TV Upfronts Preview: Small Ad Gains, Big Pressure
NBC desperately seeks comedy, Fox hopes to fix "Idol" fatigue, CBS reboots "NCIS" and "CSI," and ABC leans on Shonda Rhimes (again) as the $9 billion ad scramble hits New York.
A version of this story first appeared in the May 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The upfront narrative this year will likely be proliferation — of platforms, original content options and delivery systems. And the dizzying array of content choices is diluting the more than $9 billion in upfront dollars that the five English-language broadcast networks divvy up each year as they unload up to 80 percent of their inventory for the coming season. Analysts predict another year of modest gains for broadcasters, which brought in less than $9.2 billion last season (cable took in $10.2 billion), with buyers allocating more money to highly targeted niche players and streaming services that let viewers set their own schedules. "People have more control now than they ever had before and they're using it," says Cindy McKenzie, managing director in PricewaterhouseCoopers' U.S. Entertainment, Media and Communications practice. "And we're still as an industry making decisions based on rules that aren't in play. The market is still there but it's not growing."
Where it stands: NBC is poised to win the season in the 18-49 demo, and by a handsome 12 percent, for the first time in 10 years. The network is alone among broadcast's Big Four to post gains in the desirable 18-49 demo, and it's not all because of the Sochi Winter Olympics. NBC has fielded the top new show of the season in the James Spader drama The Blacklist while Chicago PD is easily besting ABC's Nashville Wednesday nights at 10 and is creeping up on CBS' aging CSI. The Voice is still a top-rated show even if it is down 10 percent, and season-seven coaches Gwen Stefani and Pharrell Williams are generating buzz. Meanwhile, the network's smooth late-night transition (who would have thought "smooth" and "late-night transition" would ever appear together in a sentence describing NBC?) has rejuvenated the daypart and may have even hastened the retirement of late-night icon David Letterman. "We are going into the upfront with the strongest position that we've had in a decade," NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke told Wall Street analysts during the company's first-quarter earnings call on April 22.
New shows: NBC's aggressive programming acquisitions include a slew of projects fronted by familiar females, Katherine Heigl comeback drama State of Affairs, Debra Messing's Mysteries of Laura and Kate Walsh comedy Bad Judge included. David Goyer's DC Comics adaptation Constantine gives the network another dose of genre, and A to Z helps fill the void left by another anemic season for comedy.
Best Bet: With its formerly "Must-See TV" Thursday block dragging down the otherwise rejuvenated Peacock, NBC is in desperate need of a comedy hit. Marry Me, from Happy Endings creator David Caspe, could be it. One of the most buzzed-about pilots this season stars Casey Wilson and Ken Marino as a happy couple that just can't make it down the aisle.
Where it stands: Fox's fortunes have been inextricably linked to American Idol for over a decade, but now that the singing competition that launched the genre in the U.S. is well beyond showing its first signs of age (it was regularly trounced by CBS' Survivor and Criminal Minds this season), the network's weaknesses are even more apparent. Only one freshman comedy — Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the surprise winner at the Golden Globe Awards — will return next season. And drama Sleepy Hollow, which has performed well for Fox on Monday night, is an exception among this past season's DOA hours. There was a time when Fox could put a test pattern behind Idol and it would pull a number. No more. The show could not help freshmen series Surviving Jack and Rake.
"It gets kind of beat up now — as it should because it's tanking — but it had a hell of run as the No. 1 show on TV for a long time," says Dave Campanelli, senior vp and director of national broadcast at Horizon Media. Still, Idol's premium CPM (cost per thousand viewers) rates are baked in. "I don't think you'll see a huge drop in CPMs. It's hard to roll that back," adds Campanelli. "But unit costs will fluctuate with ratings estimates."
However, the Super Bowl — which set another ratings record with more than 111 million viewers — and the NFC championship game (56 million watched the Seahawks defeat the 49ers) have ameliorated the downturn, keeping Fox even with its year-ago 18-49 primetime averages despite the damage to its flagship series.
New shows: With entertainment chief Kevin Reilly now largely sidestepping pilot season — he proclaimed its demise back in January — many of Fox's 2014-15 season additions were announced months ago. New orders include the expected high sign for Batman prequel series Gotham, while Lee Daniels' hip-hop drama Empire and Octavia Spencer vehicle Red Band Society show a marked interest in diversity.
Best Bet: Comic books are favorite source material this season, and Fox has one of the biggest swings with Batman prequel Gotham starring Ben McKenzie.
Where it stands: After triumphantly taking the 18-49 crown for the last two seasons — which let CBS execs bat away the "old" moniker — the network now finds itself in third in the advertiser-coveted demo behind NBC and Fox. The latter two have sports to buoy their numbers. Strip out CBS' 2013 Super Bowl, and the net is down double digits among younger viewers. CBS has picked up second seasons of Chuck Lorre's Mom and The Millers, but neither are breakout hits, and multiple shows bombed: We Are Men, Bad Teacher, Hostages, Intelligence. And few to none of the net's surviving rookie series scream "long-term franchise potential" like, say, the departed How I Met Your Mother. That loss is especially tough. The network's No. 2 show also launched its entire Monday block, which is now in even more of a tailspin without a strong 8 p.m. anchor. Still, there's always Thursday night — the juggernaut that is The Big Bang Theory has masked many ills, and next season CBS will give the comedy a delayed start to make room for Thursday Night Football.
As usual, CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves has assumed a posture of certainty. "I feel confident saying right now that we will lead the marketplace in pricing and volume," he said during a conference call with investors last February. But tellingly broadcast's biggest cheerleader declined to issue his usual pricing increase proclamation: "I'm not going to make any exact predictions just yet."
New shows: Among the network's scant new series orders — CBS annually boasts broadcast's largest returning roster on the Big Four — are Kevin Williamson thriller Stalker, Tea Leoni vehicle Madam Secretary and Matthew Perry's fourth attempt at post-Friends success: a reboot of The Odd Couple co-starring Reno 911!'s Thomas Lennon.
Best Bet: After not pulling the trigger on a proposed spinoff last year, CBS finally is committing to a third NCIS show, NCIS: New Orleans with Scott Bakula, and a fourth CSI, CSI: Cyber.
Where it stands: ABC will finish the season behind its Big Four rivals once again, but the network is only down slightly in the demo. And it does not have sports to camouflage its failures, which were numerous: Lucky 7, Mind Games, Betrayal, Killer Women, Back in the Game, Super Fun Night, etc. Agents of SHIELD and Resurrection have performed respectably, although both have tapered off since strong debuts. On the other hand, the network's veteran shows including Grey's Anatomy and The Bachelor have proved surprisingly resilient while Scandal has become a zeitgeist touchstone, hitting more ratings highs in its third season. More good news for ABC: Buyers have embraced the network's affluent female audience. "Obviously we'd like to see ABC grow the ratings," notes Todd Gordon, executive vp and U.S. director at Magna Global. "But they also have a diverse and interesting schedule with a lot of shows that viewers are really passionate about."
New shows: Shonda Rhimes brings her ABC series count back up to three with How to Get Away With Murder. The Viola Davis drama joins John Ridley's American Crime, Steven Spielberg's Whispers and Selfie, Emily Kapnek's twist on My Fair Lady, in new series orders.
Surprise move: Kevin Hart's Keep It Together was a frontrunner for a pickup until the eleventh hour, when the semi-autobiographical comedy starring Romany Malco fell out of favor and the similar Black-ish got an order instead. All this despite its creator's current Midas touch in movie theaters.
Where it stands: The network has a different business model than its bigger broadcast competitors. It has long made its shows available for streaming (with a full ad load), a necessary capitulation to the habits of its young platform-agnostic viewers. And with the success of Arrow, Vampire Diaries spinoff The Originals and period drama Reign, the network is doubling down on genre fare, picking up a third season of Beauty and the Beast and a second season of The 100. Its performance among its target demo of viewers 18-34 isn't in such bad shape either. Compared to the 2012-13 season, The CW is steady in its younger 18-34 demo and up (again) with adults 18-49.
New shows: Spinoffs and comic book characters are both working, so Arrow follow-up Flash is among the four new orders. It joins Rob Thomas' iZombie, telenovela adaptation Jane the Virgin and apocalyptic The Messengers.
Surprise move: The lowest-rated show on television, Beauty and the Beast, scored another head-scratching renewal. Chalk it up to strong international sales.