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Broadcast Steps Into A Time Machine

After sitting through a half-dozen upfront presentations, we were tempted to start off this story with some sort of Hamilton rap; after all, that’s how NBCU kicked off its shindig, with Jimmy Fallon donning the colonial costume, before CBS did the same two days later with late-night host James Corden.

“Ten new shows appear this fall,” warbled Fallon. “The word ‘Chicago’ appears in them all.” Crooned Corden to the advertisers in the theater, “We want your Hamiltons, your Benjamins and Washingtons.”

While ESPN also went Hamilton in its presentation, this story is about programming trends, of which many emerged during this week’s blitz. For one thing, networks are making good on their vow to produce more of their own shows and be more disciplined with additions and subtractions to schedules. In all, 42 new shows were announced by the Big Five, down from 45 last year, and the networks airing them own all or part 38 out of those 42.

Among the other big themes for 2016-17:

My Time Machine is Better Than Your Time Machine

The time-travel category was hot in development season, and several shows landed on the new schedules. ABC’s Time After Time sees famed science fiction writer H.G. Wells—he wrote The Time Machine, naturally—transported to modern-day Manhattan to hunt down Jack the Ripper. NBC’s edgier Timeless sees a mysterious criminal steal a secret high-tech time machine, intent on destroying America by changing the past.

Those two feature fairly sophisticated time-travel contraptions, while the epoch-traversing vessel in Fox’s Making History is a nasty old duffel bag. That goofball comedy, starring Adam Pally, got genuine laughs from the Beacon Theatre crowd.

Broadening the definition of time travel, The CW’s Frequency sees a woman communicate with her dead father through a beat up old ham radio. He’s stuck in 1996, when the Atlanta Braves are an MLB powerhouse, and daddy and daughter change the course of history by their interaction.

Popcorn Dramas

Frequency is based on a 2000 theatrical film, and film-to-series is another hot trend coming out of Upfront Week. CBS’ Training Day flips the script on the 2001 film, which features a by-the-book white trainee paired with a profligate African-American detective. This time around, the veteran with disdain for the rulebook is a white guy, played by Bill Paxton.

Two of Fox’s more prominent new projects are classic film offshoots: Lethal Weapon and The Exorcist. Dana Walden, Fox Television Group chairman and CEO, described Exorcist as “a scary, scary, cinematic-quality show.”

The cinematic new dramas prompted ABC’s late-night funnyman Jimmy Kimmel to note, during his annual Upfront Week skewering, how Fox was raiding “all your favorite old VHS tapes.”

Let’s Do the Time Warp Again

Movies are also the source material for various special-event programming coming up this season. ABC’s Dirty Dancing will add three original songs to its three-hour filmed production, the premiere to be determined. Fox will offer up The Rocky HorrorPicture Show, starring Laverne Cox as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, in October, and is keen to add more live productions following the success of Grease Live last winter.

NBC jumpstarted the trend in live productions, and debuts Hairspray Live!, while Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men Live! is its first drama in this recent era of without-a-net television. Nothing puts the twinkle in entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt’s eye like discussing the live shows.

During NBCU’s monster two-hour upfront presentation, NBC made a strong case for live television, including the Olympics and The Voice. New Voice judges Miley Cyrus and Alicia Keys took to the Radio City Music Hall stage to talk up the new season of the variety show. “They’re gonna let me go live!” says notorious naughty girl Cyrus. “Can you believe this?”

Biff! Bam! Pow! Down Goes Digital

Talk heading into Upfront Week was about marketers taking their spend out of digital, and putting it back into television proper. One got the sense that the broadcasters could not wait for the NewFronts’ fortnight to end so they could deliver their anti-digital message.

“TV delivers more value than anything else by far,” said ABC president Ben Sherwood. “And no matter what someone says, nothing else even comes close. TV drives the greatest engagement on every single platform around the world.”

During Fox’s upfront presentation, ad sales president Toby Byrne shared a published comparison of a World Series game and a video from a YouTube star that showed both with 14 million views. “In truth, only one does, and it’s not the YouTube video with an average audience of 1,620,” Byrne said. “So flipping it the other way, using YouTube’s math, that World Series game would translate to 6.8 billion views. That makes the World Series a bargain and it’s pretty absurd.”

It was interesting to note that, if only for a week, there was little mention of Netflix in the TV-related conversations around Gotham. Kimmel wondered if some digital services truly deserved a NewFront slot. “Do Crackle and Vox and Vevo really need to have upfronts?” he said. “These aren’t networks, these are sound effects when Batman punches a bad guy.”

Clear Out the Clutter

While Upfont Week is all about booking ads, one heard repeatedly about networks cutting back on ad loads to help the content—and the message of a premium-paying marketer—better stand out. This was talked up by NBC, Fox and Turner, among others. “We need the ad community to support these moves,” said Donna Speciale, ad sales president at Turner.

But not everybody was going for it. “We’ve talked about it. If the right opportunity happened, we’d think about doing it,” said Mark Pedowitz, CW president. “But at this point, there are no plans.”

Diversity on All Sides of the Camera

Diversity was a key theme in Upfront Week. Following the massive success of Fox’s Empire, the casts of Lee Daniels’ Star on Fox and Shonda Rhimes’ Romeo and Juliet-esque Still Star-Crossed on ABC reflect a more diverse America; same goes for Jack Bauer’s heir apparent in Fox’s 24: Legacy, played by Corey Hawkins.

“We always reflect the authenticity of the faces of those around us,” said Channing Dungey, ABC entertainment chief, and the first African-American woman to hold that position at a major broadcast net. “Because we are America’s Broadcasting Company.”

Speechless slides into ABC’s Wednesday comedy block, with Minnie Driver the mother of a son with severe special needs.

Keep It Short(ish)

As always, the networks struggled to keep their presentations from getting too long. NBCU made some history with its combined spiel, featuring NBC, Telemundo and its cable networks, including USA and Bravo. Steve Burke, NBCU president/CEO, promised it would come in under two hours, and it did. Still, the presentation had more decked out celebrity pairs strolling across stage than an Academy Awards telecast, and some of the taped bits fell flat. One, featuring NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus and NFL star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald making cupcakes, of all things, prompted head scratching, and a barb from late night host Seth Meyers.

“What’s the opposite of chemistry?” he wondered.

ABC’s Sherwood played off the name of a certain hit comedy, promising to get the audience back out on the street “soon-ish.”

The presentations averaged around 90 minutes, with NBCU and The CW the outliers. Kudos to the former for sticking boxes of chocolate covered pretzels in every seat back, and the latter for wrapping up its Thursday presentation in just 45 minutes. You almost could’ve double-parked on 55th Street for that one.

Bits & Pieces

There were numerous Donald Trump jokes and Prince songs, more superheroes than Comic-Con, and endless talk about stability. A handful of sitcom veterans from another era, including Kevin James (CBS’ Kevin Can Wait), Jenna Elfman (ABC’s Imaginary Mary) and Matt LeBlanc (CBS’ Man With a Plan), reentered the comedy ring.

Two entertainment chiefs, Dungey and CBS’ Glenn Geller, made their first upfront presentations, and neither fell on their face.

Two new series shared similar DNA. Fox’s APB is about a renegade billionaire engineer who takes over a police precinct and recasts it as a private police force, based on his tech sophistication. CBS’ Pure Genius, meanwhile, is about a renegade billionaire tech titan who launches a hospital with “an ultramodern approach to medicine.” (With a renegade billionaire running for president, one can understand the appeal.)

Two Minutes in May Does Not a Hit Make

The sizzles sizzled, as they always do, and the drinks flowed at the Manhattan hotspots afterward. But it’s good to keep in mind something that Meyers said about sizzle reels. They’re “like meeting your brother’s girlfriend at Thanksgiving. She looks great, but you don’t want to get too attached because she probably won’t be around next fall,” quipped Meyers.

And so it was only fitting that, upon crossing Sixth Avenue following the final upfront show, CW’s at New York City Center, a taxicab passed by with an ad for ABC’s Wicked City on its roof. The show got raves at ABC’s 2015 upfront presentation, but the network killed Wicked City in November after just three episodes. So either the ad was woefully out of date—or we’d just stepped out of a time machine.

Michael Malone
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.