TV Upfronts: 4 Big Takeaways From the Presentations
With the dog-and-pony show now over, THR assesses the big trends, including cable plays, more big events and a comedy do-over.
The broadcast network upfront week was filled with big stars, new models and plenty of chest thumping about broadcast dominance -- even as all of the networks were down year-over-year in the target demographics that those advertisers gathered are looking to capture.
With a mix of splashy presentations (see CBS) and muted affairs (NBC), there was much to digest as the five broadcast networks trotted out trailers for nearly all of the 52 scripted series orders. In addition to that push for more content -- to fill holes, avoid repeats and stay relevant in an increasingly crowded landscape -- here are four major takeaways from the week-long dog-and-pony show.
How lackluster was comedy development last season? Only two freshman laughers earned second-season orders: Fox’s The Mindy Project and ABC’s The Neighbors. Neither are hits, and the latter will be relegated to Fridays next season. So this year, the Big Four broadcast networks have made a concerted push to refill their barren comedy coffers, ordering 21 half-hours between them -- up from 16 the year before. The renewed comedy push comes as multiple long-running series have ended (The Office, 30 Rock), or will end (How I Met Your Mother enters its final season in the fall).
CBS will add Will Arnett’s The Millers and Robin Williams’ The Crazy Ones to a packed Thursday, while NBC reloads the lucrative night with Welcome to the Family, Sean Saves the World and The Michael J. Fox Show. ABC will again attempt to field comedies on Tuesdays with The Goldbergs and Trophy Wife, while Rebel Wilson’s Super Fun Night gets the plum post-Modern Family slot on Wednesdays. Fox will look to Tuesdays, a night formerly devoted to funny ladies, to draw male viewers with Seth MacFarlane’s Dads and Andy Samberg’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, relegating Raising Hope to Fridays next season with buddy comedy Enlisted.
More than simply hole-fillers, comedies have the ability to hit biggest when they do land (see Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory). But with so many new ones on the schedule, there is an open question as to how many of them will be able to garner the kind of marketing necessary to cut through. Also of concern: whether they’ll be granted the patience necessary to find an audience. “It’s so much harder to break out and get some traction,” says Universal Television executive vp Bela Bajaria. “But as it gets harder you need more patience, not less.”
A time-shifted television universe has made live ratings points ever more elusive, which is one reason sports received top-billing at upfront presentations for CBS, Fox (which has the Super Bowl next season) and ratings-challenged NBC (which relies heavily on Sunday Night Football). But networks are also looking to event television as an alternative DVR buster. Fox, for instance, made a big deal of its limited series push, noting that it will revive 24 as a 12-episode limited series, and will add M. Night Shyamalan’s Wayward Pines, starring Matt Dillon.
On the series drama side, there’s a concerted push for noisier fare, with heavily serialized series including CBS’ Hostages, NBC’s James Spader-starrer The Blacklist and the CW’s period piece Reign heading to the fall schedule. To hear 20th Century Fox Television chairman Dana Walden tell it, there are now highly appealing revenue streams that didn’t used to exist in any meaningful way for such fare. In addition to SVOD, she says, “the international market has proven that for the right show, something that feels like an event, there’s a lot of money to be made in that area of our business.”
ABC Studios’ senior vp creative development Patrick Moran suggests that the preponderance of hit shows on cable has pushed broadcast drama in a louder, arguably more ambitious direction. “In this spirit of how can we be competitive with cable, in particular, I think that there’s an expectation from the audience that shows need to be noisier and more innovative,” he says, adding that the challenge that comes with that is sustainability. As he sees it, the reason that networks have historically relied on the cop show, the medical show or the doctor show is because those franchises sustain themselves as series. “When you think about these left-of-center ideas, sustainability is always the very first question," he adds. "There were a few trailers that looked very interesting, but [what happens] week seven or year two were a little bit of a head scratcher.”
New Reality, New Models
The new reality of viewer curated schedules, cable’s summer high season and streaming-enabled binge viewing may have finally upended the rigid broadcast schedule. Network executives have for some time been paying lip service to the need for more original content on a year-round basis. But the declining value of repeats has forced them to put their money where their mouths have been. In fact, the entry that drew the most buzz at Fox, 24, won't even launch until May, once the traditional season is complete.
ABC’s Paul Lee, whose network will round out the season in fourth place, spoke of breaking up his more serialized series into uninterrupted batches, with limited series filling the gaps, and a plan to keep some of his most promising product as far away from the September glut as possible. To that end, CW will stick with an October launch for new series, enabling fewer repeats and a tighter schedule. And Fox, which must program around baseball in the fall, plans to stagger its premieres, with Gang Related likely being paired with 24 in May to give the network fresh content leading into the summer.
Even CBS is capitulating to the shorter episode order trend made popular in cable with Jerry Bruckheimer’s Hostages running 15 episodes in the fall. It’s a model that is attractive to A-list actors wary of committing to from 22 to 24 episodes. It’s why Kevin Bacon agreed to do The Following, and why Greg Kinnear will star in new Fox drama Rake. “To get that level of talent you have to be willing to program competitively and I think that’s why you’re seeing more openness,” notes Bajaria, whose studio has Jonathan Rhys Meyers and John Malkovich in limited series Dracula and Crossbones, respectively. CBS will slot in the CBS Studios co-production Intelligence -- a thriller starring Lost alum Josh Holloway -- after Hostages wraps its 15-episode run Mondays at 10 p.m. “It’s obviously incumbent on all the networks to figure out how to do less repeats and more originals," says CBS TV Studios president David Stapf. "The idea of time-period sharing does make sense, particularly if you have a strong serialized show.”
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In years past, a handful of cable networks would elbow their way into broadcast week to extol the virtues of cable over broadcast. But as the landscape continues to shift with such series as The Walking Dead, Duck Dynasty and History miniseries The Bible out-rating broadcast rivals, the tone of the broadcasters' upfront message has shifted as well. Executives including Fox’s Kevin Reilly and CBS’ Leslie Moonves did not simply plug their networks -- they attempted to diminish the value of cable as well.
Reilly, whose once top-rated network plummeted 22 percent in primetime ratings this season, trotted out a series of broadcast-friendly stats, noting that of the 1,050 original series on television, only four of the top 50 are on cable. (He did not mention that that No. 1 is AMC’s Walking Dead.) Moonves, long broadcast’s biggest cheerleader, followed two days later with further talk of broadcast’s reach. “Broadcast [TV] is not an old medium being left behind by new ones,” he said from the Carnegie Hall stage. “Far from it. We’re at the center of it all … a media landscape that would be barren without us.”