier this month, NBC announced the move of Days Of Our Lives to Peacock in September, adding another hour of news with NBC News Daily. Of course, news is cheaper than scripted programming as the major networks are shifting away from such fare. A decision isn’t expected for another few months, but given how streaming has shaken up the business and the continuing ratings erosion of prime-time television, everything is on the table and if NBC does this, expect CBS and ABC to follow suit.

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