TCA: 10 Key Takeaways for Fall TV
Prepare for the "Dads" backlash (oops, racist jokes!), "event" marketing and more network swipes at Netflix.
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
A two-week marathon of panels, parties, buffet lines and snarky Tweets comes to a close Wednesday, as 220-plus members of the Television Critics Association go their separate ways until the networks next summon them, like The Avengers, to sample their latest wares. And while midsections bloated by unrelenting dessert carts and chest colds from the Beverly Hilton's icy ballroom may serve as physical reminders of the semi-annual press tour, there are more important lessons learned.
From what new shows are likely to pop and offend to the latest trends and areas of spin, here are the 10 biggest takeaways from this summer's press tour.
1. Dads Will Divide
If the contentious panel for Dads was any indication, the live action comedy from Seth MacFarlane and the writers of Ted won’t bow quietly. With the press railing against what is arguably racist and misogynistic humor (so much so that the TCA session was cut some 10 minutes short), the show’s cast, crew and network chief were forced into defense mode. Several of them urged the media to allow the series a few episodes, noting that in time it will become an “equal opportunity offender” a la Family Guy. “These guys are going to try to test a lot of boundaries,” said Fox broadcasting chairman Kevin Reilly, who has to hope all of this hoopla will drive ratings.
2. Little Buzz, Lots of Zzzzzz
The tour served as a reminder of just how challenging it is for a broadcast series to cut through -- lest the sinking ratings or lackluster Emmy showing weren’t evidence enough. The five broadcast nets trotted out a whopping 27 new fall attempts over the course of two weeks, and only a select few had the Beverly Hilton halls buzzing. Among them: NBC’s drama Blacklist, Fox’s comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine and ABC’s big hope Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. A handful of others, including NBC’s heavily hyped Michael J. Fox Show, CBS’ Thursday night addition The Millers and CBS’ Chuck Lorre series Mom, have promise, even if they lack universal enthusiasm. More telling, as the network chiefs and their producers were promoting their new fall wares, they were also urging reporters to have patience with many of them, a big ask in an era of myriad choices.
3. More "Events" on the Way
It’s a word we will get sick of -- if we’re not sick of it already. In an increasingly time-shifted environment, networks are desperately looking for watercooler fare. “We need to be in the event business,” NBC entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt made clear during his session. And while sporting events, award shows and live-component reality shows (see NBC’s latest, Million Second Quiz) are the most obvious watercooler bait, the push will bleed into scripted programming, too. Limited series will be peddled as “must-see events,” and so will such series occurrences as Fox’s return to comedy (on NBC) or SHIELD (on ABC).
4. Netflix Will Loom Large
Flush with 14 Emmy nominations, the streaming service has gotten under the skin of seemingly every network chief around. Netflix execs didn’t even have to show up and still they managed to get air-time in each of the tour’s executive sessions. HBO’s Michael Lombardo called its decision to stay mum on who's watching “curious,” while Showtime’s David Nevins suggested it was “interesting.” And FX’s John Landgraf said if he were the “mayor of television,” he’d insist upon a third-party service to keep track. Even more infuriating to rivals? The media’s growing love affair with the streaming service, which has it dubbing House of Cards and Arrested Development “hits” without any metrics to substantiate such claims. As Netflix prepares to roll out its latest original, Ricky Gervais’ Derek, expect that frustration to grow still more intense.
5. Ratings Spin Gets Weirder
When it comes to ratings, prepare to be confused. It seems the network execs already are. NBC’s Greenblatt stressed the importance of time-shifted viewership during his presentation. Two days later, CBS’ research guru David Poltrack gave a lengthy presentation about the significance of multiple platforms (Elementary, for instance, added 800,00 and 500,000 viewers from video-on-demand and Web viewing, respectively) and the value of the often overlooked 25-54 demographic. (Those beloved 18-49-ers, if you ask Poltrack, are aging out of their group -- or living on their parents' couches.) From there, Fox’s Reilly made a similar case about platforms (Kevin Bacon drama The Following saw a 65 percent lift from DVR) but insisted that that younger 18-49 demo was still a top priority at his network, with his advertisers particularly keen on the younger end of that age range. Finally, ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee capped out the week touting his network’s top status with yet another bizarre metric: co-viewing.
6. At No. 3, NBC Is Still the Butt of the Joke
Despite a few bright spots (see The Voice), NBC remains a target -- from both its current and former stars. Kathy Bates, there to promote her role on FX's American Horror Story: Coven, didn't hold back her disdain for the network that canceled Harry's Law after two seasons. "They treated us like shit. They kicked us to the curb. They disrespected us. They disrespected our 11 million viewers every week. And I think they're getting what they deserve," she told reporters, a nod to the network's ratings woes. Meanwhile, fellow acting vet Craig T. Nelson stood firmly by his comments earlier this year that NBC didn't do enough to promote his critical darling Parenthood. "You get associated with a show that you love and that you believe in … and you get frustrated with the fact that it doesn’t seem to get honored in the way that you feel it should be,” he said, before acknowledging that NBC is reinvesting in the family drama with a larger episode count and a prime 10 p.m. Thursday slot for its upcoming fifth season.
7. Don't Count Out Curb Your Enthusiasm
The specter of HBO's sporadic darling loomed large at TCA. Creator and star Larry David shilled his HBO telepic Clear History to critics, and partner-in-crime Jeff Garlin plugged freshman ABC sitcom The Goldbergs. United in getting laughs, they had different things to say about the future of Curb. “I really don’t know. I couldn’t say,” David said of future seasons. “I’m just an indecisive fella. You should see me at a restaurant." When prodded about his boss' indecision, Garlin put it quite simply: "I'm not trying to figure out Larry David, I just try to appreciate Larry David." Still, optimists have a lot to read into. David told one reporter to check back with him in six months, and Garlin expressed considerable faith in future seasons. "Do you think he is never not unsure before a season?" he joked. "I think there's a decent chance we'll do more."
8. Sometime TV Executives Are People, Too
Everybody makes mistakes -- and as most mentioned at one point or another in their executive sessions, TV chiefs are not exempt. In a rare moment of candor, ABC's Paul Lee noted that former darling Revenge "stumbled" in its second season -- though many critics would regard it as more of a tumble. "What [new showrunner] Sunil Nayar is bringing to us is a slightly less complicated and a really interesting take," Lee promised, saying the drama would get back to its roots. He also blamed the ratings failures of now-canceled Happy Endings on what proved to be an "extraordinarily challenging" fall. Fox's Reilly didn't shy away from the disappointment that was last season's Monday night bomb, The Mob Doctor, explaining that one of the network's "big problems last year was stumbling right out of the gate" with the series. He added: "It's very hard to promote the rest of your week if you stumble on Monday." The CW's Mark Pedowitz went so far as to admit that he wasn't entirely prepared for the challenge of measuring his network's largely cross-platform audience of 18-34-year-olds when he took the reins from Dawn Ostroff in 2011. "I thought it would be easier to get done," he said from the stage. "It's far more complicated than anyone ever anticipated."
9. Fans Should Put Their Funds Elsewhere
Showtime's The Borgias is the latest in a long line of series to feature a creative save-our-show campaign. Dedicated fans of the recently canceled period drama pooled their funds to crash the cable network's TCA day with a plane that circled above a Beverly Hilton lunch carrying a message for the network's executives -- specifically, Showtime entertainment president "D. Nevins" -- to spare the Jeremy Irons drama. Though the show's fate won't be reversed, the stunt did get people buzzing. Placing a robed protestor at the hotel's entrance, on the other hand, proved far less effective, particularly when that protester copped to not actually watching the series. (A spokesperson for the campaign confirmed in an email to THR that the protestor was paid by the fundraising group of more than 5,000 participants worldwide.) Appreciating both the effort and the passion, an amused Nevins suggested the show's rabid fans go another route: "Kickstarter seems to be the financing mode du jour," he said.
10. Producers Can Be of Service
Every once in a while, the cast and crew of a show can prove to be its best marketer. Several reporters quietly acknowledged that Jeff Garlin's entertaining efforts (which included taunting reporters) to peddle his ABC comedy The Goldbergs made them far more interested in watching the show. Ditto for ABC's Trophy Wife, whose co-creator Sarah Haskins had an early morning crowd in hysterics as she detailed how her comedy is loosely based on her own life. "I moved to L.A., and Emily [Halpern] and I were writing together. One day we ran out of ideas, so I married my next-door neighbor, a man 20 years my senior with ex-wives and lots of children," she quipped to a room that grew increasingly engaged. Another prime example: Michael J. Fox, who did a brilliant job of assuaging concerns about laughing at Parkinson's jokes each week during his time before the press. "The way I look at the reality of Parkinson’s is that sometimes it’s frustrating and sometimes it’s funny -- and I need to look at it that way, and I think other people will look at it that way," he said, adding: "But beyond that, I think we all get our own bag of hammers, we all get our own Parkinson’s. We’ll look at this through the filter of that experience, and we’ll say, 'Yeah, I need to laugh at my stuff, too.'"
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