Broadcast Networks Take Center Stage

Upfront week is here once again, four days full of presentations in baroque Manhattan theaters, parties offering canapes and cocktails, and a few deals getting done. As the week unfolds, one can’t help but wonder, which broadcast network has the true mojo as they step on stage?

We tossed the question to a half-dozen TV biz insiders — critics, consultants, retired executives — and the answer came back NBC. Between sophomore smash This Is Us, competition behemoth The Voice, ratings- devouring Sunday Night Football, and the gaggle of Dick Wolf Chicago shows, NBC appears poised for another 18-49 ratings title, and the bragging rights that come with such a distinction.

The 2018 Upfront:Sales Execs Claim Strong Hand Going Into Upfront | Top Broadcast Sales Executives | Buyers Want Better Measurement, But Will Use Old Metrics in Upfront | Levy Wants 5% of TV Ad Budgets Spent on Audiences | The CW Brings a New Night to the Market | Pitching Hispanic Buying Power

Yet ABC was a notable runner-up — and the top pick for a few pundits. As one put it: “Ratings-wise, it has to be NBC. But perception-wise, it seems like ABC has had more series successes this year.”

The Good Doctor was broadcast’s rookie of the year, and the performances of American Idol and Roseanne gave ABC considerable ratings momentum. “ABC has a lot of wind at their back,” one insider said.

Yet ABC has its issues, too. Both American Idol and Roseanne were midseason additions. Roseanne has nine episodes this season, and will likely be a limited run next season too. Shonda Rhimes, the powerhouse behind Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, among other ABC dramas, is leaving for Netflix in a multi-year production deal. When it was announced, she mentioned the desire “to build a vibrant new storytelling home for writers with the unique creative freedom and instantaneous global reach.”

Comedy cornerstone Modern Family is in its ninth season, and the 10 p.m. hour remains an issue for ABC. “If they could only get one more 10 p.m. show to work,” Preston Beckman, former senior strategist at Fox and chairman of media consulting outfit The Beckman Group, said.

Eye on Stability

CBS prides itself on its stability, and it can again boast of that heading into Upfront Week. “CBS does not have a lot of slots to fill,” media consultant Bill Carroll said.

Young Sheldon was a hit for CBS, but outside of it and The Big Bang Theory, wrapping up its 11th season, the network’s comedies performed so-so.

“They have to figure out how to do something other than procedurals,” Beckman said.

Dealing With Disney

So if NBC has the most momentum, which network has the most to prove? Our panel said Fox. New dramas 9-1-1 and The Resident have attracted viewers, but not much else has seized Nielsens.

And then there’s the deal to sell most of its assets, including its studios, to Disney. “They’re in limbo, they’re in flux,” Beckman said. “It’ll be tough for them to stand up there and act like nothing’s going on.”

On the bright side, Fox has Thursday Night Football, a package shared by CBS and NBC last fall. As a result, “they’ll be better in the fall than they’ve been in years,” Carroll said.

Stretching to Sundays

The CW also picked up votes for most to prove. The network announced that it is expanding to Sunday nights, but it does not appear to be expanding from a position of strength. While Black Lightning and Dynasty got second seasons, other rookies Life Sentence and Valor ended after season one. Last season's debutants, No Tomorrow and Frequency, also ended after one season. 

“I don’t think they came up with anything successful this year,” Beckman said. “They’re expanding, but they’re not expanding because they have a lot of strong shows.”

Carroll said the superhero fare, such as The Flash and Supergirl, does well on The CW. “It’s a little more difficult with everything else,” he added.

Trailer Trends

What programming trends might we see on stage this week? The success of Roseanne might prompt the networks to aim for Middle America with their shows. “We’re eager to see how broadcast programmers try to appeal to the Heartland in response to the election,” Linda Ong, chief culture officer at Civic Entertainment Group, said. “Will they explicitly target non-coastal tastes?”

Ong also mentioned a TV trend related to “omniculturalism” — a series offering the point of view of, as she puts it, “people who are different.” An example is The Good Doctor, whose main character has autism.

“We look to see more of those,” she said. “There are opportunities to have a conversation about different points of view.”

Business-wise, the network executives will talk up their ability to target specific segments of viewers for advertisers, and the merits of delayed viewing.

In this jammed TV landscape, the broadcast networks will also make the case that, even as their ratings slip, their content attracts an enviable audience. “Broadcast networks are the most valuable part of the multiplatform world,” Beckman said. “Networks will want to make the claim that they are extremely relevant.”

Michael Malone

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.