Trump, Netflix and NFL Ratings: 5 Pressing Questions for TV Execs

With top programmers passing on January's Television Critics Association panels, THR poses (and answers) the toughest quandaries of the fall season.
Illustration by Matt Collins
From left: Channing Dungey, Ted Sarandos and Bob Greenblatt have torn up their TCA invites.

President-elect Donald Trump isn't the only public figure dodging press pools these days. In an unprecedented move, top media executives revealed Nov. 29 that they are turning their backs on the Television Critics Association — the ramshackle body of critics and journalists that meets twice annually in L.A. The biggest news generators during each two-week parade of talent and suits typically are the executive sessions. But three of the Big Four chiefs backed out of the firing-squad pressers for January's meet-up — after initially passing, Fox now will participate — and Starz's Chris Albrecht and Netflix's Ted Sarandos pulled their outlets completely. It's a blow to the organization and to journalists eager to hear top brass sound off about linear ratings fatigue, election aftermath and the evolution of the industry.

But just because NBC's Bob Greenblatt, CBS' Glenn Geller and ABC's Channing Dungey won't answer questions doesn't mean THR won't ask them. As the slimmed-down TCA tour approaches, the following are TV's most pressing concerns.

Where are the broadcast hits?

Season-to-date ratings are down across the board at the Big Five nets, more than 15 percent at CBS and ABC. But zero new series have been canceled or pulled. (Instead, several shows have run out their original episode orders.) How can those two facts be reconciled?

"The networks are smarter, or at least richer with information, than a lot of us give them credit for," says David Campanelli of Horizon Media, noting multiplatform views finally are resonating with advertisers. "Saying a network is 'down' is almost meaningless now." But if the linear fatigue is not cause for concern, the absence of buzz is. Only NBC's This Is Us achieved true hit status among the freshman crop, and ABC's Designated Survivor and Fox's Lethal Weapon are the only other newcomers that have media buyers excited. Adds Campanelli of fall's most watched new series, pulling 18 million viewers on CBS: "No one in advertising is saying, 'Oh, I've got to be in Bull.' "

What will TV look like in the Trump era?

With development season essentially wrapped before the election, the broadcast networks won't be able to veer far from the broad-skewing procedurals, soaps and family comedies dominating their slates. So how do they plan to appeal to newly ascendant red state viewers? "I don't think you can develop in a reactive way," Fox TV Group chairman and CEO Dana Walden recently told THR. "And I don't think we can glean from the events of the election any sort of appetite in the country for certain content." But Walden's view isn't shared everywhere. Dungey signaled a potential change of course during a Dec. 2 event in London, where she admitted her network hasn't paid enough attention to "the true realities of what life is like for everyday Americans."

How deep are Netflix's pockets?

Netflix spent an astounding $6 billion on original series in 2016, and Sarandos says that's just the beginning. The "Peak TV" era may see scripted output top 500 U.S. series in 2017, so how much more money can the streamer possibly spend? That might depend on how much competitors are willing to pony up. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and David O. Russell are both getting north of $8 million an episode at Amazon for series many would have assumed would go to Netflix, where $40 million is now the price tag for just two Chris Rock comedy specials. "It doesn't appear they're gaining much traction against all that spending," Sarandos said Dec. 5, taking a little shot at Amazon and its recent moves. Adds one lit agent (rather hopefully): "It's pricing out the competition; that's the intent. I think we'll see spending continue to go higher."

Where does that leave cable?

There's no Westworld victory lap for Casey Bloys. The new HBO chief likely won't have season two until 2018, and his bench is looking relatively sparse these days — as is Showtime's. The latter saw the demise of Masters of Sex, House of Lies, Penny Dreadful and Roadies in 2016. Comparatively smaller catalogs in a bull market are a source of concern as both become increasingly reliant on building libraries for OTT platforms.

Are NFL ratings of real concern?

As the lackluster 2016 football season enters its final month, the most talked-about issue affecting the sport still is its dipping ratings. Reports that the NFL, in response to fears of oversaturation, is considering ditching Thursday Night Football — contracted to air on CBS, NBC and the league's cable net for at least another year — were followed by stern denials and then an all-time audience high (22 million viewers) for the Dec. 1 game. Still, with Sunday's primetime telecasts off nearly 20 percent for the year, many already are wondering if Fox's Feb. 5 Super Bowl broadcast will take a hit. Says Campanelli: "We definitely have seen better numbers since the election. But the biggest driver is getting more great matchups."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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