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Sports, comedy and older people will decide the future of television

Abbott Elementary is a delightful combination of subtly issue-driven humour, romance and oddball characters.ABC

In the olden days, at this time of the year, people who write about television would be covering season finals and anticipating a new batch of shows being announced for next season. There would be a wedding or an engagement on season-ending sitcoms, and a cliffhanger on some drama series. Then the US networks would throw parties for advertisers to drum up interest in the new fall season.

Now, we talk about different matters. We could be discussing whether AppleTV+ is the best-curated streaming service, with its string of truly prestige dramas and tendency to seek out novels and plays as source material. Or we could be just talking about the sheer volume of TV arriving on streaming and cable every week. There is too much TV to embrace, we might say, and we’d be correct.

But, you know, there are many myths about TV and a lot of incorrect assumptions. One false belief is that old-fashioned TV is slowly dying, bleeding audience numbers, and will soon disappear. Not so. Sports, comedy and older people will decide the future of television.

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In the US market, for the TV season now ending, three of the major networks saw gains in total viewership year-over-year, for the 18-49 age demographic most wanted by advertisers. Those are CBS, NBC and Fox. Only ABC and the barely-a-network The CW saw audience decline.

NBC saw a 10-per-cent increase in the demographic, and sports accounts for a good deal of that. The network had the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics. Viewership was down for the Olympics, but the overall number of viewers was good news for NBC’s totals in the 2021/22 TV season. And not for the first time, NFL games were stellar performers on linear TV, with the match-ups, plus the pre- and postgame coverage packages, accounting for seven of the top 10 most-watched TV events of the season.

Janelle James as Ava Coleman in Abbott Elementary.ABC

But changes are coming. Starting later this year, Amazon Prime Video is going to be the exclusive streaming home for the NFL’s Thursday night football. Amazon and the NFL have agreed to an 11-year contract. This will leave a huge hole in broadcast TV’s Thursday nights. No NFL and no counter-programming to attract viewers not interested in US football. And if you want to know how much the NFL matters to US TV, the answer is right there in the 10-year, US$375-million deal Tom Brady made with Fox Sports.

Comedy is something that streaming has struggled to nail down. That is, a broad-based, big-tent comedy that viewers make an appointment to see. ABC, although seeing a decline in overall numbers, gave us the most notable and enjoyable new comedy this past season in Abbott Elementary. A mockumentary about a group of dedicated, passionate teachers at a Philadelphia public school, it is a delightful combination of subtly issue-driven humour, romance and oddball characters. (The number of cast members appearing on late-night shows tells you about its effect.) It is, in many ways, an example of what network TV does very, very well in craft and tightly controlled storytelling. if another Abbott Elementary comes along, the network sitcom is distinctly revived.

Survivor was the most-watched show in Canada for multiple weeks this spring.Courtesy of CBS / Global

A side-note here about the Canadian market – survivor was the most-watched show in Canada for multiple weeks this spring. There’s life in the old competition show and it seems new and younger viewers are flocking to it as a weekly destination.

Finally, to extrapolate from both US and Canadian viewing habits, some network shows are impervious to change and safe from the hype about hot new series on streaming services. The Rookie (ABC,CTV), The Good Doctor (ABC,CTV), 9-1-1 (Fox,Global), FBI (CBS,Global), 9-1-1: Lone Star (Fox, CTV) are, week-in and week-out, hit shows and in Canada watched by more viewers than watch the evening news on CTV or CBC.

Who’s watching them? Over 65s to be precise. In that age group, reassuring stories about the reliability of doctors, cops, detectives and those who work at the fire station have a strong allure. A wrong is righted and bad guys don’t go unpunished. That allure won’t fade as the population gets older. Old-school, network TV can be confident, if not cocky, about the future.

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