Fall TV Preview: How Each of the Big 5 Networks Can Win the Season

6:10 AM 9/14/2016

by Mikey O'Connell

CBS and NBC need hit comedies, Fox must build on 'Empire' and ABC really wants to escape fourth place as the network chiefs reveal their strategies for autumn and beyond.

The Big Five’s Must-Do List:  How Each Can Win the Season -illo - H 2016
Illustration By Sam Island

Broadcast network executives might lay in bed at night dreaming of the next Empire or Voice, but their waking aspirations are more realistic. The Big Five's waning linear ratings and rich competition has altered the definition of a "win" as the fall season has become more about maintaining (or finding) stability and building affection for shows and the brand. "Broadcast almost operates like cable used to," says Horizon Media's David Campanelli. "They have an identity and certain audience they're targeting." THR breaks down how the nets can declare victory this season:

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  • ABC

    It's a rebuilding year, and ABC's priorities reflect that. The network, which shed double digits and fell to the No. 4 slot during a 2015-16 season peppered with niche shows, is targeting broader audiences under new ABC Entertainment Group president Channing Dungey.

    "The top priority for me is strengthening 10 p.m.," Dungey tells THR. "Designated Survivor is obviously a big swing for us, but we're also very excited about Conviction on Mondays." ABC marketing is known for favoring a few chosen shows, and Kiefer Sutherland's Designated Survivor has been omnipresent. Media buyers consider it one of the season's few safe bets.

    But drama is not Dungey's only concern. She added a fourth hour of sitcoms, expanding the Tuesday block: "If I can stand on the upfront stage in May and be proud of my comedy stacks on Tuesday and Wednesday, that will feel like a real victory."

  • CBS

    After renewing just one new half-hour (Life in Pieces) last season, CBS has not shied away from upping its comedy commitment. Eight are on the schedule this fall, three of them freshmen. It doubles the number of half-hours from last fall — and, if the network is lucky, potentially sets up something to replace The Big Bang Theory when it eventually signs off. "Monday night is a key place for us, and putting four comedies on that night is going back to what we did successfully for many years," says CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller.

    The aid of Thursday Night Football, as a formidable time-filler and a marketing platform, has allowed the network to focus efforts on new dramas Bull and MacGyver — and comedy heir apparent Kevin Can Wait with Kevin James. CBS also has moved swiftly to shore up Criminal Minds with an increased role for returning Paget Brewster after star Thomas Gibson was fired for behavior issues this summer.

  • Fox

    "As much as we're focused on the new shows, making sure Empire returns strong is always going to be one of our goals," says Fox entertainment president David Madden. The network has kept the flagship, still the Big Five's highest-rated series, in its original 9 p.m. Wednesday slot — despite internal debate about moving it to start the night. If there's a new show that most needs to be a success, it's likely time-slot partner Lethal Weapon. The reboot, Fox's best-tested pilot, gets the auspicious Empire lead-in. There are other hopes. Fox chairman Dana Walden spoke recently about her desire to capitalize on a Scandal-less fall in rescheduling female-focused Pitch to 9 p.m.

    Thursdays, and the comedy Son of Zorn is being targeted as a Sunday bridge between The Simpsons and Family Guy. (Zorn's early Sept. 11 premiere fetched a promising 2.4 same-day rating in the key adults 18-to-49 demographic.) Still, the potential in the Weapon-Empire pairing is formidable. Adds Madden: "They'll benefit each other, and that really should be a powerhouse tandem for Wednesday nights."

  • NBC

    Like CBS, there's a stability to NBC's schedule that has allowed it to hone its focus. The network is moving sitcoms back to Thursday in an effort to rebuild a flagging comedy brand. "You want to come out of the gate with something that feels like it has some weight behind it," says NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke of new and returning half-hours.

    The network has tried to assure strong sampling by previewing freshman comedy The Good Place after The Voice and sampling last season's sleeper Superstore during the Olympics. Bolstered by a long tail for Superstore's digital views and social buzz for new dramedy This Is Us, NBC brass are optimistic about giving comedy room to breath — while The Voice, Dick Wolf dramas, The Blacklist, Blindspot and Sunday Night Football hold down the fort.

  • The CW

    Given the high-profile Supergirl switch from CBS to The CW, the latter's fall mandate is clear: turn a modest success into a relative juggernaut. Network research revealed some of those watching Greg Berlanti's comic-book drama never had seen a CW show, so network president Mark Pedowitz is promoting the relaunch like it's a true freshman. "If it pulls half of the CBS audience, it will be our No. 1 or No. 2 show," he says. "If it does less than that, I'd be extraordinarily disappointed."

    Also key for the genre-dominant net (on top of launching No Tomorrow and Frequency) is to build viewers for low-rated critical darlings Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, be those linear or streaming. "We are a hybrid network," says Pedowitz. "We are rooted in broadcast, but we've very aware of our digital capabilities."