For many networks, 2011 is all about reinvention. And outside of CBS, big changes are coming to all of the major broadcast networks.
It starts with TV’s top entertainment show, Fox’s American Idol. In 2011, the show faces the same test that it usually forces its contestants to endure: new talent will be judged as it unveils the new panel of Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler.
Fox brought back original executive producer Nigel Lythgoe and is moving the show to Wednesdays and Thursdays, but the question looms: without Simon Cowell, how will Idol fare?
“The first few weeks probably won’t tell us much,” says one rival network executive. “People will tune in because they want to check out the new judges.”
Idol’s ratings tend to drift downwards after the auditions; once the top 10 are selected, ratings climb again, and that will be the litmus test. “The question this year is, at what rate do the ratings come back up? That’s really dependent on the quality of the final contestants,” says the rival exec.
Either way, no one expects Idol to lose its berth atop the ratings. “It will still be the top-rated show this season, although not as dominant as it has been in previous years,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP and director of research at Horizon Media.
And then this fall, Cowell will make his much-anticipated return to Fox when X Factor, still red hot in England after several years on the air, bows in America.
Another British import will also have a big impact this year, as ABC programming chief Paul Lee puts his stamp on the network for the first time. And over at NBC, they may have an unfamiliar challenge: high expectations, as even rival executives are expecting better times for the Peacock under Comcast and wellregarded Bob Greenblatt.
On the cable side, another giant television personality also will undergo a reinvention in 2010—Oprah Winfrey, who is ending her storied talk show and launching her eponymous cable channel, OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network.
Oprah, Discovery Health and Harpo Productions first announced their joint venture in January 2008, with a planned launch date for late 2009. That deadline proved hard to make, and after several executive changes and programming restarts, OWN was set to launch Jan. 1.
While the media have been cynical about the new network’s potential, many observers expect Winfrey’s premium brand to carry the day.
“I think it will be the most successful launch on cable,” says Adgate. “She’s like Conan—the ratings expectations aren’t as high as they were on broadcast television. She’ll be a cable force within a year or two.”
Advertisers seem to agree, with nine premium brands—Chase, General Motors, Kellogg’s, Kohl’s, Procter & Gamble, Nissan, Target, Toyota and Wal-Mart—signing on as OWN launch sponsors.
Speaking of Conan O’Brien, his transformative year was 2010, and now we’ll discover his staying power on TBS—and how long TBS sticks with George Lopez in the time slot behind him. But with latenight invigorated, Turner plans to stretch its brand, adding more unscripted programs that encourage viewers to watch in real time.
“You will absolutely see one or both networks delve into that world,” says Michael Wright, executive VP and head of programming for TBS and TNT (as well as Turner Classic Movies). “We’re not going to be doing car-crash theater, but it would be a natural evolution for us to move into that world.”
Shows like Idol and Conan represent the holy grail for programmers right now: Their live nature compels viewers to watch them in real time, and they are chock-full of elements that can go viral, winding their way through today’s intricate and influential social-media networks.
“All of those activities are additive to the experience of watching the show,” says Wright. “We call it the electronic campfire. There’s a sense that on some level, some 20 to 30 million Americans are in their living rooms watching these shows together. That sense of connection is something human beings crave.”
In the end, the goal for 2011 is the same as it ever was: “ If you make hits, people will watch them,” says Preston Beckman, Fox executive VP, strategic program planning and research. “It still comes down to that.”
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