Last night on TV, cable television dominated with viewership numbers which broadcast television executives would currently drool over. On History, The Bible delivered 11.7 million viewers while AMC's The Walking Dead (both shows were fnales) delivered 12.4 million total viewers.
On the flip side, the highest rated program on the big 4 networks was 60 Minutes on CBS which drew 10.5 million total viewers and was possibly inflated due to the conclusion of the NCAA's Elite Eight final game.
While numbers over 10 million total viewers seem huge, take a look back a few years to ABC's Lost whose average number of total viewers only slipped below the viewership levels of the above mentioned cable series in the final two seasons of the show. Here in 2013, only American Idol and NCIS eclipses the viewership totals achieved by The Walking Dead and The Bible.
But what do those numbers mean? Is cable television killing the big four networks?
While on the outside it appears that the big four networks are struggling (realistically, only NBC is struggling), they have adapted fairly well. All of the networks have at least one outpost on cable television somewhere so, in some situations, they are essentially competing against themselves for viewers but in the end the are collecting advertiser revenue -- and in the case of cable television subscriber fees too -- from each of their outlets. What has happened is fragmented viewing.
Cable television first conquered, for the most part, the 9 PM central time hour which has always been the home of marquee dramas on the networks. Now cable channels have apparently gained some serious traction on Sunday nights. Saturday nights were already a wasteland on the networks so now the networks must truly step up their game to protect the first two hours of primetime television viewing or risk being equals with, or even losing to, the cable television counterparts.
There will probably be a day when cable television surpasses the big four networks entirely but it will be at least a decade until network viewership levels fall below those on cable. To stave that off, the networks must be open to taking more chances and instead of hoping to find that magical series which chugs along for a decade while never losing viewers they need to realize that a limited series with a solid beginning, middle and endpoint will allow viewers and their limited attention spans to become wrapped up in a series. Cut out the repeats, get away from relying on sweeps months (November, February and May) to dictate when new episodes will play and no more 22-24 episode-long seasons drawn out over the course of nine months. Give more series a chance during those nine months if you insist on a nine month-long season. and start paying attention to what series are being pitched to cable channels. Not everything that works on cable will work on a network but The Walking Dead would have been just as huge on a network. Somebody outside of AMC had to have heard that pitch and passed on it. That person missed out.