Upfront Preview: Broadcast Nets Under Pressure for New Hits

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If the 2012-13 TV season offered a lesson, it was one of patience: Patience to wait for DVR playback to make up for overnight ratings declines, patience for Fox to saddle a tougher-than-expected fall to recover in midseason (a familiar path) and patience for NBC to weather some tough headlines until The Voice again came to its rescue.

Now, however, the networks are facing some urgency with their fall primetime schedules after a season that produced few real breakouts. While CBS remains a model of how to run a broadcast network, even it will likely return only one freshman series, Elementary. The once-new leaders of ABC, The CW and NBC are now fully under pressure to deliver the revivals they were brought in to architect. And Fox must combat the effects of music competition fatigue with stronger scripted development.

Upfront pricing remains unclear this year, and broadcasters face increasing competition from highly rated cable fare and original digital video clamoring for a piece of the $18 billion advertising pie. And with measurement not yet caught up to the multiplatform, on-demand viewing habits of an increasing percentage of viewers, launching a hit is harder than ever.

With all that in mind, B&C chatted with a group of network presidents and senior programming executives and came away with four priorities their schedules must meet next season.

1. Make Some Drama Noise

Though the current season saw a couple of more traditional procedurals find success (Elementary, Chicago Fire) the real breakout dramas for their respective networks were bigger swings such as NBC’s Revolution, Fox’s The Following and The CW’s Arrow. And with audiences gorging on such gory cable fare as The Walking Dead, dark subject matter in Hannibal and The Following started pushing the boundaries of broadcast drama, upping the ante for next season.

“On the drama front, we’re really looking for…either a unique concept or character that will break through, or really incredible casting,” says Fox Broadcasting COO Joe Earley, who cites pilots like the legal drama Rake (starring Greg Kinnear) and Human, a futuristic police drama from J.J. Abrams, as attention-getters.

In order to compete with the increasingly lavish production values of cable, some networks are going bigger. The CW, which saw success this season with the comic book drama Arrow, is going for richer backdrops for several of its pilots—the network shot Hunger Games-esque The Selection in Budapest and Reign, about Mary Queen of Scots, in Ireland. “They’re things that are just broader and bigger, and we’re trying to make more noise,” says network president Mark Pedowitz.

ABC, which divides its drama pilots into three categories— character drama/soaps, procedurals and big swings—has several contenders in the latter category, including Joss Whedon’s Marvel Comics adaptation S.H.I.E.L.D.; Big Thunder, a period drama loosely based on the Disney theme park ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad; and Gothica, which incorporates the legends of Frankenstein, Dracula, Dorian Gray and Jekyll and Hyde.

While Hollywood is always looking for an out-of-the-box idea, as NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke notes, “There’s rarely a great one. For every good one of those there are a lot that just don’t work. You just have to go for the ones that have a real vision behind them and someone who you think can really execute it,” she says.

NBC has a few out-there pilots, including a Gillian Anderson drama about D.C. power brokers caught in a global conspiracy; the supernatural western The Sixth Gun; and another J.J. Abrams project, but the network is also developing a share of police/legal/medical dramas. As the network found with Dick Wolf’s Chicago Fire this season, sometimes it’s best to stay with the familiar. “We don’t stick our nose up at the value of those,” Salke says. “We’ll do more of that for sure.”

2. Broaden Your Comedy Base

Comedy remains an essential part of broadcast TV’s business model with lucrative syndication deals on the line. And with all the networks failing to launch any new half-hour hits this season, the pressure is on to find laughs this fall.

Fox, which this season saw New Girl hit a bit of a sophomore slump and modest sampling for sister comedy The Mindy Project, focused its development on building in more male appeal, including a six-episode order for the live-action Seth MacFarlane series Dads and pilots starring Andy Samberg and Rob Riggle. “The fan base that is there is a very valuable one, but we want to have a broader one,” Earley says. “Our focus has been on developing comedies that fit with that lineup but also expand on it.”

At NBC, which misfired with generic attempts such as Animal Practice and Guys With Kids this season, will try again to branch out from its legacy Thursday niche brand that now only includes Parks and Recreation and Community. “We will look to something that feels a little bit broader in a good way, not in a lame way,” Salke says. “Every time I say broad, people jump on it, but now I think people are realizing that you shouldn’t shy away from things that people want to watch.” Salke says testing indicates that this includes Michael J. Fox, who NBC is counting on to drive huge sampling. His coming series, already picked up for 22 episodes, will be the centerpiece for a rejiggered comedy block that could include pilots like a Sean Hayes vehicle or About a Boy, based on the 2002 film. “I think we have some building stones to put together coming out of the DNA of what the Michael J. Fox show is and what we love about it, so I’m feeling good about building off that,” Salke says. Though CBS is blessed with the huge success of The Big Bang Theory, the network has so far failed to launch a new comedy out of the hit on Thursdays (this season, it settled for subbing in Two and a Half Men).

Though CBS has built its brand on multi-cam sitcoms, seven of its 12 new comedy pilots are singlecamera, increasing the chances that one—if it’s good—could get on the schedule, perhaps paired with the hybrid How I Met Your Mother.

And ABC, which as usual developed heavily toward family comedy, including projects starring James Caan and John Leguizamo, said it would not rule out young, female comedies despite the deaths of Happy Endings and Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 in a challenging time period this season. “We would look at how you better protect shows that are still young,” says Samie Falvey, senior VP of comedy development at ABC. That’s advice the network will have to use if it hopes to grow its three freshman comedies (The Neighbors, MalibuCountry, How to Live With Your Parents) if they return next season.

3. Reward Live Viewing

While network executives on the advertising side continue to push for C7 ratings, programmers are focused on how to maximize live viewing—short of shelling out big bucks for sports rights—in the interim.

“The biggest story line is whatever millennial behavior existed before now is across every demographic place,” Pedowitz says. “People watch when they want to watch it. Unfortunately you can’t get it measured. And that’s an old story line, unfortunately.”

One of the season’s biggest sophomore successes was ABC’s Scandal, which on April 25 matched its series-high 18-49 rating and topped its Grey’s Anatomy lead-in (at 10 p.m., no less). The network is taking note, hoping to apply the same creative lesson to country soap Nashville (which ranks among the biggest gainers in DVR viewing) if that show earns a second season.

“We’re looking to Scandal and how they’ve done a great job of making every week feel like an event,” says Channing Dungey, senior VP of drama development at ABC. “And if we can bring a little bit more of that to Nashville next season, it’s going to help us with those overnight numbers.”

As Twitter’s now-ubiquitous presence at the upfronts indicates, networks are also looking to the social media giant to be a virtual watercooler for live tune-in. For the March 25 episodes of Bones and The Following, Fox invited viewers to tweet during the broadcasts to win a chance at a walk-on role or a surprise gift. During American Idol, fans could vote via Twitter to pick a future show theme.

“We absolutely are trying to make live as rewarding as possible with second-screen experiences, with tweeting, with social media,” Earley says.

4. Set Shorter Series

If you can’t beat cable…well, join them. Broadcasters are learning that one way to compete with the cable networks for talent and eyeballs is to mimic their shorter, compact seasons, as Fox did in luring Kevin Bacon to The Following and CBS will do this summer with Stephen King’s Under the Dome.

The trend continues in next season’s development: NBC has ordered 10 episodes each of Dracula (with Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and pirate drama Crossbones (starring John Malkovich); the network is also hiring an executive to specifically pursue similar international coproductions and creative material. Fox has the 13-episode Cosmos in production for next season, and it has at least two scripted 10-to-12- episode limited series in development to start rolling out in summer 2014. The ABC thriller Reckless, about a man fighting to free his imprisoned wife by any means necessary, is also designed to be a limited series.

Underscoring the shift, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences last month reversed a decision to consolidate long-form Emmy acting categories, citing “the unanticipated resurgence of television miniseries and movies.” Besides the lure of hardware, short-order series are good options to plug holes in a schedule where reruns, in the age of Netflix and DVRs, no longer do the job. “Twenty-two episodes lasting 35 weeks—that used to work when there were three networks and people watched repeats,” Earley says. “That is not really working for today’s viewers with all the options that they have.”

E-mail comments to amorabito@nbmedia.com and follow her on Twitter: @andreamorabito