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MBPT Spotlight: For ABC and CBS It’s Upfront Déjà Vu: ABC Takes Some Risks, CBS Plays It Safe

It’s pretty much déjà vu for both CBS and ABC entering into this year’s primetime upfront selling season, with CBS again the most stable of the broadcast networks and ABC somewhat in flux.

ABC is looking for an overall boost in viewers and ratings; media buyers wonder if its new programming will be able to generate that.

Initial reviews by buyers find them liking more of the CBS new fall shows than they do those of ABC, although CBS has some detractors as well.

What will help CBS enormously this fall is its adding of Thursday night NFL games to the schedule, which will allow the network to hold most of its regular Thursday night entertainment lineup till Oct. 23, meaning more first-run episodes and virtually no repeats during the season.

It will move juggernaut Thursday sitcom The Big Bang Theory to Monday nights at 8 p.m. during Thursday Night Football, but then move it back once football completes its run. While CBS scored a solid Thursday night this season in both viewers and in the 18-49 demo, the NFL games could bring around 20 million viewers and a 7.0 18-49 rating each Thursday, a dream audience for retailers, movie companies and auto dealers wanting to reach those weekend consumers. In this case, the strong get stronger.

Actually, Thursday night could turn out to be ABC’s strongest night. The network might even fall into place behind CBS in the 18-49 demo race with the addition of a third Shonda Rhimes drama on the night—How to Get Away with Murder at 10 p.m.

Of all the new programming on the two networks, ABC’s new Rhimes-created drama, which stars two-time Oscar nominee Viola Davis as a law professor, generated the most buzz ABC buzz by media buyers.

ABC’s decision to move Rhimes’ other Thursday dramas—Grey’s Anatomy to 8 p.m. from 9 p.m. and Scandal up from 10 to 9—to accommodate How to Get Away with Murder at 10 p.m. gives the network not only a solid night of 18-49 viewership, but good counter-programming to the more male-oriented CBS NFL games. Both Grey’s and Scandal are watched by large numbers of female viewers, and it is expected that Davis will also develop a strong female following at 10 p.m.

Beyond ‘Murder’

But beyond How to Get Away with Murder, most buyers in a random poll don’t see any big-time hits among ABC’s new shows. Buyers were quick to give the network plaudits for putting on sitcoms with ethnic-diverse casts such as Black-ish and Cristela, but aren’t sure how well they’ll work. Of the two, buyers give Black-ish the better chance of scoring a large audience leading out of the network’s most watched sitcom Modern Family. Black-ish stars Anthony Anderson as a successful family man living in the white suburbs whose dad (Laurence Fishburne) believes he has assimilated too much and has lost his cultural identity.

Cristela is about a Mexican-American law school student who’s trying to embrace a professional career while battling with her family that’s fostering a more old-school family lifestyle. Buyers believe ABC did no favors to this series by scheduling it on Friday at 8:30 p.m. leading out of the Tim Allen comedy Last Man Standing. The lead-in draws a heavier male audience, while Cristela appears to be targeting more women.

ABC also has another new sitcom not on the fall schedule called Fresh Off the Boat, about an 11-year-old hip-hop-loving Asian kid who moves with his immigrant family from D.C.’s Chinatown to suburban Orlando, and the culture shock that ensues. Some buyers believe rather than be funny it could be offensive to the Asian community, although there were similar concerns about offending viewers when Modern Family came on the air. Time will tell.

This season, ABC tried to establish an all-new Tuesday night of programming and it did not work well at all. For next season, it is returning only Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on the night. ABC is opening the night with two sitcoms, Selfie, which several buyers said might be the first series canceled, and Manhattan Love Story. That these two-female-skewing comedies will open the night from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. and lead into heavy male-skewing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had buyers scratching their heads about ABC’s thought process.

Said one buyer, “Lead-ins are not as important as they once were, and because of the audiences being so fragmented, viewers can jump from network to network to find shows, but the CBS dramas have shown that lead-ins can’t be dismissed either.”

Overall, ABC will be offering 12 new series next season, compared to 13 new series this season. ABC’s best bet for midseason success, several buyers believe, is drama Secrets and Lies, starring Ryan Phillippe as a Good Samaritan who becomes a murder suspect and then tries to clear his name.

At the other end of the spectrum, media buyers believe midseason medieval musical comedy series Galavant does not have much chance for success.

One media buyer at a large spending agency said of ABC’s decision to put on Galavant, “What are they thinking? Have they lost their minds?” That same buyer added, “For the most part, ABC is doing what they always do, making too many attempts at breakthrough concepts that have less of a chance of being accepted by viewers.”

Consistent Eye View

About CBS, the same buyer said, “Everything CBS is putting on its schedule is consistent with the type of programming it already has on. It might be more of the same, but many of the CBS shows are working so in that sense it is a positive.”

CBS is introducing four new dramas and one new sitcom this fall. One of its safest appears to be NCIS:New Orleans, leading out of NCIS on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. NCIS is the most-watched broadcast drama on television, so leading out a spinoff makes sense. Thing is, some buyers are not sure it’s going to be the hit that NCIS is, or even previous lead-out NCIS: Los Angeles, which will move to Mondays at 10 p.m.

A lot of the success of NCIS: New Orleans will depend on the performance of series star Scott Bakula, buyers believe, and some are not sure he will compete at the same levels NCIS star Mark Harmon or NCIS: Los Angeles costars LL Cool J and Chris O’Donnell. But from a scheduling point of view, no buyer was knocking its location.

Another new drama series with a solid lead-in is Stalker at 10 p.m. on Wednesday leading out of Criminal Minds. CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler said, “We’ve been trying for years to find a great companion piece for Criminal Minds. We’ve finally found it. This is the scariest show we’ve ever done.”

Stalker stars Maggie Q and Dylan McDermott as detectives who investigate stalking incidents including voyeurism, cyber harassment and romantic fixation. Criminal Minds has a sizable female viewership and Stalker should benefit from leading out of it.

CBS is introducing a companion series to The Good Wife on Sunday at 8 p.m. in Madam Secretary, which stars Téa Leoni as a newly appointed Secretary of State. It will have a similar sensibility to The GoodWife, with Leoni’s character dealing with both on-the-job and at-home issues. Like The Good Wife, Madam Secretary is a female-skewing series that is counter-programming to NBC’s Sunday NightFootball.

CBS will also roll out another CSI spinoff—CSI: Cyber—after the original CSI, moved to Sunday nights at 10, ends its run. No clips were shown of that series.

CBS’ most out-of-the-box move will be on Monday nights, when it airs a new dramedy, Scorpion, at 9, between sitcoms The Big Bang Theory and Mom (8-9 p.m.) and NCIS: Los Angeles (10 p.m.) 

Buyers seem to like the chances of Scorpion and believe it’s compatible with NCIS: LA, but wonder about it leading out of the two female-skewing sitcoms, particularly Mom.

The Tests of Time

Scorpion is based on a true story about an eccentric young genius and his team of intelligent misfits who are able to diffuse high tech threats against the country. The series mixes action with humor and David Poltrack, who heads research for CBS, said in testing, the series scored very high in the humor area among viewers and all the millennial cast members were deemed very likable. “Our determination was it will be a great family show,” Poltrack said.

More than one media buyer recalled when the original CSI: Crime Scene Investigation series premiered on CBS on a Friday night in 2000 and was not given much of a chance to succeed. This fall it will begin its 15th season. Buyers were not saying Scorpion would be the next CSI but said you can’t count out a series like that, particularly with an ensemble cast of millennials that could draw a younger audience to CBS.

The one series that media buyers panned was the lone new CBS comedy, The McCarthys. The series, which is based around a Boston family, does have a solid time period, on Thursday night at 9:30 leading out of Two and a Half Men, but The Crazy Ones with Robin Williams had a good time period on Thursday night this season and couldn’t survive. For the record, many buyers did not think sitcom Mom would succeed this season on Monday nights and it is returning. However, the standards for Thursday night sitcoms, because it’s a more highly desired advertising night, are higher.

While buyers generally like the CBS shows, one buyer in particular was miffed that the network made no mention of digital during its presentation. “All they focused on was linear TV,” the buyer said. “Obviously in the upfront we are going to be looking to be buying beyond linear TV but CBS said nothing about digital which will be an important part of our discussions.”