6:15am PT by Lesley Goldberg
A Puzzle Without All the Pieces: Broadcast Networks Scramble to Program an Uncertain Future
While broadcast networks are currently experiencing widespread ratings gains as much of the country is in quarantine amid the global novel coronavirus crisis, executives behind the scenes are scrambling to plan for an uncertain future with their production pipelines frozen through at least the end of April.
"Scheduling is about having all the pieces of a puzzle in front of you and how you put them together to generate the highest rating," one top broadcast exec tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It's impossible to do that when you don't know what all the pieces are."
With production stopped on both scripted series airing this spring and unscripted offerings expected to follow this summer, executives at ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox are now weighing their options. They could move forward with whatever inventory is actually ready (such as Fox's Hell's Kitchen) or save it for a fall schedule that, should the quarantine stretch into summer, could be devoid of first-run episodes. Many, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity given the rapidly changing nature of our current world, say they have found themselves prepping for multiple timelines.
"There's so many chicken and egg scenarios that it's frustrating for those who like having order and all the pieces in place for a larger strategy," says one broadcast veteran. "We're all playing a game of chicken: How long can we tap dance to get a little information about where this is headed?"
In the more immediate term, insiders say taped-from-home specials like last week's Garth Brooks/Trisha Yearwood concert on CBS and Fox/iHeart's Concert for America are igniting bidding wars across the broadcast networks. Other specials — beyond the NBC-led cross-network global event — are rumored to be in the works, too, including at least one more that could be stripped across multiple networks. The Big Four are also said to be circling foreign acquisitions (à la ABC's former Canadian cop drama Rookie Blue), as they would during a potential writers strike. Though the strategy has historically failed to yield big ratings, these types of shows are cheap and, more important, complete. In fact, at least one of the Big Four is already said to have committed to a foreign pickup.
Multiple networks have begun meetings with their corporate siblings, too, as they look around their respective cable and streaming ecosystems for content that could line fall schedules should the production shutdown stretch beyond the summer, when most scripted series resume production. Networks previously turned to this strategy in the mist of the 2008 Writers Guild strike when Showtime's (edited) Dexter repeats aired on CBS.
Should no returning or new shows be able to launch during September's annual Premiere Week, ABC, CBS and NBC have also started conversations with their streaming counterparts to see if any originals from Disney+, Hulu, CBS All Access or even upstart Peacock may be available to air on linear networks. Should ABC, for example, look to air content from Disney+ on the linear network, the studio would likely need to ink new deals with profit participants. CBS is also expected to harness programming from CBS All Access, Showtime and its recently re-acquired brands MTV, VH1 and Paramount Network, say sources, though affiliates could balk. "It doesn't make affiliates happy when you promote your competition," notes one exec, while another adds, optimistically: "The trade-off might be getting them better numbers versus standing on principle about where programming came from."
Another option that multiple networks are currently considering is to take a page from late night and repackage repeats with new content that appeals to diehard fans. ABC recently announced a "Flashback Friday" of sorts for long-running soap General Hospital, with new introductions to classic episodes. ABC, sources say, is also considering airing themed repeats — like a "best-of" Dancing With the Stars or some of its other franchises.
Of course, if the shutdown carries on for several more months, one exec suggests much of this will be moot. "If that happens," he says, "it'll be all news, all the time."
Here's a look at some of the programming in flux at the Big Four networks:
The network was in the midst of a larger push for live programming (think its Norman Lear comedy specials) and increased hours of flagship programming including American Idol and The Bachelor franchise, but neither is feasible in a world of quarantine. The good news: The Disney-owned net does have a number of its popular retro game shows set to return, with Bachelor offshoot Listen to Your Heart launching April 13 and Celebrity Family Feud, To Tell the Truth, Press Your Luck, Holey Moley and Don't all ready and available as schedule spackle.
CBS scripted originals have historically repeated well and, per sources, the network will lean on those to ride out the summer. The network will be without new seasons of Big Brother and Love Island, neither of which had been shot before the world stopped. Fortunately, it does have a full season of globe-trotting unscripted series The Amazing Race ready to go. Following the recent ViacomCBS re-merger, the network will have access to originals from Viacom brands, including Paramount Network, to draw from as well.
Fox, which doesn't have a streaming counterpart and no longer has a vast studio library to draw from, is expected to rely more heavily on repeats from its in-season scripted shows this summer. The network was expected to air spinoff The Masked Dancer in the summer but production on the series had yet to begin when work stopped. MasterChef won't be retuning near-term either since production on the upcoming cycle could not be completed and network brass are reluctant to launch an incomplete season. Meanwhile, Hell's Kitchen was completed, but the summer series could be among those saved for fall. Ultimate Tag will launch May 20, with another long-gestating unscripted series also expected to join it in the summer. Fox has a large inventory of animated shows, too, all of which remain on schedule and unaffected by the industry-wide shutdown.
The network now has 85 hours of previously accounted for Olympics programming to schedule. Per sources, NBC is expected to keep its three-hour Wednesday night Chicago block through the summer as repeats are performing well of late. The network also has several unscripted shows already in the can, including World of Dance, Titan Games, The Wall and Hollywood Game Night. Those join scripted series Council of Dads and the final season of Blindspot. Sources say NBC is looking for content that doesn't already have SVOD deals, like Universal Kids' American Ninja Warrior Junior, which could help fill the void of the flagship series, which had yet to begun production on its summer season. For fall, NBC has four episodes of Ted Danson comedy The Mayor already wrapped.