It is that time of year again, when the big broadcast networks spend millions to present their fall slates in New York’s grand theaters, and with any luck, whip up a bit of business from the ad buyers in the crowd. We checked in with a half-dozen industry watchers to see which network they felt had the most momentum going into Upfront Week, along with which had the most to prove, and how everybody else was looking too.
Here’s how they see things.
It was a close battle for who has the mojo heading into the big week, with CBS’ trademark stability helping pace the network. Yet most saw NBC as having the upper hand. As one former network exec put it, “They’ve got the right mix of football, Dick Wolf, The Voice and This Is Us. They’ve got a lot of tools moving forward.”
NBC and CBS go about their upfront presentations very differently, with CBS’ focused solely on the network, and NBC’s a combined affair as NBC shares the Radio City Music Hall stage with Bravo, Syfy, Telemundo, USA and other NBCUniversal channels. “NBCU has so much volume,” said Brian Wieser, senior research analyst at Pivotal Research Group, adding that the joint upfront is therefore “much more important to the health of the industry.”
But looking just at NBC, the network did something that no other broadcast network did this year — it spawned a hit in This Is Us. “A large scale, unbelievable-in-our-current-era hit,” is how Myles McNutt, Old Dominion assistant professor of communications, saw it. “NBC has programming holes, but when you combine This Is Us and the Chicago shows [Fire, Justice, Med and PD], there’s a stability to the lineup that even CBS does not have.”
Meanwhile, the Eye is doing OK. The network, which so values stability on its schedule, announced early renewals of 18 series for the 2017-18 season. Five freshman shows were part of the revelry: dramas Bull and MacGyver, and comedies Kevin Can Wait, Man With a Plan and Superior Donuts.
“CBS knows what it is every given night,” said the former network exec.
Still, CBS could use a breakthrough comedy. Giving shows to established comedic veterans — Kevin James, Matt LeBlanc, Joel McHale — did not process a bona fide hit this season. CBS is hoping its Big Bang Theory prequel, Young Sheldon, will do what the others did not. It is slated to premiere in 2017-18.
ABC will talk up its revival of former Fox ratings hog American Idol — set to premiere in the 2017-18 season — during its upfront presentation at Lincoln Center. The show averaged 11.5 million total viewers in its final season. “That has the potential to be a huge boost,” said media consultant Bill Carroll. “Would Fox be happy to have the numbers Idol did in its last season? My guess would be yes.”
There’s not much else for the network to talk about as ABC struggles to formulate its identity.
“The Shonda [Rhimes] shows have faded a bit,” said the former network exec. “They haven’t had a breakout drama in a long time.”
Channing Dungey was named entertainment president in February 2016. Last year’s slate she mostly inherited from Paul Lee. This year’s is all hers.
While some voted for ABC, our industry watchers, for the most part, felt Fox is the network with the most to prove headed into Upfront Week. American Idol’s move to ABC is a reminder that the network simply does not have a go-to unscripted franchise to pull in Nielsen points, such as NBC’s The Voice, ABC’s Dancing With the Stars and CBS’ Survivor. “They haven’t been able to make up for the absence of American Idol,” said Carroll.
Another source says the network is too “obsessed” with reviving old shows and movie franchises. That includes The X-Files, which gets 10 episodes and airs later this season. “That they need X-Files in their core lineup says a lot about the rest of Fox’s shows,” said McNutt.
And then there’s The CW, which has had some success with Supergirl, while the network that so infrequently kills shows recently said rookie dramas Frequency and No Tomorrow are one season and done. Critically praised series such as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin continue to struggle in terms of the Nielsens. “There’s a lot of critical acclaim,” said one source. “There’s not a lot of ratings.”
The CW has made the effort to be more of a year-round broadcaster — Riverdale debuted in January, for example — and boasts respectable stability, despite the recent cancellations. Some wonder how long it goes on for. “How long will [CW president] Mark Pedowitz keep renewing shows?” wondered McNutt.
Canapés & Cocktails
It’s yet another year of the networks renting out glittering theaters and putting on full-scale parties while showing off their new content prizes. Some wonder if, and when, they instead opt to share their new stuff in a digital presentation that interested parties can watch from their office or couch. But that of course means one network making the break, which does not appear likely to happen any time too soon.
So for now, it’s the fancy theaters in mid-May. Said Wieser, “The upfronts are a reasonably effective way for the networks to sell.”
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Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.