Upfronts 2017: Media Agency Execs Size Up 2017-18 Broadcast Shows – PART 2

This is Part 2 of a series in which media agency executives answer questions about the schedules announced by the broadcast networks at their recent upfront presentations. Part 1 appeared June 6.

Do media buyers think compelling shows are enough to keep TV viewers from defecting to digital? Can ABC’s revival of American Idol work? Can too much NFL negatively impact future network entertainment programming? Are there any potential breakout hits or break out stars for the new broadcast season?

On board to answer those questions about the upcoming broadcast season are Billie Gold, VP, director of programming research at Dentsu Aegis' Amplifi US; Brian Hughes, senior VP, audience analysis practice lead, Magna Global; and Dave Campanelli, senior VP, director of national broadcast, Horizon Media.

Upfronts 2017: Budgets Coming In; Ad Volume Could Be Lower

There has been some discussion within the industry that in order for the broadcast networks to continue to keep ad dollars from defecting to digital, they have to do more than just put on compelling hit shows. They need to offer better data, better ways to target audiences and do more to partner with marketers in the production of their programming. The networks are moving in that direction. What are your thoughts on this?

Gold: I truly believe the networks are trying to do everything within their power to bring the best shows they can to their airwaves That said, due to cost structure, most are trying to greenlight shows from their own studios, which is a little more restrictive but which they feel works out better for them in the long run. Also, many of the grittier, edgier shows are often offered to cable and OTT services first as they have a more lax structure and more flexible scheduling for the actors, while broadcast has more rules in place and has to deliver a broader audience base, which often limits the scope of their shows. The networks have data galore, and partner with marketers ever more frequently, so I think they've got that covered. Network shows for the most part still deliver the biggest audiences and reach, but competition is increasing with more original content coming to the market than ever before, creating greater and greater competition for eyeballs. It's just simple math, more choices equal more fragmentation. That said, we all know that live event programs still bring people together and the networks are increasingly trying to bring "live, social" events that have people talking to the airwaves.

Hughes: We’re happy with the direction and are working with our partners to further those efforts.

Campanelli: Networks need better data and more data. Data isn’t the solution to everything, buy layering data targeting on top of what TV does well—producing great content—makes the overall product even better. But the biggest thing “TV” needs to do is better buy and sell cross-screen to fully engage and reach the full potential audience that a network can deliver.

Related: What Makes Viewers Flock to Certain TV Shows and Keep Coming Back?

ABC is reviving American Idol and will bring it back in mid-season. Reports have said that Fox, NBC and CBS all had discussions with the show’s creators/producers and passed on it for various reasons, including the feeling that the timing was not right for its return and that it was too costly to be able to make a profit off of it. ABC obviously thought otherwise. How do you feel about the return of Idol? While it will no longer produce the mega-ratings it did in its heyday, can the singing competition series produce solid ratings numbers for ABC or will it struggle as it did in its waning years on Fox?

Gold: When American Idol was cancelled it had lost 25% of its audience over its last few seasons making its cost structure with fees and talent not viable to continue. Still, despite its ratings drop, most shows today aren't pulling in near the rating Idol was producing, especially in the coveted AD18-49 demographic. ABC has seen erosion the past couple of seasons, especially on Sunday nights (where Idol is proposed to go) and might have felt that the cost was worth it. This isn't a once a week show. There is usually a results show, audition shows, etc., all which can be used to launch other shows behind it, and serve as a promotion platform. It also has a big social component, which is a boon to any show. I don't believe ratings will pick up where they left off, but the show will likely still rate high for ABC and put it on the map on nights where they have seen erosion.

Hughes: This was honestly a real head-scratcher for me. It hasn’t been off the air very long, and is coming at a time when The Voice has really started to decline. My only thought is that it was a broad-appeal show, which could help give ABC a better male/female balance. In general, I don’t see audiences clamoring for its return, but perhaps ABC has a unique spin in mind.

Campanelli: I’m not privy to the production cost vs. revenue potential, but it was a question that I had as well. If it wasn’t working for Fox a few years ago, how will it be profitable now? But perhaps Disney can bring non TV assets to the table that will help them corporately monetize the show, such as Disney Radio and its Disney theme parks. American Idol and Fox also suffered from a bit of a narrative problem. Ratings were continually down year after year, so there was a narrative that the show was dead. But in reality, it still pulled a solid rating. One that would be a top 10 show now. And the fact that it is live is crucial as well. So, there are definitely good reasons to bring the show back.

NBC has said one of the reasons it is no longer going to move its hit drama series This is Us to Thursdays is because it will have to put the series on hold for the second half of the NFL season in November and December when it televises Thursday Night Football in primetime. The thinking is that it would be disruptive to the show's fans and could negatively impact audience levels once the series returns after football. This raises a question about the proliferation of live NFL telecasts in primetime. While football brings in larger audiences than scripted and unscripted entertainment programming, and even draws a fair amount of women, it could be pushing away other regular viewers. So the question is, is there too much NFL football in broadcast primetime, and could this be detrimental down the road if the football audience declines and the networks are faced with having to program three hours of new entertainment primetime shows—a problem ABC faced when it gave up Monday Night Football more than a decade ago?

Gold: While the numbers of hours dedicated to football on the prime schedule may be at an all-time high, there is a reason the networks have chosen to do so—it garners big ratings, is watched live in an environmental that is heavily time-shifted, and it's extremely social across platforms, a win for both the networks and advertisers. Sunday Night Football on NBC has been a staple for years but the five Thursday night games on CBS and NBC are a disruptive force to their fall schedules and the competition. With Thursday being highly desirable to retail, film and auto companies, having NFL on that night is worth the risk of shows being misplaced. That said, NBC made a very wise decision in moving their highly engaging top rated new series This Is Us from the night and back to Tuesday where it faces less high-rated competition (it also would have had to face ABC's last season of Scandal) and where viewers know where to find it. As for filling the vacancy of the NFL if a network loses rights for the Thursday night games, there's just five on each network and the fall schedule would return the way it used too but likely produce less ratings. Having said that, it's worth it for the "here and now" benefits the NFL brings (even now with slightly diminished ratings). As for NBC's Sunday Night Football, it will be a long time before they have to worry about that.

Hughes: Even with some erosion over the past couple of years, NFL still tends to draw higher ratings in prime than entertainment programming. And, the networks clearly view it as a prestige platform and a great promotional vehicle, otherwise they wouldn’t be willing to lose money on it year after year (the rights fees well exceed ad revenues). So I don’t expect it will be going anywhere. That being said, competition for the rights could get interesting in years to come, particularly if there is continued loss of ratings and media companies begin to challenge the price.

Campanelli: The ratings that the NFL delivers—and the promotional platform it provides to networks—far outweigh any of the scheduling challenges it presents. Even after the ratings drop-off it experienced last year, the NFL is still among the top rated programs on TV. There may be “too much NFL," but only from the perspective of the NFL stretching itself too thin. The networks would want more of it if they could get it.

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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: I am going to go with ABC's The Mayor. The reason—it's a really good show, despite the fact that it might not have as wide an appeal as most broadcast comedies. It's paired with black-ish, which is a good fit, and if people give it chance they might actually like it.

Hughes: There seems to be some skepticism about CW’s Dynasty reboot. I think it is so over-the-top that it just may work.

Campanelli: I thought Ghosted on Fox was the funniest pilot of the season.

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

Gold: Unlike last year where everyone pretty much knew that This Is Us (NBC) and Designated Survivor (Fox) were going to be potential breakouts, I haven't seen that one special show yet this season. Still I thought that ABC's new Monday drama The Good Doctor looked promising and think its star, Freddie Highmore, along with The Mayor's Brandon Michael Hall both stood out in their respective shows. Thanks to its auspices and comfy time period following The Big Bang Theory, Young Sheldon and its star Iain Armitage will likely get a lot of coverage as well.

Hughes: It’s probably the most obvious answer, but CBS’s Young Sheldon seems like a lock, given its Big Bang pedigree and the appeal of its young star.

Campanelli: If I knew that I’d be making a lot of money in Hollywood right now!