TV's Upfront Takeaways: Reboots, Time Travel and a Whole Lot of Dick Wolf

"Decisions came down to the wire," says ABC's new chief as networks shed a shocking 35 shows and replace them with a familiar new crop that, for the most part, they own.
Robert Voets/CBS; Ray Mickshaw/FOX; ABC/Photofest; Byron Cohen/ABC; Katherine Bomboy-Thornton/ABC; IStock

With some $9 billion up for grabs at the the 2016 broadcast upfront, TV network chiefs trotted out on famed Manhattan stages touting live programming and the "stability" of their fall schedules, even though many are poised to shake them up considerably come midseason. At the same time, there was no shortage of digs at their digital competition, with CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves sniping: "the bloom is off the rose."

To the delight of the media-buying audience, a handful of new offerings, including Fox's 24: Legacy and Lethal Weapon as well as NBC's Mike Schur comedy The Good Place and ABC's Kiefer Sutherland starrer Designated Survivor already are generating heat.

What didn't garner much talk during the dog and pony show was the rash of cancellations (35 in total) and inevitable future flops, save for a Seth Meyers quip during NBC's May 16 presentation: "Watching sizzle reels at the upfronts is like meeting your brother's new girlfriend at Thanksgiving. She seems great, but you don't want to get too attached because chances are she won't be around next fall."

Below is THR's take on the bloodletting and four other top trends.

1. THE (OVER-)RELIANCE ON IP

Safe and largely unoriginal are apt descriptors for a vast majority of new series hitting the schedule. Some are spinoffs (Chicago Justice, NBC's fourth Chicago show); others are reboots (Prison Break) and movie adaptations (CBS' Training Day). "When has a movie title ever worked as a TV show?" snarked one agent, citing 2015's failed attempts including CBS' Rush Hour and Fox's Minority Report. But as NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke explained, "In a cluttered world with hundreds of choices … if the right remake or spinoff comes along … there's no reason not to pick it up as you already have the awareness and it makes the launch and marketing easier." Fox TV Group chairman Dana Walden reiterated the point May 16, adding, "There's [audience] goodwill."

2. FAMILIES, DOCS AND A WHOLE LOT OF TIME TRAVEL

Of the 27 family-themed pilots produced this spring, nine were ordered to series as the Big Four looked (yet again) for Modern Family's heir apparent. Those include traditional families fronted by proven stars in Matt LeBlanc and Kevin James (both at CBS) as well as higher-concept half-hours like ABC's Imaginary Mary, with Jenna Elfman starring opposite a blue-spotted cotton ball voiced by Rachel Dratch. Additionally, four of the five networks ordered time-travel series, and 10 incoming dramas will feature cops (Lethal Weapon at Fox), lawyers (Katherine Heigl's Doubt at CBS) or doctors (Jason Katims' Pure Genius, also at CBS).

3. THE GROWING OWNERSHIP GRAB — AND IN-SEASON STACKING RIGHTS

The networks are placing increased focus not only on owning (or co-owning) as much of their fare as possible but also on earning in-season stacking rights — the ability to showcase entire seasons on all of their platforms as opposed to only the five most recent episodes. "It's kind of the order of the day, and the studios know it," said Bob Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment, who, like his rivals, fought aggressively for such rights during this year's negotiations. The vertical integration push has made it more challenging for unaffiliated studios (Sony Pictures Television, Warner Bros. Television) and those looking to sell outside. Even those that historically have had the leverage to maintain full ownership (think 20th Century Fox Television with ABC's Modern Family) have been forced at times to give up some equity. CBS brass, for instance, is said to have played hardball with Warner Bros. TV, scoring a stake in the studio's Training Day.

4. THE (DRAMA) WRITER EXODUS

Uber-producers Dick Wolf (six shows), Greg Berlanti (six) and Shonda Rhimes (five) can lay claim to multiple dramas, all consolidated on a single network, with Wolf owning NBC, Rhimes dominating ABC and Berlanti populating much of The CW's schedule. Missing from the 2016-17 crop are a slew of new series from the industry's second-tier drama writers (and go-to showrunners), who increasingly show little interest in working in network TV. Noted a top lit agent: "The only reason people stay in broadcast is the giant deal [that a Rhimes type can command]. But if you're not going to make $3 million a year, you're going to cable."

5. THE HEAVY BLOODLETTING

Of the 35 series that met the grim reaper, a few high-profile cancellations had TV insiders in shock. ABC's Castle received an unexpected boot after eight seasons, even though the network's sibling studio had just renegotiated with one lead actor (Nathan Fillion) and endured heat for firing the other (Stana Katic) in anticipation of a final season. Meanwhile, Nashville had hired brand-name showrunners in Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick and was paying a room of writers. (At press time, lead studio Lionsgate was taking meetings about a potential new home.) "Looking at ratings, our own finances and looking at new development, decisions came down to the wire, which is the difficult thing about these jobs as we weigh and measure different things," said new ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey. Meanwhile, at Fox, the entire freshman comedy slate was wiped clean while NBC brass was boasting that it was sticking with four of its freshman series (thereby canceling nine) as though it were some sort of an achievement. These days, perhaps it is.

Keep up with all the renewals, cancellations and new series pickups with THR's handy scorecard and follow the pilot crop status here. For full upfronts 2016 coverage, go to THR.com/upfronts.

This story first appeared in the May 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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