Produce Or Perish: Nets Get Busy This Winter

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A year ago, a heavily promoted but largely unknown drama called Empire debuted on Fox. Leading out of American Idol, Empire turned out to be more than a smash hit—it showed that broadcast could still pull in massive crowds for something other than football and celeb-laden events shows.

But after a fall season that did not generate a true hit, some are wondering what among the midseason debutantes, if anything, has a chance to bust out. Amidst stiff year-round competition and diminishing ratings, anticipating a hit these days is to set oneself up for disappointment.

Network chiefs would instead settle for a workhorse. “Everybody is looking for shows with promise that they can bring back next season,” says Kelly Kahl, CBS senior executive VP of primetime. “Home runs are great, but doubles can be invaluable to your schedule and are very lucrative.”

No Quarter in First Quarter

If the midseason used to be a chance for network execs, as well as the creative types producing their shows, to take a collective breath, the pressure from the launch-anytime streaming services and premium cable means no time for rest. At least anecdotally, industry watchers say they’re seeing more original broadcast programming in the midseason than ever.

“It seems like a further proliferation of what started with summer programming a few years ago, when the networks realized they could no longer cede summer to cable and started developing scripted—and not just reality—shows for summer runs,” says Christine Becker, associate professor of television at Notre Dame. “Now they’re dealing not just with cable’s year-round scheduling but streamers completely untethered from the concept of a linear schedule.”

Each network is taking its own kind of swing for early 2016. NBC comedy Superstore opened to a solid 1.7 in 18-49 last week, while Telenovela rated a more pedestrian 1.3. CBS held 2 Broke Girls and Mike & Molly for the winter, pairing up the battle-tested comedies for a Wednesday block.

ABC bows thriller The Catch, the latest from the Shondaland hit factory, March 24, a week after How to Get Away With Murder ends. The new season of Marvel’s Agent Carter debuted too. “We’ll lean into our strength of serialized programming,” says Andy Kubitz, ABC executive VP, program planning and scheduling.

Of Kings and Prophets, meanwhile, takes a page from premium cable, Kubitz adds: “It’s more along the lines of Game of Thrones than [History’s] The Bible or [NBC miniseries] A.D.

Fox on Fox

Fox has the most to prove. It debuted a Tuesday comedy block with New Girl leading off, attempting to give Grandfathered and The Grinder a shot of life. (Brooklyn Nine-Nine appears between the latter two.) Megan Fox livens things up as New Girl’s new girl.

The X-Files debuts Jan. 24, out of the NFC Championship game. “There’s a lot of curiosity from people who both grew up on it or have never watched it,” says David Madden, Fox president of entertainment. “It’s hard to imagine it won’t be a big success.”

The strong performance of The Wiz Live on NBC, which tallied close to 14 million viewers in live-plus-seven, “absolutely bodes well” for the net’s presentation of Grease, believes Madden.

For its part, The CW debuts DC’s Legends of Tomorrow and returns apocalyptic drama The 100 Jan. 21, along with new drama Containment in the spring. For the season 3 launch of The 100, the network waited until after season 2 was available on Netflix. “We heard a lot about how people binged the first season,” says Mark Pedowitz, CW president. “It’s a strategy and a test at the same time.”

‘Fall’ From Grace

The broadcast nets hit the new year following a listless fall. While a relatively small number of shows got the axe (fare thee well, Wicked City), fewer still could be described as hits. Quantico stood out for ABC amidst brutal Sunday competition that included football and premium cable series, and Limitless showed promise for CBS. In the increasingly fractionalized ratings world, delayed viewing counts more and more, and every tenth of a ratings point is bitterly contested.

It all makes for a busy midseason. And each new series means another shot, however remote, at being a hit. “We all feel like we’re trying to get as much original product on and minimize repeats,” says Kahl. “You never want to give people a reason to take a night off from coming to network programming.”

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.