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MBPT Spotlight: Live TV Shows, Scheduling Decisions, the Search for Breakout Hits and Stars

(This is part 2 of a series in which media agency executives answer questions about the schedules announced by the broadcast networks at their upfront presentations. Part 1 appeared in Wednesday's MBPT Newsletter.)

What do media agencies think about the new schedules announced by the broadcast networks at their upfront presentations? MPBT gathered four veteran media agency programming research executives — Billie Gold, VP, director of buying/programming research at Carat; Brian Hughes, senior VP, audience analysis, MagnaGlobal; Sam Armando, senior VP and director, SMGx Strategic Intelligence; and Brad Adgate, senior VP, director of research, Horizon Media — and asked them about some of the key moves and trends.

Both Fox and NBC are putting on live specials this season – Grease and The Wiz, respectively. Even if both draw large audiences on those nights, what are the other benefits to the networks of running a one-time special except a short burst of publicity? And NBC will air its sitcom Undateable live all season. What are the benefits of that? Advertisers seemingly are not likely to pay more to advertise in a Friday night comedy whether it is live or not. Will they?

Gold: Airing live events programming benefits networks because it creates buzz, gets publicity and hey, it’s mostly viewed LIVE and not time-shifted as these shows are all about being socially connected in the moment. That makes advertisers happy as there is a greater chance for their ad to be potentially seen. It’s a different story however if we’re talking about a regularly-scheduled low-rated TV show such as Undateable. I am sure NBC was trying to do something different and unique with this show, but the show already barely registers in ratings and the fact that people are mostly watching it live, in this case doesn’t mean that this show has them engaged in any social sense of the word and advertisers aren’t likely to really care.

Hughes: The idea with events like this is to create a sense of urgency and a build a social halo. Get people to watch live and comment in real time; it creates opportunities to reach viewers on platforms outside of TV. In addition to that, there aren’t many opportunities to get a large audiences in front of the set anymore, so for the network it also represents a large promotional opportunity.

Armando: Given the numerous ways video can be consumed today, live viewing can be important if it provides an environment that is desired for a brand’s message. These events have shown that they can draw in a large audience, but not a sustaining one. As a result, additional benefits for the network start with bringing additional viewers to the screen and keeping them captive while they promote the rest of the network. Also, additional revenue streams from social and digital extensions are possible. As far as Undateable goes, the lone live episode in May did not indicate that it had much benefit. Its 1.12 Live A18-49 rating was a slight increase over the 1.00 the week prior, but still fell way short of the sitcom’s season-to-date average.

Adgate: Live and event programs are popular because the ads can be watched in real time and social media (Facebook and Twitter) can help promote the show so unless viewers bail on it I think it will continue. As for Undateable I am not sure that creating a live version of a sitcom is sustainable, the novelty will wear off and Fridays remain a tough night to get young viewers.

What do you think of the CBS strategy of holding back for next mid-season a half dozen or so of its regular season shows from this season like Person of Interest, 2 Broke Girls, Mike & Molly and The Odd Couple and using some of those spots on the schedule to launch new shows. If the new shows fail, then the network has a bullpen of veteran shows to replace them with and that could put advertisers’ minds at ease when buying fall ad packages.

Gold: It’s a risk but this strategy has worked for CBS before. I don’t think there is another network that has such a solid contingent of back-up programming that they can drop in when needed. Of course it’s a gamble as viewers of these shows may latch on to a new show in the time-period before it returns; but on the other hand if viewers are sampling shows the first few weeks of the new season and then a familiar face comes back in play they are likely to go back to it. Last season Mike & Molly replaced The Millers after it faltered and it was seamless. Plus, while other networks put their fall shows to rest in 1Q and replace them with mostly unproven fare, there is CBS with many of its established hits ready on board.

Hughes: They’ve made it clear that stability is their core value, so having proven shows in the bullpen to fill in when a new show doesn’t work just bolsters that story. I think it will help them have more first-run programming throughout the year as well. A lot of the networks are going with a split season model now to keep the schedule fresh.

Armando: The midseason is becoming more and more crowded, so CBS may see an advantage of inserting titles and characters that audiences are familiar with. From the advertiser’s point of view, you already have an idea of what type of audience you will get from these shows, thus creating the process of making good on a buy easier. The risk is that the fans of these shows may realize there are other options and feel they do not “need” these shows anymore.  Sometimes, viewing habits are tough to break, but by taking established shows off the air for a while, you may actually help them make that break.

Adgate: CBS' strategy of holding back familiar shows for mid-season makes a lot of sense. You can strategically schedule the show later in the season and you have a lot of information regarding the viewers, where and how to promote the show, etc.

With all the choices viewers have today to watch live programming across broadcast, cable and online, along with being able to DVR shows, how important is it for the broadcast networks to make sure they are putting shows in the right time periods both to get maximum support from leading out of a show, but also making sure that a series can effectively compete within its time period? Particularly for a new series trying to launch.

Gold: It’s still extremely important 99% percent of the time. This is extremely true for new series. A big lead-in means that the show has a much greater chance of getting sampled and that’s what every network is aiming for. That’s why each season the networks launch their most promising new shows after their highest rated proven hits to ensure it the best chance of being seen. As for established shows, lead-in still makes a big difference. Look what happened last season to NCIS: Los Angeles when it moved to another night and lost its NCIS lead-in, and of course look what happened to The Blacklist when it lost its Voice lead-in — their ratings dropped drastically. That being said, Fox is launching its hit Empire in 4Q this season without the benefit of its American Idol lead-in and with a new unproven drama lead-in, but because of the momentum of the show most people think lead-in won’t matter. We’ll have to see if this is the exception to the rule. It might be.

Hughes: Flow is definitely still important, because although live TV viewing is on the decline, it still represents the biggest chunk of video consumption. What’s interesting to me is how TV series now have more chances to thrive than perhaps ever before. It used to be that a broadcast show would be given some time to grow and find an audience — look at Seinfeld. In the past 10 years, the networks have become a lot quicker on the trigger unless there was a compelling business reason to keep a show around (i.e. syndication). But now a show that gets cancelled by a broadcaster has a solid chance to find a home elsewhere, whether it’s Arrested Development on Netflix or The Mindy Project on Hulu. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is another interesting example — NBC sold it to Netflix before it even aired, and it has generated a ton of social and word-of-mouth interest. I’m not sure it would have worked the same way on broadcast.

Armando: Regardless of how viewing and technology have changed, the key component of any show is gaining the largest initial audience it possibly can. While we have seen shows with big premieres fade, we have rarely seen shows with tiny initial audiences grow into something huge. Promotion plays a big role in this, but scheduling likely also plays a part. Just ask How to Get Away with Murder, The Blacklist or Jane the Virgin. Yes, all are good shows, but would they have been as successful if they did not initially air after the already established Scandal, The Voice and The Originals?

Adgate: We are in a transitional period as to how to schedule a show. For some viewers audience flow is important and there is still counterprogramming strategies. I think as the years go by less emphasis on scheduling will take place. One trend this season has been how similar the primetime schedule looks from a year ago, an indication that viewers (especially younger ones) are watching these shows on their own schedule not the networks.

If you have to pick one new broadcast network series that most would think is unlikely to succeed but you think has a chance to work, which one would it be? And why?

Gold: The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. We all know that dramas that break into song usually don’t work on television (with the exception of Glee, which ran its course) but there was something utterly charming and refreshing about this show based on the clips that they showed at the upfront. Whether the singing would “get old fast” is another story, but it’s one of the few shows that I want to see next season. Runner up — Fox’s Scream Queens.

Hughes: This a tricky one, because “success” is really a moving target. There isn’t a clear ratings cut-off anymore, especially when the network has an ownership interest in a show. We’ve decided that renewal is the best measure of a show’s viability at this point, because it increases its chances of A) being on air long enough to go into syndication or B) building enough of a fan base that another content platform will want to pick it up even if the original channel gives up on it after two seasons. If I had to pick a potential dark horse, it would be CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Jane the Virgin looked like a longshot this year, as did ABC’s Galavant, if we’re considering the musical element. And it was originally developed for Showtime. It’s kind of a “so crazy it just might work” scenario.

Armando: Remember the uneasiness all felt when we were introduced to Jane the Virgin last year? The title, the plot and the fact that it stood out among CW’s superheroes and vampires made us all question its viability. I think Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has the same feeling this year. Many times, when characters break out into song, people start to wince and dismiss the show. The tongue-in-cheek approach to this fits well on the CW more than any other network, and it is on a night that an hour comedy has already proven itself.

Adgate: I would say Supergirl on CBS. It seems like it would skew toward younger viewers which is not a core audience for the network. The pilot looks good and the star Melissa Benoist is very personable. So it may work!

Will there be either a breakout hit or a breakout star in broadcast primetime this season and if so which show and which star?

Gold: It’s a toss-up between two: Shonda Rhimes midseason drama The Catch starring Mireille Enos will likely catapult her into the limelight as Rhimes has done for all her strong female leads, but I think we have this year’s new Zoey Deschanel with Rachel Bloom of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Hughes: Empire was a real anomaly this year. It’s the first show in recent memory worthy of the phrase “breakout hit,” considering how it grew with each episode. I doubt we’ll see something on that level again next season. In terms of stars, I think Jaimie Alexander from NBC’s Blindspot has a lot of potential. She’ll be familiar to fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for her supporting role, but the show looks like it will give her the opportunity to really establish herself as a kick-ass female lead.

Armando: If Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is to work, it would mean that Rachel Bloom would be Gina Rodriquez-like and capture the hearts of viewers and critics. The quirkiness of her character is made for digital downloads and social buzz. If people accept the show, they will have to accept her. 

Adgate: Based on the clips Rachel Bloom the star of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on The CW, she may be on Broadway in the not too distant future. I would also pick Josh Peck, who plays John Stamos’ son on Grandfathered a comedy on Fox; Priyanka Chopra on Quantico on ABC, who has nearly 10 million Twitter followers; and Melissa Benoist, who stars in Supergirl on CBS, all with breakout potential. I also think Ken Jeong will be a big TV star with ABC’s Dr. Ken, although he’s pretty familiar to many already.