Skip to main content

Broadcast Nets Look for a Break, and Breakouts

broadcast networks should generally be feeling better about their performance
heading into the upfront compared to last year. CBS, Fox and NBC have already
renewed several first-year series (with ABC sure to follow), an improvement
over last season. Though the broadcast upfront market is not expected to be as
robust as last year, analysts are predicting a 7-10% increase in pricing for
the Big Four networks-not bad for a medium that continues to lose overall

But building on that performance next season will only get harder. Increased
viewing options and daylight savings time have led to series lows across the
networks in recent months. Fox's The X Factor and American Idol have
proved it's getting more difficult to launch and sustain singing shows (though
that won't stop others from trying). And NBC and The CW's new leadership,
largely given a pass this season, will be under pressure to deliver in their
first owned development slates.

Keeping all this in mind, B&C chatted with a group of network
presidents and came away with five challenges they face with their programming
strategies for next season.

An Abundance of Comedy

Several new comedies worked this season- CBS' breakout 2 Broke Girls and
Fox's New Girl and the smaller successes of ABC's Suburgatory and
NBC's Up All Night. So naturally, the networks are hoping success begets
success and are doubling down on the genre. But with 46 comedy pilots ordered
this year, the operative question may be one of real estate: the nets now need
to find places to put them all.

As 2 Broke Girls and New Girl proved, characters based on
caricatures and stereotypes are still the best way to reach a broad audience,
and NBC would be wise to take the hint. The network's smarter-than-the-room
tone that has branded Thursdays for years isn't working (despite the
conversation on Twitter making it seem otherwise) and not enough people are
watching, even by NBC standards.

The Peacock may finally be getting the message and readjusting its Thursday
schedule next season. "We'd be arrogant to think that we're going to alienate
those shows' [viewers] and pull in all new shows," says Jennifer Salke, NBC
Entertainment president. "If we have some of these new pilots that feel very
break-out, that we can try to pair up with some of the current Thursday shows,
that's certainly something to consider."

Fox got the momentum going on live-action half-hours this season with New
, and Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly is hoping Raising
Hope can still break out with the right pairing. "Even in this day and
age of DVR viewing, when comedy in particular is paired up, I just think it
bodes well overall for even the shows you're building off of," Reilly says. Fox
ordered 11 comedy pilots, which means it will have enough building blocks to
try a four-comedy night again despite this season's failed attempt.

One of the bigger success stories in comedy this season was not a new show, but
the growing dominance of CBS' The Big Bang Theory five seasons in. After
routinely besting the once-unbeatable American Idol in their shared
half-hour, CBS (including CEO Leslie Moonves) is said to want to try a two-hour
block of laughs on Thursdays. Should the network's pilot crop be strong enough,
it could build it by moving an existing comedy, perhaps 2 Broke Girls,
to the night to help launch the new series-competition that makes a readjusted
NBC Thursday even more crucial.

Wanted: Breakout Dramas

With the scale tilted in comedy's favor the past few seasons, drama has
struggled to break out on broadcast. After the last decade saw a long run of
big successful dramas like 24, Lost and the CSI, NCIS and
Law & Order franchises, no heir apparent has yet emerged. Though
this season saw more success than last-including ABC's Once Upon a Time,
Fox's Touch and CBS' Person of Interest-most of what is working
on the drama side is getting on in years, necessitating a renewal across all
the networks.

"Sometimes after a long run in a genre, it takes a little bit to cycle through
and find that next one that lights the spark again," Reilly says. "I think it's
up for grabs across the board. I don't think anyone's exactly the king of the
hot new drama right now."

The nets are responding to the need for drama in different ways, with CBS
developing its tried-and-true procedurals and Fox similarly sticking to more
traditional concepts. ABC is building off its success with upscale women and
family coviewing while NBC is going for event-like dramas such as Hannibal (already
ordered to series) and The Munsters reboot Mockingbird Lane.

The need for breakout dramas could not be more crucial. With long-running
series House (Fox) and Desperate Housewives (ABC) ending their
runs this season, and great options on cable, it's time for broadcast to create
its own next wave of one-hour hits.

Success Knows No Season

As this year proved, launching hits in midseason is no easier than in the fall
crush, even if you hold your strongest stuff for January. So, as every network
says it is committed to year-round scheduling, the smarter bet may be to push
the boundaries of the traditional broadcast season.

ABC has seen success under Entertainment Group president Paul Lee by premiering
late into the fall and spring, a strategy that worked this year for Once
Upon a Time
, Scandal and Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23.
"We really wanted to show these networks their job is not to launch great
programming in a week, it was to launch great programming all year long," Lee
says. "It does allow you, particularly in a cluttered marketplace, to really
point the network at something that you love and give it as strong a launch as
you can."

Other networks may look to avoid the premiere week crush by going early, namely
NBC, which will benefit from the huge promotional platform of the Summer
Olympics. As such, Salke says bringing back shows on a different schedule or
possibly launching a new series out of the Olympics are both things the network
is considering. "Given the fragmentation of the audience and the position that
NBC is in, we need to be really strategic about how we launch things," she
says. "We can't just throw everything out with everybody else launching shows
when they have huge hits to launch off it."

The CW, which for the first time in its history will have summer programming,
has the opportunity to use it to lead into its new series. Though network
president Mark Pedowitz won't say exactly how The CW will schedule its fall
premieres, expect the summer shows to play a role. "By doing that, you
automatically create a promotional platform for your fall launch," he says.

Same Song, New Tune

The X Factor, American Idol and NBC's The Voice in one
season may have seemed like over-saturation of singing competition shows, but
the networks are just getting warmed up. Both ABC and The CW have staked a
claim in this crowded reality space with the summer series Duets and The
Star Next Door
respectively, leaving only CBS out of the mix (your move,
Nina Tassler).

All of this has made it harder than ever for a singing show to stand out from
the crowd-a hard lesson learned by the folks at The X Factor. After a
first season that rated solidly but fell short of Simon Cowell's ego-fueled
expectations, the show is overhauling for season two, firing half its cast and
looking to bring on more star power in the fall.

Even American Idol, the originator of the genre which bucked the
naysayers and sustained a huge judging panel overhaul last season, showed its
vulnerability in season 11, sliding 30% in the ratings. And as with The X
, don't expect Idol to give up its perch without a fight.

"This year, we made the decision,'Don't fix what ain't broke,' and all of a
sudden, we had a lot more competition in the space," Reilly says. "American
is not going to just come back on its heels next year. We are going to
rise to the occasion and have a little fun with our format as well."

The Voice, only in its second year, is also talking about improvements
for next season, chief of which may be a return in the fall. Though she won't
comment directly on that speculation, Salke says: "Obviously the biggest
priority for us is to keep up the quality of the show, and there's a lot of
exciting plans for the future with it."

TV (Pilots) Everywhere

After Fox put its New Girl pilot on every platform it could think of and
the show premiered to a 4.7 rating among adults 18-49, television was quick to
take notice. Other networks followed suit with their new series -- Don't Trust
the B----
, NBC's Smash, The CW's The L.A. Complex -- to mixed
on-air results.

The thinking is that early viewing can create a viral conversation and drive
viewers to the network premiere that might not have otherwise tuned in. "What
you see is a huge amount of buzz -- if they're good," ABC's Lee says. "I don't
think pre-sampling is a great strategy if people aren't going to like the

Of course, the only sure thing in television is there are no sure things, as
they say, so there's no way to know if previewing a show early will make a
difference-good or bad-on its opening performance. But as it becomes harder for
TV marketing to break through, networks realize they have to take advantage of
social media however they can-or at the very least, appear to be keeping up
with the Joneses.

"We're all learning every day what the correlation is between social activity
or online buzz as it relates to ratings," Reilly says. "It's not a one-to-one
trade-off. But it all means something."