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Broadcast Nets Look fora Break, and Breakouts

RELATED: The Big Five's Most Wanted

The 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 viewership.

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 Girl, and Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly is hoping RaisingHope 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---- inApartment 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 Factor, 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 Idol 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 show.”

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.”

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