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MBPT Spotlight: Were Those Upfront Moves Good Ones? Media Agency Execs Weigh In (Part One)

The broadcast networks announced their new fall schedules at upfront presentations recently, and as is the case every year at this time, everyone has an opinion on those new shows and the ways each network will try to draw in more viewers for the new season. But as usual, one thing of paramount importance to the networks is what the media agencies think, and what advice they give to their marketer clients who are in the process of spending billions on commercial time during the buying process currently underway.

MBPT gathered four veteran media agency programming research executives and tossed 10 questions at them based on some of the key network moves. The execs are: Brian Hughes, senior VP, audience analysis, MagnaGlobal; Sam Armando, senior VP and director, SMGx Strategic Intelligence; Billie Gold, VP, director of buying/programming research at Carat; and Brad Adgate, senior VP, director of research, Horizon Media.

Five questions are addressed by the panel in Tuesday’s MBPT Spotlight. You can read the remaining five questions in Wednesday’s Spotlight.

NBC is moving The Blacklist to Thursday night after Thursday Night Football ends on CBS. Clearly the network is doing this to try to capture some of the pre-weekend ad revenue on that night. But how will The Blacklist, which has benefited from leading out of The Voice on Monday night this past season, hold up on its own vs. ABC’s Scandal on Thursday in a head-to-head battle?

Brian Hughes: We expect it to lose a little of its potency with the increased competition, but I don’t think it will suffer the same fate as Revolution did for NBC after losing The Voice lead-in when it was moved. Blacklist has aired a couple of times on its own this year and held up reasonably well. Certainly it’s a risk, but I think NBC is giving it every opportunity to succeed by having the first part of a two-episode arc after the Super Bowl, and the conclusion in its new time period a few days later.

Sam Armando: An audience drop-off for The Blacklist can be expected due to The Voice not being behind it and tougher competition. Clearly, however, the show is stronger than Revolution, which was incorrectly considered strong enough to survive on its own when NBC moved it from leading out of The Voice.The Blacklist remained strong between the two cycles of The Voice this season, something that Revolution was unable to do last season. The final grade will not be determined until we see how The Blacklist performs, but making this move is a smart thing to do. The preseason hype of The Blacklist vs. Scandal is a little misleading, however. When The Blacklist premieres on Thursday [Feb. 5], it will likely be during Scandal’s “winter break,” meaning this head-to-head competition will not occur until late March. A lot can happen between now and then.

Brad Adgate: I think NBC’s goal is to move The Blacklist to Thursday night to strengthen the evening. In all likelihood there could be a ratings fall-off for the show but the night should improve from last year’s comedy block. The show should be stronger than last year’s Revolution, which aired after The Voice in 2012-13 and then was moved to Wednesday this season and has since been canceled.

Billie Gold: This is a risky move for NBC. It will certainly help draw viewers to a lucrative night that the Peacock desperately needs to rebuild, but The Blacklist has always had the advantage of a huge Voice lead-in and as of this date its new Thursday lead-in has yet to be determined. If there’s not a strong lead-in, The Blacklist will have to not only face a growing Scandal on ABC, but a weakened base going into it. And while well-established shows can often stand on their own in a DVR world, there’s always a risk of loss of audience in a competitive time period. As to who will win the 9 p.m. slot, well, that’s one of the biggest battles we foresee. The Blacklist will definitely have the advantage coming off a two-part post-Super Bowl stint, but for the long haul, without knowing what The Blacklist will have as its lead-in, we see Scandal with a very slight edge when viewed live. However, The Blacklist might surpass it when all viewing is counted in.

The CW continues to put on more sci-fi and superhero-themed series, which has basically aged the network up in median age and also drawn in more men. Is this focus on one type of programming genre a smart move? And are the days over when a broadcast network can target just one demo like the WB and then The CW did initially by targeting young women?

Hughes: I think it’s a shift toward what is working more than a move away from being a targeted network. After all, you can make the argument that having a lineup comprised almost entirely of action and sci-fi is targeted in and of itself. Whether it will continue to move CW in the direction it wants to go remains to be seen.

Armando: To live as a broadcast network and try to increase overall ratings, a network must program to reach a more broad audience. If only a narrow demo is targeted, the ratings will remain narrow and the well of advertisers looking for that specific demo will run dry. Soon, the network will likely have to expand and that is what CW has done. CW is fine with aging up a bit and they realize it is difficult to do so without alienating some of your core. Its male 18-34 audience has elevated, but women 18-34, and as a result adults 18-34, have declined. To help swallow that pill, CW has larger adult 18-49, women 18-49 and men 18-49 audiences—a trade-off they appear willing to make. Remember, while the superhero-themed shows will bring in men, programs like The Originals skew very heavy female.

Adgate: TV is getting older whether the program types are young or not, so you may as well target a slightly older viewer since they watch more TV. I think the network has become more dual audience, which also helps attract viewers as opposed to Gossip Girl and The Carrie Diaries.

Gold: I think this is a smart move for The CW as it is broadening its base with both viewers and advertisers. True, its focus is leaning more heavily on the superhero genre and bringing in a greater core of men which is working for them, but these shows also draw in women and it provides the fledgling network with a greater audience of which to build new shows from. This season, besides adding superheroes such as The Flash, The CW is also taking a big leap with Jane The Virgin, based on a Spanish soap, which is certainly female-centric. That move shows that the network is trying to broaden its base in many directions.

CBS is doing a safe thing by continuing to introduce new spinoffs of its most successful series—this coming season bringing on NCIS: New Orleans and CSI: Cyber. But in the long run, is this a smart move or should the network be moving into other directions in drama? Could audiences suddenly wake up one day and just tire of these series and defect, leaving the network with several holes instead of just a few in their schedule?

Hughes: It was a bit of a surprise, because the network seemed to be phasing out its spinoffs over the past few years. NCIS: LA is the only one left at present now that CSI: Miami and CSI: NY are gone. I actually don’t think it’s a safe move at all; it’s risky, for exactly the reasons you describe. Shaking things up is what has worked recently for networks: Just look at NBC.

Armando: Some can argue that CBS has, in the past, moved in another direction in drama—they were called Hostages, Made in Jersey and Vegas. Meanwhile, shows that have worked have all had the crime element CBS has been known—and criticized—for. After a year that had its ratings drop, there is nothing wrong with going to what has worked. In the end, these shows may not win Emmys, but can produce a consistent audience week-to-week. That security, while not spectacular, allows for some testing of shows like Scorpion

Adgate: CBS did introduce a slate of dramas that are a little different but within the genre of crime like Battle Creek, Madam Secretary, Scorpion and Stalker, so I thought they did mix their traditional procedurals with newer serialized crime. I don’t think viewers will tire of the procedural genre, the viewers will just get older and the question is: Will younger viewers begin to watch these new shows?

Gold: I think this is a safe move for now but I agree that this could possibly hurt them in the long run. CBS saw losses this season that they hadn’t seen in years and going with the tried and true gives them the best chance of succeeding with their new rooster of shows. They have the most solid schedule of any network, but it is starting to show some small cracks and they know they need new solid franchises, which their core audience is comfortable with. I understand their philosophy but they also need to take some risks and I think they did this season with shows such as Scorpion,Stalker and Madam Secretary. We may shake our heads at all the spinoffs but maybe it’s what the CBS audience actually wants.

What are your impressions of some of the broadcast networks making efforts to put on more programming with primarily African-American casts such as Fox’s Empire and ABC’s Black-ish or primarily Hispanic casts such as ABC’s Cristela? Although they’ve been criticized for not offering enough programming with ethnic casts, it seems like past attempts by the broadcast networks to do so have not worked out from a ratings standpoint. Do you think these series will draw more minority viewers this time around?

Hughes: I don’t necessarily agree that multicultural series haven’t worked—I just don’t think we’ve seen many on broadcast recently. My Wife and Kids and George Lopez had healthy runs on ABC in the past, and The Game was completely revitalized when it moved from CW to BET. It’s refreshing—and frankly, smart—to see more on the docket for next season, as these are vibrant and highly social audiences.

Armando: While many have not been huge rating hits, past attempts by broadcast networks have worked. Some shows that come to mind include George Lopez, My Wife and Kids,Ugly Betty and even way back to The Cosby Show. The consistent thread throughout these shows is that the content was good and appealed to all audiences, not just the minority viewers that made up the majority of the cast. May sound like a broken record, but success will ultimately be determined on the quality of the show, not the ethnicity of the cast. 

Adgate: Younger viewers are more ethnically diverse than older viewers so if you want younger viewers today, adding series that have casts that reflect ethnic diversity makes sense. I think they will draw more minority viewers, but for these shows to be hits they will need to cut across all segments of ethnicity like The Cosby Show did in the 1980s.

Gold: Having grown up with shows such as The Jeffersons, Sanford & Son and Chico and the Man, it’s great to see the networks embracing the changing ethnicity of the TV audience. Of course many attempts have been made in the past with little success, but maybe networks feel that they now have the right formula. Black-ish looked really promising and it will appeal to both white and African-American audiences. Cristela and Off the Boat looked somewhat less promising but I applaud ABC’s efforts. The difference this time around is that I don’t think the networks are targeting each specific ethnicity by their shows, but what we think of each ethnicity in a humorous way. That may be a winning formula. Empire is a bit different but it will follow American Idol and be about the music industry…which crosses all ethnicities even if it has a predominately African-American cast. Whether these shows make it or not, their time has certainly come.

Several new series for the fall have stars returning to the same network where shows they previously starred in were not brought back. Dylan McDermott starred in Hostages on CBS this past season and Debra Messing starred in Smash on NBC a few seasons back. Does past history of a new show’s stars matter or do viewers judge a series and its stars based on the current story line and performances with no bias from the past?

Hughes: My friend and mentor Steve Sternberg always said, “Stars don’t make shows, shows make stars,” and I believe that. I think any bias on the part of viewers can be quickly overcome by a well-crafted show with good performances.

Armando: I believe that a majority of the time, a series is judged on its current story line, but with that said, there are some actors that struggle to move beyond past work. One just has to look at the sitcom Dharma and Greg where Jenna Elfman has not been embraced in future roles, but Thomas Gibson transitioned very nicely into Criminal Minds. In both of the examples provided, the characters these actors are playing do not deviate too much from past on-screen personalities. Therefore, I think viewers will accept them in their roles but we’ll see if the show itself is accepted. 

Adgate: I don’t think past history matters—Carroll O’Connor, Dick Van Dyke and Andy Griffith each played the most iconic roles possible on television and were later able to star in another successful series. If these actors and actresses are in a good show with a good role, who cares?

Gold: I have to admit that I was surprised when I saw that Dylan McDermott was back on CBS in another eerie dark drama—Stalker—right after he was in the failed Hostages last season. We of course as industry people remember it clearly and I believe viewers will say, “Hey, wasn’t he in that other show…” It’s a risk but I guess he’s a good-looking, well-known actor whom the network feels is a draw. I thought it was somewhat risky. I probably would have skipped a season and then put it on because the failed Hostages could possibly have a negative impact on this show as people relate the two. The same might be said for Debra Messing, but she is at least playing a different type of character. For me, I think it’s not a smart idea in general, although I think most viewers will easily forget and give in if the show is a great show.