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 of these in its history.
    • The first one was during Fred Silverman's tenure as president and CEO, 197881. Hot off of his success turning ABC into a titan in 197578, 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. 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.

      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 Eighties and The Nineties.
    • 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. 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 hass the network finall turn around; The Voice is a smash hit, and the network edged out ABC for third place at the end of the 2011-12 season. After equaling that rank for the 2012-13 season, they surged all the way back to number one on the back of the Winter Olympics, but also on the back of several new hits, particularly The Blacklist, Chicago Fire and its spinoff Chicago PD. This dominance is continuing 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).
  • CBS went through a bad decade in The Nineties. For much of The Eighties, 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". 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 caught back up to Fox for the #1 spot on the Nielsen charts.
  • 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. The network almost went bankrupt in this period, ultimately being spared after the debuts of LOST, Desperate Housewives, and Grey's Anatomy which boosted the network's ratings for the 2004-05 season.
    • It has been said that ABC really needed those shows 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 has descended into this beginning about 2011-12, when they attempted to juice their fall line-up with The X Factor, which initially provided a solid boost but collapsed spectacularly over the next two season and was canceled after 2013. More distressingly, this undermined American Idol so dramatically that it went from TV's "Death Star" to a marginal player in the time that The X Factor was on the air. 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 these aren't miniseries but instead multi-season shows with reduced episode orders, cult shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine or The Mindy Project that burnish the critical perception of the network without 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 in spring 2014, only salvaging second place because of The Super Bowl; without that, and with ratings black holes on practically every night of the schedule, Fox is recording record ratings lows and seems well on its way to finishing fourth in 2014-15.
    • 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, also pissing of a lot of 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.
  • That painful time when Cartoon Network attempted to put more emphasis on live action programming.
  • Long-time fans consider MTV to be in a permanent Dork Age since its de-emphasis on music videos in favor of reality TV (which has been going on for so long that there is now an entire generation of teenagers who have never considered MTV a "music" channel).
  • 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 Nineties due to its charismatic anchors that could deliver scores and highlights with a touch of witty banter. More recently though, the show seems to be more focused on trumpeting its hosts over the games they're supposed to be reporting on through endless "analysis" segments that last way too long for many viewers. What's more, the Skip Bayless and Stephen A Smiths they have on now come off as too egotistical and annoying in the eyes of many.
  • Nickelodeon's going through this right now, and has been since at least 2009. Over half of the channel's timeslots are filled with reruns of Spongebob Square Pants. They put out poorly-made live-action shows that make the Disney Channel (see below) 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 reject 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 have cancelled or ignored other good shows they have, yet gave multiple seasons to Fanboy and Chum Chum and Sanjay And Craig. And they now trawl YouTube for show ideas, like Breadwinners. It also doesn't help that they frequently relegate any new animated shows they have to Nicktoons Network, usually after only a month or two of their premiere on Nickelodeon.
    • Exemplified with 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 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 now they're booting it from the network entirely to make it internet only.
    • 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.
  • 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.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.

  • 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 vain 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.

  • Channel Nine 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 Channel 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...)
  • Channel Ten fell majorly since the start of The New Tens. 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 Nineties 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.