NBC may cut prime-time shows, return 10 p.m. time slot to affiliates

(Image: NBC/Handout, Graphic: The Desk)

A new report says NBC is considering a reduction in its prime-time programming that would allow local stations to reclaim the 10 p.m. time slot.

The report, published by the Wall Street Journal on Friday, said discussions centered around the move are still preliminary, and that the network has not discussed the potential plan with its affiliate board or made any final decision.

Prime-time programming can make or break a local NBC affiliate: Most local stations air late evening newscasts. Some strongly depend on “lead-ins” from the last prime time program that airs before a newscast, which can help draw viewers into a news program who might otherwise turn the channel.

According to the Wall Street Journal, most NBC affiliates would simply move their 11 p.m. newscasts (or 10 p.m. in some time zones) by one hour to accommodate for the change. The network would then air “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” at either 10:30 p.m. or 10:35 p.m. (9:30 p.m. or 9:35 p.m. in some time zones). That would give the Tonight Show a significant advantage over similar entertainment talk shows on ABC and CBS, assuming those networks did not do the same thing.

If NBC reduced its prime-time line-up, it would be one of the biggest programming shake-ups in the history of domestic network television. Of the four big networks — ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC — all but Fox have carried at least three hours of prime-time network programming for the last several decades. (Fox started in the 1980s with one night of programming and gradually built up to seven days a week, but has stuck with a two-hour prime-time block, except on Sundays.)

For years, prime-time programming was reserved by the networks for the best of their programming. Today, all four broadcast networks operate one or more of their own direct-to-consumer streaming services, and each has invested heavily in building up the content libraries of those services.

A move by NBC or any other network to reduce the prime-time schedule would be the clearest indictment to date that the broadcast industry clearly sees streaming platforms as the future of their businesses.

At NBC, the Wall Street Journal said cost considerations are playing a large factor in whether they will reduce their prime-time block. It would follow a similar move where NBC turned over the 1:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. time slot (12:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. in some time zones) to NBC affiliates after dropping their most-recent attempt at supporting a talk show in the fringe overnight hours. Many of those stations simply replay their half-hour, late-evening newscast in that time slot.

Cost considerations are a big factor as NBC continues to spend heavily in its programming on streaming services as well as on the rights to live sporting events, which are as much a draw for its streaming service as it is for their broadcast property. Over the last few years, NBC has inked deals with the National Football League, the Premier League (English soccer) and Major League Baseball to provide subscribers of Peacock with access to live and on-demand sports; select sporting events are also simulcast on NBC, including “Sunday Night Football.”

A person familiar with discussion at NBC told the Wall Street Journal that the company would still be committed to making “aggressive” investments in Peacock and its cable networks, even if it decides to cut back on spending at its broadcast network.