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Hammocking is a technique used in broadcast programming whereby an unpopular television program is scheduled between two popular ones in the hope that viewers will watch it. Public broadcasting uses this as a way of promoting serious but valuable content. A strong show, followed by a weak show which then is followed by a strong show. This is especially used for new shows. Hammocking may lead to situations where even if programs remain weak, audience rating will be high.
The main theory in play is that audiences are less likely to change channels for a single time slot. However, it is a concept mainly limited to prime time, where "appointment television" is strong. However, there is a risk. If the middle show is weak, the audience could change the channel altogether even if they “would have stayed if the two popular programs had formed a block.”
Hammocking has been fairly reliable over the years. It was largely discovered by accident in the late 1950s: Michael Dann is credited with developing the concept after December Bride, thought to be a major hit at the time, underperformed when it lost its lead-in, I Love Lucy. In some cases, the middle show becomes a hit. When the new show becomes just as popular, it has caught on. NBC used this strategy for years with its Must See TV Thursday night schedule, where the strong series on the night, Friends, Seinfeld/Will & Grace and ER, provided two half-hour hammock spots in the night where newer sitcoms were positioned in order to provide strength throughout the night and build the network's bench on other nights if they proved successful, though many of the programs were critically derided for poor writing and acting and "floating by" on the ratings of other shows (The Single Guy and Union Square being the most prominent and higher-rated examples). So dominant was Must See TV, that a common industry joke of that era was the comparison of the hammocked shows to NBC instead placing a test pattern in the half-hour between the end of one top-of-the-hour show and the start of the other, and garnering equivalent ratings for much less effort and cost.
Also related is the concept of tent-pole programming, or using popular, well-established television shows scheduled in pivotal time periods to boost the ratings of the shows around them.
In the 2003-04 season, NBC experiment with a new hammocking format with Donald Trump's The Apprentice, which aired between Friends and ER. "Much was made of the ratings for The Apprentice, but in truth, even in its protected spot, it lost almost 4 points compared with the Friends lead-in and 2 points compared with ER. Moreover, when moved to the unprotected Wednesday night slot, it dropped into the bottom third of the ratings."
More recently, ABC has attempted to hammock programming after Modern Family and a drama after (in this case, either Revenge, Designated Survivor, or A Million Little Things), to middling or little success. Trying to hammock programs that have little in common with each other can have unusual consequences: TNBC, a block of programming NBC carried during the 1990s that had been aimed at teenagers, had a lead-in from Weekend Today, a news program targeting those teens' parents. By the end of TNBC's run, after the block's teen viewership had declined, the average age of those recognized by the Nielsens as watching TNBC was 41 years old, driven mainly by the lead-in from Weekend Today.
- "The Museum of Broadcast Communications - Encyclopedia of Television". www.museum.tv.
- Moss, Terrence (24 May 2015). "The Barrel of Forty: NBC's Must-See TV Comedy Thursdays: The "Hammock" Shows". Blogger. Retrieved 30 May 2018.
- Adams, William J.; Eastman, Susan Tyler. "Prime-Time Network Entertainment Programming" (PDF). Wadsworth Media. p. 213. Retrieved July 5, 2018.
- "Adults 'Discover' kiddie programs". Variety. Reed Business Information. 2003. Retrieved March 29, 2015.
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