Why Prime Time TV Might Make a Comeback

I hate to admit it, but I miss prime time.

For those of you born after Seinfeld went off the air, “prime time” dominated an era when television viewers only had three or four choices at any given time. Before streaming took over our devices, before cable devolved to 500 channels with nothing to see, there was “prime time television.” If you’re old enough to remember when Friends ruled “Must-See TV,” you (and tens of millions of others) likely spent a fair amount of your weeknights engaged with prime time’s three-hour post-dinner programming block.

Prime time once acted like a national water cooler – offering a shared set of conversation (and argument) starters. At its peak, 20-30 million of us watched shows mirroring a conformed, but often entertaining brand of American homogeneity. The situational comedy format ruled, but there was also the procedural (CSI, SVU), the news serial (48 Hours, Dateline), and the casually subversive (The Simpsons, Twin Peaks).

There’s plenty of reasons to celebrate prime time’s demise – the lineup almost always projected a distorted, white-male dominated version of American life, and most of its offerings were, well, terrible compared to the cornucopia of quality shows that can be found across today’s streaming universe (does anyone mourn the loss of Models Inc.?).

But…more and more, I find myself wishing for a prime time comeback. Why? I think it boils down to the cognitive and social tax that the streaming landscape exacts on all of us. Sure, there will always be people who love to navigate the endless obstacles between our desire to watch TV and our ability to do so. But those are probably the same folks who use Linux on their desktop machines. For the rest of us, streaming is just…a terrible experience.

Unless you’re lucky (or mid-binge), finding anything to watch is just too much work. The first ten to fifteen minutes of “watching TV” invariably involves hunting for something to watch, figuring out how to navigate the endlessly terrible streaming service’s user interface, dealing with endless technical and password cruft, finding a show you might want to check out, watching for a few minutes, not liking it, then repeating the process, sometimes cycling between four or five different streaming apps. More often than not, we end up settling for something – anything – on Netflix – even if it’s terrible. Netflix is winning for one simple reason: It always has something on; it’s become the last refuge of an exhausted television consumer who just wants to hang up their brain and forget about the world for a bit. Put another way, there’s a reason streaming sucks: Its shitty interface dulls our expectations and steers us to watch just about anything.

Even if streamers aren’t motivated to fix their products’ terrible experience, market economics might just force them to do it. For all but a few services (Netflix, possibly Hulu/Disney), today’s streaming landscape has become an economic smoking crater. “Second tier” services like Peacock, Paramount+, and Max are losing billions of dollars and fighting a battle of scale that they can’t win. Many in Hollywood have realized they’re terrible at acquiring and retaining actual customers – they’re used to outsourcing that to distributors (and airwave or cable monopolies). And they are also terrible at technology: Besides failing at UX/UI, they’ve also failed their advertising customers, none of which are currently happy with the state of “connected TV” advertising technology (turns out, the main reason “personalized advertising” doesn’t work in streaming is that media companies refuse to support open standards for measurement, audience data, and inventory sharing).

But the one thing that Hollywood used to be good at – programming – could prove to be their salvation. A few weeks ago during what used to be “prime time,” I fired up Max – the app’s nearly unusable, but I really wanted to watch Barry – and I was greeted with a promotion for the National League Championship Series – and it was live. All I had to do was click once, and I was watching live playoff baseball. It felt like a revelation – and a welcome shot of deja vu. Suddenly I was not only engaged with content I liked, I also felt connected to a larger community of people who were doing what I was doing: watching something important together.

As I watched, I found myself wanting to peruse a few other live options – not 500, mind you, but just three or four of the best, most promising shows that were on right now. Of course this is the opposite of how most streaming services work – but I was longing for someone to just pick a good live lineup and present it to me. In other words, I wanted prime time back.  If Peacock, Max, and Paramount+ picked a great prime time lineup, added a few bells and whistles (watch from the beginning, save for later, etc), and presented that lineup as “must see TV” each night, I’m pretty sure they could amass significant audiences, and by extension, major advertisers would clamor to be part of the fun.

Hey, just like with the news business, a guy can dream. What do you think?

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