Six Lessons for the Upfront

Across New York City this week, the network executives who pick TV shows will become thespians for a day. They will stroll confidently on stage and try to convince advertisers that their new schedule is a sure thing.

They will quote research and testing, trot out well-known movie actors, tout writers with “fresh voices,” and introduce “groundbreaking” formats. But like the advertisers, they know very well that most of these new shows won’t make it.

“You just don’t know what’s going to connect or why,” says Touchstone Television President Mark Pedowitz, “so you put your chips out, and then you get surprised.”

In the absence of a crystal ball, the networks cobble together whatever resources they can. And one of the most useful textbooks is the season they have just programmed: a blueprint of what hit and what bombed in 2005-06. So as the networks try to imitate their successes and learn from their mistakes, B&C looks at six lessons the networks are using to program the 2006-07 season.

1. Imitation Is the Sincerest Form of Failure

Networks fall into the trap of chasing whatever is working, and imitation usually produces failure.

“No one will admit to chasing a genre,” says NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly, “but we all know what has been working out there.”

So, year after year, the networks try to grab their piece of something that already has traction. Last fall, a group of science-fiction–themed shows tried to capitalize on the Lost success. None were hits.

“Networks like to jump on the ship and not think about why things work,” says one network programming executive who asked not to be identified. “Two things that have to be reassessed are single-camera comedy and highly serialized high-concept shows. Both of those are high-stakes, high-odds shows, and they clearly weren’t the ones that jumped out in the late season.”

One bit of genre-chasing that may have already come and gone is the stripped telenovela. At the Television Critics Association press tour in January, the networks were buzzing about having them ready for the summer. Outside of My Network TV, none have any scheduled.

And while Deal or No Deal’s success has everyone racing back into the game-show genre, anyone with a sense of history wonders if one is enough. “When you look at the era of [Who Wants To Be a] Millionaire, there wasn’t anything else that stood out,” says The CW Entertainment President Dawn Ostroff. “I don’t know if there is room for another game show.”

2. iTunes Makes Headlines. Television Makes Money

The next time you hear the phrase “multiplatform,” consider this sobering fact: Of the roughly $9 billion in TV advertising committed in the annual upfront market, only about $100 million to $300 million will be spent on so-called new media.

The networks are constantly experimenting in the new-media space, whether moving current shows onto iTunes, as Fox did last week with such titles as 24 and Prison Break, or launching entire broadband networks, as CBS did recently with its Innertube. They’re all betting on future revenues, which they acknowledge are only a trickle now. Executives such as NBC Universal Television Group President Jeff Zucker and Disney-ABC Networks chief Anne Sweeney are expected to take the stage this week to tout the importance of delivering content to the latest new gizmos.

This week, the networks will boast of all the places besides a TV screen that you can see their programming, but network chiefs know that a potential show’s new-media applications have zero to do with whether it makes the fall schedule.

“The tail shouldn’t be wagging the dog here,” says Fox Entertainment President Peter Liguori. “Create a hit on TV, and you will have a hit on many platforms.”

CW’s Ostroff agrees: “Certainly, the multiplatform strategy is a part of any kind of pickup decision, though it is not what drives it,”

3. Schedules Still Rule

New-media advocates may think a network’s linear schedule will be obsolete in a matter of years, but building nights and audience flow are still crucial to the scheduling process.

If ABC shifts Desperate Housewives or Grey’s Anatomy, which now run consecutively, to Mondays at 9 p.m. ET as expected, it will have three big draws (including Lost) behind which to launch shows.

Lacking such hits, NBC will have a much more difficult time turning around its performance. “Scheduling and flow are still crucial,” says Reilly. “We need tent poles we can launch shows out of; that is what we didn’t have this year.”

This season also demonstrated the importance of nurturing a promising sophomore. The gleaming example was ABC’s scheduling of Grey’s Anatomy in the vaunted post-Super Bowl slot this year and Entertainment President Steve McPherson’s decision not to move the show out of its post-Desperate 10 p.m. time slot.

CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler considers grooming her sophomores as important as looking after the rookies. “For shows like Ghost Whisperer and How I Met Your Mother,” she says, “we want to treat them as carefully as we will the new shows on the schedule.”

Still, the shows have to make sense back-to-back. If ABC brings back ratings-challenged thriller Invasion, McPherson may move it out of its Lost lead-in. “Some feel the Lost hour is so intense,” he says, “that they want something lighter after.”

And while reality continues to serve as a cost- effective scheduling piece, networks are learning that, in most cases, running a reality series just once per year might be the right move. Fox’s restraint with American Idol is the model, but ABC’s re-energized The Bachelor also showed that absence makes the unscripted heart grow fonder.

4. Fewer Cameras Don’t Equal More Laughs

Many of the latest efforts to save the comedy on TV came from the single-camera genre—like My Name Is Earl and Everybody Hates Chris—but many network executives agree that the form is secondary to just being funny.

“If you’re not laughing it doesn’t matter if it’s a 3D hologram dancing around your living room,” says Chuck Lorre, who created the traditionally shot Two and a Half Men and has another four-camera pilot in contention at CBS.

Touchstone’s Pedowitz says viewers just want comedies that have characters with whom they can connect and, when the next big hot comedy comes, it will dictate where the genre goes. “If it is a multicamera show,” he says, “it will swing back that way, “and if it is single-camera, there will be many more of those.”

But others believe the form does matter. One of those is producer Gavin Polone, who has comedy pilots in contention at ABC and Fox, both of which have single-camera components. “The tastes of the audience have changed, and I think it’s changing in the direction of single-camera,” he says. “When people watch shows like My Name Is Earl and The Office, you get used to a certain tone and feel. It may redirect back the other way at some point.”

5. Know Your Audience— And Don’t Go Changing

The few new shows that did break out this season, such as Fox’s Prison Break and CBS’ The Unit, showed the importance of developing programming that caters to a network’s core audience.

“Each network has a very specific identity that a consumer expects to find when they turn on that channel,” says producer John Wells, who has drama pilot Smith in contention at CBS. “All the network successes have been specifically within the brand they have been known for.”

From a promotional standpoint, Fox was able to tour Prison Break to its baseball audience, and CBS was able to push The Unit in its gritty dramas.

Fox, which traditionally appeals to a predominantly male audience, will look to broaden its reach this season, picking up ’Til Death, the Brad Garrett sitcom about two married couples. The move makes some sense especially after New Year’s, when the testosterone-heavy network can promote to more females through American Idol.

6. Trust Your Gut

The slow build-up of The Office reminded the industry that a show can still gain traction after a modest start—if it is given a chance to build audience. Fortunately for star Steve Carrell and the rest of the cast, it was NBC’s struggles that let the network give the show some time to grow.

“That actually works to our advantage,” NBC’s Reilly says of his network’s prime time challenges. “We are in a position where we could look at something like The Office, know it is a good show, and stick with it.”

Conversely, ABC showed this season that, if you don’t believe in a show, get it off the air immediately. The network yanked its heavily hyped Emily’s Reasons Why Not after just one airing when it didn’t like the look of the next batch of episodes. The network had waited to begin production on the midseason replacement and had already started the hype machine when it realized the show wasn’t working. ABC won’t make the same mistake again.

Says ABC’s McPherson, “Anything we pick up this season we will get into production right away so we can get a sense of how it is going.”