Upfronts 2012: What the Broadcast Networks Need Now
This story first appeared in the May 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Remember How to be a Gentleman? How about The Firm? CBS and NBC would prefer that Madison Avenue forget them and a slew of other failed shows from this season. Instead, as the broadcast networks enter the annual upfront dog-and-pony show May 14 to 17, executives will be touting such successful 2011 launches as Fox's New Girl and CBS' 2 Broke Girls. Analysts are predicting less dazzling revenue increases for both broadcast networks and cable compared with a year ago. Once again, cable gains are expected to outstrip broadcast (and this year, USA Network invades broadcast week, holding its upfront May 17 at Lincoln Center, home of ABC's annual Jimmy Kimmel-headlined presentation). Morgan Stanley media analyst Benjamin Swinburne estimates a 4.3 percent revenue increase for a cable upfront haul of $9.69 billion, compared with a 1 percent gain to $9.16 billion for broadcast.
Below, a look at what each of the big five broadcasters needs as another TV season approaches:
Where It Stands: American Idol's declines -- off double digits in its 11th season -- have helped drag the top-rated network's overall average down 9 percent in the coveted 18-to-49 demo for the first 32 weeks of the season. Still, ad buyers aren't as concerned about Idol, which remains TV's No. 1 show, as they are about what its falling ratings might foreshadow for the future of big-tent programming. "It's not obvious what the next massive thing is or if there's even the ability to do something massive again," says Ethan Heftman, senior vp, director of national broadcast at Initiative. The declines have spread to the scripted side, too, with such already picked-up series as Glee and New Girl shedding viewers in recent months -- unwelcome news, especially since fall reality competition The X Factor is getting a reboot.
What It Needs: In stark contrast to last May, when the promise of X Factor, Terra Nova and a rejuvenated Idol had buyers ripping open their wallets, Fox has holes to fill. With House done and Bones declining in its seventh season, the network is eager to find at least one more procedural to help stabilize its schedule. The untitled Kevin Williamson-Kevin Bacon thriller centering on a diabolical serial killer has the potential to fill the void left by Prison Break and 24. Also a priority: live-action comedy, a genre that entertainment chief Kevin Reilly finally was able to crack with this season's Zooey Deschanel vehicle. "Kevin needs a foothold on the comedy block," says one top agent. "He's almost there, and if he can get that, they'll be in good shape." At press time, Mindy Kaling's untitled half-hour and the Steve Levitan-produced Rebounding were in strong contention.
Where It Stands: CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves, ever the optimist, noted during a May 1 earnings call that the network is looking to win the season among total viewers by the biggest margin since the dawn of the modern ratings system 25 years ago. With a stable lineup and virtually no schedule holes, Moonves says he expects double-digit CPM increases, a point with which some buyers have quibbled. "We're in a period of slowing spending," says Todd Gordon, executive vp, director at Magna Global. "We're forecasting moderate growth for next year and the upfront."
What It Needs: Multiple sources say there is an effort by network president Nina Tassler to tweak the CBS procedural formula. "They feel like the audience may be a bit bored with the pure procedural, so they're developing things with more character built in," says one top agent, who cites the contemporary Sherlock Holmes-style pilot Elementary as an example. Dennis Quaid's Ralph Lamb Western could be picked up as this season's offbeat Swingtown, a reminder that the network is not above making a few counterintuitive moves. On the comedy side, all eyes will be on whether CBS picks up any of the single-camera half-hours it has ordered, including Nick Stoller's well-liked workplace comedy. "They'll have egg on their face if they don't pick one up," says a source.
Where It Stands: Without the Super Bowl, NBC's primetime average tumbles two-tenths of a point to a fourth-place 2.3. The upcoming season is the first true test for entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt, and he already has handed out second-season orders to Smash (a show he developed while still at Showtime) and the fantasy drama Grimm. But previously reliable series are showing their age: Law & Order: SVU and The Office are down 15 percent and 11 percent, respectively, and advertisers are growing frustrated by the net's lack of ratings points on everything but sports (NFL, Olympics) and reality (The Voice, America's Got Talent). "Everybody wants [NBC] to be a viable broadcast network," says one buyer. "When you begin to strip your dollars out and penalize them for what they've been unable to do, it makes things even harder for them." Still, this could be a rough upfront for the network.
What It Needs: Under Greenblatt, the network is gravitating toward more daring programming to try to dig itself out of the ratings basement. "The mindset is, 'We don't have the luxury of launching middle-of-the-road shows; they're going to barely tune in to us to watch something out-of-the-box,' " says one agent, who notes that unique material, like J.J. Abrams' (already picked up) postapocalyptic thriller Revolution, might be one way to lure eyeballs. Comedies including Ryan Murphy's The New Normal, Anne Heche's Save Me and White House laugher 1600 Penn are being viewed as potential brand-builders for a network once known as the place for smart television. What's more, NBC will use the promotional platform of the Olympics to launch a collection of shows, likely including the Matthew Perry vehicle Go On, ahead of the regular season.
Where It Stands: With Dancing With the Stars down double digits on both nights, the network is flat year-over-year. Still, ABC is likely to have an impressive cancel/renew ratio this season, with pickups all but assured for newcomer hits Revenge, Suburgatory and Once Upon a Time, which is pulling in a 4.0 rating. Advertisers are bullish on ABC's comedy brand, with linchpin Modern Family up nearly 20 percent for its best season ever. "If you look at what ABC has been able to do in terms of comedy resurgence, that's a great story for them despite that fact that some of their dramas have gotten a little old," says Initiative's Heftman.
What It Needs: Multiple sources say ABC chief Paul Lee talks internally about defining the network's brand. "They're asking, 'Who are we?' And if we're the network that brings you Revenge and Grey's Anatomy, we have to dance with the ones that brought us." Projects including Connie Britton's musical soap Nashville, and the previously picked-up drama Mistresses could fall into that category. But one source points to the potential long-term challenges of becoming what some dismissively call "a glorified Lifetime." Among them: alienating male-focused advertisers as well as the syndication riches that come from more close-ended series.
Where It Stands: Long-running dramas The Vampire Diaries, Supernatural and 90210 already are picked up, but none of the network's freshman series caught on with its 18-to-34 target demographic. In fact, Secret Circle, Hart of Dixie and Ringer are all flatlining below a 1.0 rating. Recognizing the challenges of its multiplatform demo, The CW became the first broadcast network to embrace a combined online-television ad sell and has further supplemented its bottom line with streaming pacts. The CW's ratings may be down, notes Magna's Gordon, but "the deals that they've done with Netflix and Hulu provide them the ability to keep producing content aimed at a narrower audience."
What It Needs: New CW president Mark Pedowitz is actively seeking year-round programming, more repeatable material and broader-appeal projects. (A return to comedy is expected to come next as he's developed eight scripts and is particularly high on two of them.) The Greg Berlanti-Marc Guggenheim comic-book drama Arrow has the potential to draw male viewers, as Smallville once did, while the mystery series Cult is poised to repeat better than the soapy Vampire Diaries and Gossip Girl do. But Pedowitz will not stray too far from the tried-and-true CW fare, as evidenced by his Sex and the City prequel, The Carrie Diaries.
THE SEASON SO FAR: Fox leads in the 18-to-49 demo, but CBS crushes all in total viewers.
- Rating: 3.2
- Viewers: 8.9 million
- Vs. 2010-11: -9/-8
- Rating: 3.0
- Viewers: 11.7 million
- Vs. 2010-11: +3/+1
- Rating: 2.5
- Viewers: 7.4 million
- Vs. 2010-11: +9/+5
- Rating: 2.4
- Viewers: 8.3 million
- Vs. 2010-11: Flat/flat
- Rating: 0.8
- Viewers: 1.7 million
- Vs. 2010-11: -11/-14
* *NBC's average includes Super Bowl XLVI, which was watched by 111.3 million viewers.
TELEVISION PILOT SEASON BY THE NUMBERS: A Beakdown of the trends among more than 80 contenders for the fall schedule.
2 Westerns: Networks developed several Old West projects this year, but only two made it to pilot: NBC's Frontier (from Shaun Cassidy and Thomas Schlamme) and CBS' Ralph Lamb, a pseudo-Western about a cowboy-turned-Las Vegas sheriff.
5 Autobiographies: Taking a page from Jerry Seinfeld and Roseanne Barr, several TV players -- Nick Stoller (CBS), Sarah Silverman (NBC), Bill Lawrence (Fox), Joe Port (Fox) and David Kohan and Max Mutchnick (CBS) are writing about what they know best: themselves. Thankfully, they're all comedies.
6 Literary Adaptations: From The CW's Carrie Diaries (Candace Bushnell's Sex and the City prequel) to ABC's 666 Park Ave. and Scruples (from Gabriella Pierce and Judith Krantz best-sellers), networks are leaning on preexisting material.
6 Friday Night Lights Alums: Emmy nominee Connie Britton stars (and sings!) in ABC's Nashville while her former onscreen daughter Aimee Teegarden toplines The CW's Hunger Games-esque The Selection and Teegarden's onscreen boyfriend Zach Gilford co-stars in Fox's Mob Doctor. FNL is TV's hottest résumé-builder.
8 Foreign Adaptations: Israel is providing Midnight Sun (NBC) and Joey Dakota (CW), while the U.K. originated Friday Night Dinner (NBC), Bad Girls (NBC), Only Fools and Horses and Red Van Man (both ABC), further evidence that U.S. networks increasingly look overseas for fresh ideas that are proven to work with audiences. – Lesley Goldberg