Dork Age / Television Networks

Sometimes, problems with a hit show or a collection of them can throw an entire television network into a rough patch. A poorly-thought out case of Network Decay can also trigger this.

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    United States 
  • NBC has gone through two (technically three) of these in its history.
    • The first one was during Fred Silverman's tenure as president and CEO, 1978–81. Hot off of his success turning ABC into a titan in 1975–78, NBC brought him on hoping that lightning would strike twice. What they got instead was a slew of gimmicky shows that were often canceled after only a season, with failures like Supertrain and Pink Lady and Jeff being among the most notorious (both of these shows are listed in What Were They Thinking? The 100 Dumbest Events In Television History, which takes several additional shots at Silverman). The former hit Saturday Night Live went through its first Dork Age during the 1980-81 season, and was nearly canceled after the F-bomb dropped on the Charlene Tilton episode. Morale at the network crumbled with each passing year spent in a distant third behind ABC and CBS; Al Franken ran the famous "Limo for the Lame-O" sketch on SNL skewering Silverman's handling of the network (which led to Franken getting sacked and, with it, the aforementioned Dork Age the following season), while the production studio and singers responsible for NBC's "We're Proud as a Peacock!" campaign song recorded a hilarious parody version mocking Silverman, something he didn't take well. The final straw came when the US Olympic team boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics as a result of the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, resulting in an Eastern Bloc-dominated affair that few Americans were interested in watching — very bad news for the network that had bet the farm on Olympic programming that year to turn its fortunes around. Between that and the financial troubles of NBC's corporate owners, the electronics company RCA, it was speculated that the network would be shut down or sold off in a matter of years in order to prevent RCA from going bankrupt. Fortunately for NBC, in 1981 they ousted Silverman and brought in Grant Tinker (co-founder of MTM Enterprises) as the new chairman and CEO, and put Brandon Tartikoff in charge of programming duties. Together, despite a few false starts, Tinker and Tartikoff oversaw the beginning of a golden age for NBC that would last for nearly two decades, with the network dominating the ratings and, in particular, being responsible for many of the great American sitcoms of The '80s and The '90s. When General Electric bought out RCA in 1986, it was mainly to acquire NBC, which by then was one of the last profitable divisions of a company that was otherwise circling the drain.
    • Alas, those two decades eventually came to an end. Tartikoff died unexpectedly in 1997, but many of the hit shows he greenlit continued for years after. However, following the end of Frasier and Friends, two of the network's last big sitcom hits, in 2004, NBC slipped from first to fourth as its new shows either failed to catch on or experienced Second Season Downfalls, and most of its attempts to make a reality TV hit like Survivor or American Idol turned out to be failures. Its Thursday night comedy block was one of its few points of consistent acclaim, and even then, shows like Community and 30 Rock struggled in the ratings. The low point came in the 2009-10 season, when the Vancouver Winter Olympics proved themselves to be a $250 million money pit for the network, and the failure of The Jay Leno Show left huge holes across a third of the network's Prime Time schedule and caused a "Late Night War" between Leno and Conan O'Brien that left TV fans with a lot of ill will against NBC's executives. The ouster of unpopular CEO Jeff Zucker in late 2010 saw the network finally start to turn itself around. The Voice premiered in the 2010-11 season and became a smash hit (though it was only one of two freshman series that season to get renewednote ), and the network edged out ABC for third place at the end of the 2011-12 season. After equaling that rank the following season, they surged all the way back to number one in the 2013-14 season on the back of the Winter Olympics and several new hits, particularly The Blacklist, Chicago Fire, and its spinoff Chicago P.D.. This dominance continued through the 2014-15 season even as their Thursday night comedy block has completely collapsed and been pulled (in favor of using The Blacklist to attack ABC's dominant Shonda Rhimes trio on the night). Today, they run neck-and-neck with CBS as the #1 network, with NBC claiming the 18-49 demographic and CBS claiming the most total viewers.
    • Even when NBC's entertainment programming showed a decline, its broadcast news programs (Today, NBC Nightly News, and Meet the Press) remained dominant at the close of The Oughts, while MSNBC showed impressive gains on cable. However, a series of increasingly disastrous PR flaps at the start of The New '10s damaged the brand of NBC News and ended their two-decade-long ratings streak. It started with Ann Curry's lackluster tenure and botched firing as co-host of Today, and continued with the similarly controversial firings of Keith Olbermann, David Gregory, and Melissa Harris-Perry, which led to MSNBC constantly changing its schedule to a ridiculous degree (Ed Schultz saw his show change time slots five times in four years before he joined Russia Today). Nightly News anchor Brian Williams getting caught embellishing his experiences covering the Iraq War didn't help matters. Ratings began to rebound with a new chairman at NBC News, but that was offset by the hire of ex-Fox News host Megyn Kelly and the subsequent bombing of her Sunday night newsmagazine.

  • CBS went through a bad decade in The '90s. For much of The '80s, its shows had skewed much older than its competitors ABC, NBC, and (starting in 1987) Fox – meaning that, while it was pulling in huge ratings from seniors and retirees with shows like Dallas and Murder, She Wrote, it wasn't hitting the lucrative 18-49 demographic that advertisers crave. note  This earned it the nickname "the network of the living dead", and by the early '90s they were relying on their weekend sports coverage to stay in the black.

    You can guess how that went. In 1993, after CBS had already lost broadcast rights to NBA and MLB, Fox signed a contract with the NFL that gave them the exclusive rights to air NFC games, a move that firmly established Fox as America's fourth network but utterly devastated CBS. A common joke claimed that CBS stood for "Can't Broadcast Sports"; despite this, though, CBS managed to maintain their NASCAR contracts, and with the sport becoming hugely popular in the 90s, this was a lifesaver, especially since they held the exclusive rights to the Daytona 500 (having done so since 1979, and doing so until 2000). This was followed by Fox's plundering of CBS' sportscasters and, in 1994, through a contract with New World Communications and its merger with Argyle Television, poaching CBS affiliates in such key markets as Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta, Milwaukee and Detroit,note  forcing CBS to move to lower-tier UHF stations in those and other cities.note  CBS would start to recover in 2000 with the debut of CSI and Survivor, its first mega-hits in a long while, and since then, it's been a regular contender for the #1 spot on the Nielsen charts. Of course, it has since gone back to being "the network of the living dead," with those series largely appealing to older viewers now, but that's less of an issue—these days, it seems like only older people watch network TV. Their biggest shows right now seem to be anything created by Chuck Lorre, primarily The Big Bang Theory, which premiered in 2007 and has become a highly-popular Long Runner that later spawned a spin-off prequel focusing on the childhood of Breakout Character Sheldon Cooper.
  • ABC went through a Dork Age of its own from 2000-2004, when many new shows didn't draw much in the ratings. The beginning of this was when the network gave Wolverine Publicity to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? for the 2000-01 season, saturating the schedule by airing the game show in prime time as many as five nights a week. In addition, Michael Eisner, then CEO of parent company Disney, turned down Jerry Bruckheimer's pitch for CSI, which instead became a hit for CBS (see above), and many of the new shows that debuted on ABC in that period were hardly successful in terms of ratings (note that Disney as a whole was in a Dork Age at the time, with traditional 2D animation quickly falling to Pixar and Dreamworks, Disneyland being turned into what amounted to a shopping mall while maintenance suffered, and a general decline in customer service in favor of profit). The network fell to fourth place and almost went bankrupt in this period (and was part of the reason behind Eisner's fall), ultimately being spared by the debuts of LOST, Desperate Housewives, and Grey's Anatomy, which boosted the network's ratings to second place for the 2004-05 season. Since then, the network has been a reliable third place finisher, an unspectacular but comfortable position, only falling to fourth place once (in the 2011-12 season, when NBC was beginning to mount its comeback but before Fox started to seriously collapse). While it only has a few megahits (and virtually none from people not named Shonda Rhimes), it does have a large stable of fairly modest hits with devoted fanbases.
    • It has been said that ABC really needed Lost and Desperate Housewives to succeed not just because of their precarious position at the time, but because, if they failed, there would have been no end to the jokes about the network being "lost" and "desperate".
  • Fox fell into one during the 2011-12 season. Coming off a long run of success in the '00s, they attempted to juice a fall lineup that was getting fairly long in the tooth with an American version of The X Factor, which initially provided a solid boost but collapsed spectacularly over the next two seasons before it was canceled in 2013. More distressingly, Simon Cowell's involvement in The X-Factor led to his departure from American Idol, which is often regarded as the point of no return for the latter show after a few years of stagnant, wobbly ratings; by the time The X-Factor was canceled, Idol had gone from Fox's big tentpole hit and TV's "Death Star" to a marginal player that was overshadowed by NBC's The Voice, eventually singing its last note in 2016 (though this later proved to be a hiatus, as the series made a Channel Hop to ABC in 2017). Fox has also been severely harmed by their inability to develop new major scripted hits, generally putting out either Acclaimed Flops like Enlisted and Surviving Jack, "limited series" like The Following and Sleepy Hollow that burn bright in season one only to flame out when audiences realize that these aren't Mini Series but instead multi-season shows with reduced episode orders, cult shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine or The Mindy Project that burnish the network's reputation with critics but don't bring appreciable ratings boosts, or reviled duds like The Mob Doctor, Red Band Society, dads, and Mulaney.

    The effects of these problems really began to show during the network's dramatic collapse between 2012 and 2014, falling to third place in the 2012-13 season (and second in the 18-49 demographic that had long been its bread and butter) and only salvaging second place in 2013-14 because of the Super Bowl; without that, and with ratings black holes on practically every night of the schedule, Fox was hitting record ratings lows. In the 2014-15 season, they fell painfully to fourth place in both total ratings and in the 18-49 demographic, with Gotham and the monster hit Empire as the only bright spots.
    • Their cable sports properties are also stuck in one now. Parent company News Corp. bulldozed motorsports-centric niche channel Speed in favor of broad-skewing Fox Sports 1, only for FS1 to suffer big ratings drops from Speed, with only UFC, baseball, and the remaining motorsports programming consistently breaking six figures — even Big East Basketball, a reliable million-plus breaker for ESPN, couldn't do anything for Fox, sometimes going below 10,000 viewers when the telecasts got shunted over to Fox Sports 2. note  Speaking of FS2, it replaced the even more niche extreme sports-centric Fuel, only to collapse even more dramatically from Fuel's numbers than FS1 has from Speed's. It almost goes without saying that Fox has alienated die-hard motorsports and extreme sports fans with the changes, as well as NASCAR fans (by far the most broad-skewing of any U.S. motorsports association) with things like the Live but Delayed approach they took to the circuit's new knockout qualifying format in 2014 and the tendency to shunt over inconveniently scheduled practice and even qualifying sessions to FS2, which is located on a higher cable tier than FS1 (if your provider even carries the net). Keep in mind that television ratings have been falling for NASCAR all across the board, not just on Fox, which can be blamed on the massive drop in popularity after the death of Dale Earnhardt and the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow, not to mention a wide array of rule changes that made it seem like the sanctioning body was willfully manipulating every aspect of the racing product in favor of certain drivers.
  • The CW is a curious example, as it was a network born from a Dork Age that ultimately destroyed one of its parent networks, The WB. Starting around 2003, The WB attempted to broaden its base beyond its core market of teenagers and college-age young adults; it was during this time that they retired the Michigan J. Frog mascot and canceled hit shows like Angel and Dawson's Creek, replacing them with programs that crashed and burned in the ratings. The only hits that The WB produced post-2003 were Beauty and the Geek, One Tree Hill, and Supernatural, all of which made the jump to The CW — and all of which, not coincidentally, were aimed at the 18-24 demographic that The WB was trying to break away from. By the end of 2005, The WB had fallen behind not only UPN, but also Univision, which is notably a Spanish-language network aimed at only a small subset of the population.

    The Dork Age continued after The WB merged with UPN (a victim of a corporate shakeup at Viacom) in 2006 to form The CW. For fans of Gilmore Girls, Veronica Mars, Everybody Hates Chris, Smallville... well, it's easier to list the CW programs whose fandoms didn't burst out into tears as the network focused itself around (often short-lived) reality shows and vapid 'rich kids living the good life' dramas designed to cash in on Gossip Girl and 90210, two of the network's breakout hits. More distressingly, The WB's absorption of UPN to create The CW was a short-term Genre-Killer for African-American-led programming on network television, as UPN had been one of the main homes for such, and The CW was interested in more lucrative demographics. The network turned itself around starting in 2012, after unpopular network head Dawn Ostroff stepped down, by gunning for the position of 'the geek network'. During this time, they premiered new sci-fi and fantasy shows like Arrow, Beauty and the Beast (2012), iZombie, and The 100 and gave renewed focus to genre hits like Supernatural and The Vampire Diaries, and beyond sci-fi and fantasy, they also premiered shows like Jane the Virgin and a revival of Whose Line Is It Anyway? that helped boost their critical reputation. While it's still not a ratings-winner, The CW today has a devoted fanbase, and its embrace of online platforms to a greater degree than its bigger rivals has proven very fruitful.
  • Cartoon Network has currently had two; one from approximately 2008-2010, the other having started in 2015 and still currently going on now:
  • A lot of sports fans consider ESPN to be in one now, especially with its flagship program SportsCenter. The sports news show rose to great popularity in The '90s due to its charismatic anchors that could deliver scores and highlights with a touch of witty banter. Unfortunately, the rise of social media in the late 2000s allowed sports fans to see the biggest highlights as soon as they happened, making it unnecessary for them to tune into the show to ensure they saw the best plays of the night. Additionally, the network began to focus most of its SportsCenter segments and programming around the sports and leagues that they have the rights to air games to (the NFL, NBA, college football, etc) which caused viewers who felt their preferred sports were being ignored to tune out. Later still, the show's analysis and discussion segments began to slip away from focusing on strategy and performances to bits focusing on athletes' personal issues and off the field controversies that last way too long for many viewers. What's more, the hosts they have now, like Skip Bayless and Stephen A Smith, come off as too egotistical and provocative for viewers looking for meaningful sports insights rather than "hot takes".

    ESPN has also been among the most high-profile victims of the growing problems facing the cable TV industry due to competition from the internet, as a massive share of its operating budget came from the high fees it charged to cable carriers to get it onto millions of basic cable subscriptions — and with the growing trend of both cord-cutters and young people not getting cable subscriptions in the first place, those critical numbers are dropping. Due to falling revenue and subscriptions, ESPN laid off a number of on-air staff in 2015 and shuttered its popular sports/culture website Grantland, and has now announced a second round of on-air talent layoffs in 2017.
  • Nickelodeon, as it was from 2009 to 2015, is almost unanimously considered the lowest point in the network's history.
    • Over half of the channel's timeslots were filled with reruns of SpongeBob SquarePants. They started putting out poorly-made live-action shows that made the Disney Channel look like a bastion of quality programming – though most agree that ICarly at least was good. They gave Fred three poorly-received movies and a show that didn't even get a second season. They regularly rejected quality pilots from talented creators, including turning down the chance to make Adventure Time into a full series, which was later picked up by Cartoon Network and went on to become a huge success. They regularly cancelled or ignored other good shows they have, yet gave multiple seasons to Fanboy and Chum Chum. And they now trawl YouTube for show ideas, like Breadwinners. It also didn't help that they gained a nasty reputation for relegating any new animated shows they received to Nicktoons Network, usually after only a month or two of their premiere on Nickelodeon. They repeatedly showed themselves to be out of touch with what audiences were interested at the time, (compared to rival networks Disney XD and Cartoon Network) resulting in many of their new shows being criticized for lacking substance in comparison to animated shows on said rival networks. During several points in this period, Nickelodeon's ratings plummeted to lows that hadn't been seen on the network since the early 80s.
    • The Dork Age affected their treatment of Avatar: The Last Airbender. The original show was a phenomenon, raking in views across all demographic groups and bringing in rave reviews and huge ratings for the network, to the point where they planned a movie adaptation for a show less than a decade old (though the less said about that, the better). So how many episodes did Nickelodeon order for its sequel series The Legend of Korra initially? Twelve. Then, after the show proved to be successful, they ordered three more seasons...and proceeded to delay it time and time again until September 2013. And then they booted it to the network's website in 2014 (which actually proved a blessing in disguise, as the series found itself able to get away with things that would never pass the censors, such as a graphic onscreen death and mature themes such as anarchy and homosexuality).
    • Incidentally, this is also the point where they replaced their traditional iconic orange logo that could take any shape imaginable, with a generic "professional"-looking one, and lost longtime exec Majorie Cohn, who defected to DreamWorks Animation, something that REALLY hurt the network.
    • Starting in 2015, Nickelodeon started boosting the reputation of their animation department again with the debuts of the acclaimed Harvey Beaks and the outright smash hit The Loud House. However, major controversy eventually brewed over the massive amounts of screwing over the network were dealing to the former series. C.H. Greenblatt revealed that the network forced him to apologize on a Cartoon Brew article where he stated his displeasure with the treatment his show was receiving, as well as the fact he didn't even know his show was being booted off to Nicktoons Network until a co-worker posted about it on Twitter. This was followed a year later by Loud House creator Chris Savino being fired from Nickelodeon due to allegations of sexual harassment rising to the surface.
  • The Disney Channel (and perhaps the company as a whole too) went through one of these for the better half of a decade, generally agreed to have begun with the premiere of Hannah Montana (which coincides with the end of Kim Possible) and to have concluded with the premiere of Gravity Falls, though one could argue for it concluding with the premiere of Phineas and Ferb. During this period, they shoved animation to the side in favor of cheap, mediocre, tween-oriented sitcoms and TV movies that acted as little more than vehicles for whatever pop-star they were trying to bring into the limelight. They hardly even used their own mascots anymore! Fortunately, starting in 2010, they began to go back to their roots by creating brand-new, well-received animated shows while also making new shorts starring Mickey that has proven to be an Annie/Emmy magnet.note 
  • GSN (Game Show Network) went through this in 1997-98, when they temporarily lost the rights to nearly all Mark Goodson-Bill Todman game shows. While this did have the benefit of adding a whole slew of lesser-known shows, it also brought several critically-panned original shows (the nadir being Faux Pause, which was a horribly unfunny MSTing of obscure game shows). The 1997-98 era earned the Fan Nickname "Dark Period". By 2000, they had regained most of the Goodson-Todman library, but lost the rights to popular The Price Is Right reruns. In 2004, the network rebranded from "Game Show Network" to GSN, seemingly to move the phrase "game show" out of the way and allow for more reality shows and casino-based programming. Since then, the network's lineup has been in a near-constant state of flux, so whether or not it is still in a Dork Age is ultimately up to the individual viewer.

  • CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) has one of these every five years or so, always as a result of network/government bigwigs trying to draw in new audiences by making it more "relevant". This naturally turns-off long term fans (who watched CBC precisely because it doesn't typically trade in Lowest Common Denominator fare), while "mainstream" audiences get their entertainment from CTV and Global.

    United Kingdom 
  • ITV suffered a major Dork Age in the mid 2000s. After its attempt to launch a TV broadcasting service collapsed it seemed to completely lose its bottle. Once a channel known for its dramas, gameshows and current events, it slowly decayed into a channel associated with awful reality TV featuring z-list celebrities. This killed off its loyal older fans, and some disastrous attempts to capture the youth market showed it up as a poor attempt to imitate the much more successful Channel 4. This peaked when the channel that had once rivaled the BBC was reduced to broadcasting late night phone-in game shows associated with the filler channels. After years of failing, its only just managed to turn things around. The insanely successful X-Factor finally caught the younger market, and series of high quality dramas including Downton Abbey drew back its older fanbase.
  • The BBC was not above a Dork Age either. The late 70s to the early 80s were a tough time in Britain, and the BBC suffered too. Its reputation as a trusted news source was shaken with some blatant pandering to the current governments. Its budgets were getting tighter, with Doctor Who suffering its worst production and ratings in its history. Its output was also seen as stale and safe compared to the edgier ITV. At a time when its directors were seriously concerned that any signs of over spending or not appeasing the highly conservative government might get the channel privatized, it's not that surprising.
  • Channel4 is in the midst of a prolonged Dork Age in the eyes of older viewers. Originally touted as an 'alternative' channel to the more mainstream BBC and ITV, its programming catered to a lot of niche interests, such as animation. Its comedic output from the late 80's to late 90's is particularly well-regarded, featuring a mix of home-grown classics such as Father Ted and Spaced as well as imports of American sitcoms. This halted in 1997 with the appointment of Micheal Jackson (no, not that one) as Controller of Channel 4, which caused the network to rely more on those imports as well as more broadly accessible programming, the crux of which was Big Brother. Nowadays the network draws in viewers with more populist programming such as My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Benefits Street, which keep the network afloat despite criticism from its older fans over what it has become.

  • The channel RTL once aired its own fictional programming like a line of Sitcoms and was the first to air many summer blockbusters. Nowadays the only true fictional programming is the blockbuster on Sunday, US crime shows on Tuesday and Thursday and one or two self produced shows. All other shows they air are "news" programs covering what celebrities currently do, game, casting and other reality shows as well as scripted anthology shows in a documentary style chronicling what white trash families are doing.
  • RTL II's focus on children programming like anime gradually shifted over the years to reality shows and scripted soap operas in the vein of Jersey Shore. The daily kid shows were booted to a timeslot on Sunday morning and now even this slot is going to be cancelled and replaced with rom-com films.

  • Nine Network fell into this around the mid-noughties, because all of the American shows it aired were either getting cancelled (like Friends and Frasier) or were losing their charm (like CSI) and they didn't have anything to fill the holes in the schedule. Their foray into reality TV failed when they cancelled The Block and the Australian version of Survivor flopped. Since this was also the time when internet speeds in Australia were getting fast enough that many Aussies simply downloaded any good foreign shows, in the panic Australian networks started airing shows as soon as they possibly could; it's just that Nine did this to, of all things, Viva Laughlin, which was cancelled after its second episode. Luckily, their fortunes has turned around, due to a combination of good reality properties like return of The Block and Australian Big Brother, as well as good drama like Underbelly and a number CBS comedy imports like Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory (although they might be playing them too much...)
  • Network Ten fell majorly since the start of The New '10s. After launching its digital subchannel Eleven, and giving it branding (and programming) to attract the 18-30 demographic, the execs forgot why Ten's identity during The '90s and The Noughties was based entirely around it - because it couldn't compete with Seven or Nine for mainstream audiences. Masterchef Australia has been losing ratings by getting more stale and its reality-TV replacements have all failed, none of its other programming are getting any real viewers, and both breakfast show attempts were thoroughly mocked before being cancelled after less than a year on air. And it's suffering the worst of indignities: losing in the ratings to The ABC.

  • Belgian channel KANAALTWEE (now known as 2BE) had one from 2004 to the first six months of 2005. The main reason why is because its major share of programming at the time was outdone by other television networks. Its market share (less than 5%) was considered too low and the network was almost desperate for trying a new hit but they never seemed to find one (with the daily soap Star Academy being much more unsuccessful than expected). Nearly every new show the network would have would get Screwed by the Network in a few weeks to get replaced and it seemed like every show would get low ratings (the shows with the highest ratings were stuff such as Open en Bloot and De Heren Maken De Man, which got 200.000 viewers). The last 6 months became more successful thanks to their new slogan (Need Entertainment?). Big Brother 2006 would get a viewer count of 300.000 viewers a day and their slew of live-action shows on monday evening would get a viewer count of 600.000 viewers, putting them effectively out of their bad status.