NBC’s ‘Aquarius’ Looks To Be A Bad Sign

The news that the network is going to let people binge-watch the entire new David Duchovny series immediately following the debut of the first episode over the air reduces the NBC affilates — and the O&OS — to carnival barkers. If broadcasting is going to continue to thrive, the networks need to give it their full attention. For its part, NBC should be sharply focused on improving primetime, it should not be dabbling in the binge-watching business.

It’s one thing for the networks to keep ratcheting up the reverse comp payments it demands from affiliates. It’s another thing to ratchet them up while devaluing the product the networks are selling to the affiliates.

That’s just what NBC is doing with its plan to make available on and VOD all 13 episodes of its Aquarius for one month immediately after the true-crime series debuts on the network on May 28.

So any viewer enticed by the two-hour broadcast premier will be able to binge-watch the entire series while the affiliates dutifully play out the one-hour shows one Thursday at a time in normal broadcast fashion in June and July.

In this scheme, the affiliates — and the O&Os, for that matter — are reduced to carnival barkers.

The affiliates started losing exclusivity to network programming in 2005 when Disney/ABC starting selling ABC shows on Apple. Since then, current network shows have been popping up on new platforms just about as fast as they are invented.

But, with few exceptions, the affiliates could tell consumers and advertisers: “You saw it here first.” After May 28, NBC affiliates will no longer be able to make that claim.


The trailer for the series is smart and good-looking, but then aren’t they all. David Duchovny plays an L.A. cop who is caught up in the Manson family killings that terrorized the city in the summer of 1969. Supplying what could have been a great tag line for the series, Duchovny’s character quips: “The love generation plays tough.” If nothing else, the series should produce a great soundtrack.

Affiliates with whom I spoke say NBC is spinning the move as a experiment, which suggests NBC will do it again if successful. That’s a grim prospect for affiliates as it puts them in the unhappy position of rooting against the network.

In a Time online column, James Poniewozik suggests that NBC is simply trying to keep up with changing media times. “Binge-ers wanna binge, and if networks don’t give them that option, someday someone else will.”

Yes, someone else will and, in fact, others are, most notably Netflix and Amazon. But that doesn’t mean that NBC has to be in that business, too.

In today’s helter-skelter media world, the broadcast model has proved remarkably sturdy and resilient.  A new study by RBC Capital Markets released today found that network broadcasting is least vulnerable to the new wave of OTT services that are threatening to bust up the cable and satellite  programming bundles.

“Some might argue [the broadcast channels] could easily fall out of the bundle since viewers can simply pull them off the air,” the study says. “The reality is they have seen virtually no sub shrinkage versus the cable [programmers], which have had 2-3 million sub losses [in 2014], on average.”

If broadcasting is going to continue to thrive, the networks need to give it their full attention. For its part, NBC should be sharply focused on improving primetime — needless to say, it needs some improving — and in restoring the standing and credibility of its news division.

It should not be dabbling in the binge-watching business.

I’m a fan of NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt because of his bold commitment to airing live, big-budget musicals each December. He started with The Sound of Music in 2013 and followed it up last year with Peter Pan. Despite Pan‘s so-so ratings, he is stepping up again this year, producing The Wiz based on the 1978 film in partnership with Cirque du Soleil.

That kind of programming is what broadcasting is all about — or should be.

But I get a feeling that with Aquarius, Greenblatt is reverting to his cable programming roots, trying to create a program that will be judged on its critical merits, not on its ability to draw big broadcast-type audiences.

Indeed, according to The Hollywood Reporter, the producers have cut two versions of the show, one for broadcasting and one, presumably edgier, for streaming.

Reverse comp has been hard for affiliates to accept, but for the most part they have. They have done so with the understanding — sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit — that the money will be invested in programming, be it the NFL, the Olympics, primetime sitcoms or dramas or live musicals.

And they have done so with the understanding that they will be the primary showcase for that programming — that they may not to the sole outlet, but that they will be the first.

With Aquarius, NBC is reneging on that deal. No one know what appeal the series will have. But whatever audience the affiliates draw, it will be smaller than the one they would have gotten had NBC not siphoned off the binge viewers.

In a canned statement, Greenblatt crowed about pushing boundaries and doing “something no broadcast network has done before.”

I suppose that’s true. He’s innovating, but not in ways that benefit the affiliates. They should hope this is not the dawning of a new age.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]. You can read earlier columns here.

Comments (21)

Leave a Reply

Ida Anderson says:

May 1, 2015 at 3:25 pm

“Helter-skelter media world.”

I see what you did there.

    John Murray says:

    May 1, 2015 at 4:21 pm

    Carl, would you know my friends Egbert Souse and Mahatma Kane Jeeves? : )

    r small says:

    May 1, 2015 at 5:48 pm

    He’s a railroad man. Gets up early in the morning.

    Linda Stewart says:

    May 1, 2015 at 9:08 pm

    Thanks for noticing to allusion.

    Linda Stewart says:

    May 1, 2015 at 9:09 pm

    Thanks for noticing the allusion.

    Ida Anderson says:

    May 8, 2015 at 5:08 pm

    That’s Souse`! Accent grave over the e!

Brian Bussey says:

May 1, 2015 at 3:47 pm

actually the NFL partner Networks are allowing the NFL to do the same thing with Thursday night football. The NFL is dumb enough to believe that auctioning off the first 8 games to a broadcast network ( talking about paying someone to stab yourself in the back) that the first 8 games will serve as a promotional platform for the 2nd 8 games on the NFL Network. I have said it many times. Those NFL stadiums are built with tax payer dollars and every taxpayer who cannot watch a nfl game because they cannot receive the NFL Network should get a refund.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    May 1, 2015 at 6:05 pm

    Apples and Oranges. NFL Network partnered with CBS where the masses were. NBC is partnering with their website, where the masses are not. And as proven last Fall, a large majority of viewers just will not tune to some Networks to see programming, making it a win for the NFL Network (and CBS). This experiment has very little potential upside – only creating buzz via those who binge online to talk about the series boosting linear viewing, but those who binge will also probably tell spoilers which will end up further hurting linear viewing.

Howard Winer says:

May 1, 2015 at 4:06 pm

Oftentimes the effects of an experiment are surprising. This one is risky, but we’ll see what happens.

Matthew Castonguay says:

May 1, 2015 at 4:22 pm

Harry, “whatever audience the affiliates draw, it will be smaller than the one they would have gotten had NBC not siphoned off the binge viewers” is a completely unsubstantiated assertion. You may prove to be right…but I could just as easily suggest that this will enable a small cadre of hard-core fans to emerge, who will in turn create buzz and drive the larger non-binging audience to watch the show live, or via traditional on-demand channels for single-episode “catch-ups”. If that does result in a larger overall fan-base, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that 80% will not be in the binge-watching group, and that 80% could then represent a much bigger audience than if the show were launched traditionally…and potentially prematurely declared DOA due to the difficulty of breaking through and getting sampling. I could see this approach morphing into a hybrid too…where most episodes of a show are handled this way, but the last three episodes, say, are ONLY available live on broadcast (no on-demand til a month or more later). That could yield more live TV “events”.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    May 1, 2015 at 6:26 pm

    How many viewers will watch from the buzz of the bingers who also spoil “the plot” as they talk about it online. Even the Grey’s Anatomy shocker was spoiled online to the West Coast fans in less than 3 hours just last week. It is very risky for that – and the poor targeting of subject matter (see comment below I will not repeat here). Bottom line. They are trying to “thread a needle” with little room for success and huge opportunity for failure (on multiple fronts). But if it fails, they can always bring back Jay Leno, lol.

Eric Koepele says:

May 1, 2015 at 4:24 pm

The question will be: how much of the binging audience will be made up of people who would not watch NBC primetime? If the audience is incremental, then it’s a no-lose situation. The other question will be: if the TV audience is too small, then will OTT monetization make up the difference?

Kathryn Scheets says:

May 1, 2015 at 4:24 pm

NBC are taking the lead here to move with the changing demographics. Too many procedural series are canned 4 or 5 episodes into the run because of low ratings in the under 15 age group (or whatever advertisers consider the important demographic nowadays).
Nobody waits till Thursday to watch the next episode of Friends. Seinfeld is not a ratings win blah blah blah.
It is most unlikely that anybody will watch the two hour premier, anyhow. The affiliates can put on re-runs of Leave it to Beaver for the old ‘uns to drool to, whilst the young ‘uns go out to the soda fountain and put a nickel in the new fangled victorola machine.
In 5 years the broadcast model will go like VHS, something you ask grandpa about. We will be tuned into Season 7 of Aquarius on our Apple vision implant. Note the vacant stare as the images are beamed directly to the optic nerve.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    May 1, 2015 at 6:19 pm

    @BV If you want millennial internet users (which do not view much linear TV) to view your programming online, one ponders if it is smart to base it on subject matter from 50 years ago. Even lead actor David Duchovny (who has very little appeal to millennials in 2015) says “it should make an great soundtrack”. That should tend to make it feel even older to the millennials – with music that is not even played on any radio station any longer. A true test would have been something better targeted. And unless you totally revise history, sort of hard to get to Season 7 of Aquarius as you suggest in your post.

Keith ONeal says:

May 1, 2015 at 9:43 pm

I’m not a person who can binge-watch. A few years ago, I acquired the 6 DVD set of the First season of ‘Ugly Betty,’ with the intention of watching all 23 episodes in the set. As of today, I’ve only watched the first DVD (episodes 1 to 4). That’s it. I have yet to watch the remaining 19 episodes of the first season, and the show ran 4 seasons. If I watch a series, it’s once a week, which is good enough for me.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    May 6, 2015 at 2:23 am

    Must sucks to have the nursing home grind up your sleeping pills in your applesauce. No wonder you cannot binge watch.

    Keith ONeal says:

    May 8, 2015 at 8:38 pm

    Must suck for you to be a BULLY!!!

    Wagner Pereira says:

    May 11, 2015 at 3:16 am

    Only to idiots

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