ABC Sets "Cascading" Fall Schedule That Leans Heavily on Unscripted

Entertainment president Karey Burke also talks with The Hollywood Reporter about the network's contingency plans should the NBA or production be unable to resume amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
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Karey Burke

ABC, like CBS and NBC, is hoping for a swift return to production.

The Disney-owned broadcaster revealed its schedule for the 2020-21 season, without using the word "fall" once. Instead, the Karey Burke-led network hopes that its scripted and unscripted fare can return to work soon enough so that the network's originals can return either in September or as late as November.

In debuting its schedule, the network is relying heavily on unscripted series (fall favorite Dancing With the Stars, summer staple The Bachelorette and spring hit Who Wants to be a Millionaire?) to help carry the load and reduce the number of scripted originals that will likely need extra time to film episodes with safety protocols put in place amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. With that in mind, ABC has scrapped its Tuesday comedy lineup, and ditched its hour of scripted comedies on Fridays. Holding for midseason are Black-ish and spinoff prequel Mixed-ish, recently renewed For Life as well as the next cycles of The Bachelor and American Idol. ABC is also open to additional new series orders from its current crop of pilots, whose scripts are now being evaluated. (Only some of which will be produced.)

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Burke — ABC's Entertainment president — expressed cautious optimism that the network's favorites, including hits like Grey's Anatomy, would be back on with original episodes in the fall though she conceded programming would return on a show by show basis depending on when production is able to resume with guild-sanctioned safety protocols in place.

"I'm hopeful it's fall," Burke told THR. "This will be our schedule whenever we're able to get back in production and get on the air. It's our sliding schedule. That said, I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll be able to return these shows if not in mid-September, late-September or early October."

ABC's schedule is similar to fellow broadcasters CBS and NBC. The latter two networks also opted for a best-case scenario when it came to their schedules and will also look to return to their standard programming as production begins to ramp up for a return to work. Meanwhile, Fox and The CW opted instead to "corona-proof" their schedules and opted to go with "gently used" programming that was already completed to help supplement their schedules. Fox, for example, rolled two scripted shows that were earmarked for spring to the fall and added Spectrum import L.A.'s Finest to sub for 911. The CW, meanwhile, acquired a number of foreign shows and previously aired seasons of CBS All Access' Tell Me a Story and DC Universe's Swamp Thing as it holds original programming like The Flash for 2021. Both of those strategies give productions additional time to get back on track, though such gently used scripted fare are likely to be less than favorable among ad buyers.

As for changes to ABC's schedule, the network tapped Roseanne offshoot The Conners to take Modern Family's former slot on Wednesdays at 9 p.m., with The Bachelorette set to film in quarantine and air Tuesday nights followed by David E. Kelley's new drama, Big Sky. Joining ABC's Wednesday comedy block is Kari Lizer's comedy Call Your Mother, starring Kyra Sedgwick. Fridays see Shark Tank moving back to its former home at 8 p.m., while Leslie Jones-hosted Supermarket Sweep settles in on Sundays followed by Millionaire.

Below is ABC's schedule, followed by an interview with Burke.   

MONDAY
8 p.m.: Dancing With the Stars
10 p.m.: The Good Doctor

TUESDAY
8 p.m.: The Bachelorette
10 p.m.: Big Sky

WEDNESDAY
8 p.m.: The Goldbergs
8:30 p.m.: American Housewife
9 p.m.: The Conners
9:30 p.m.: Call Your Mother
10 p.m.: Stumptown

THURSDAY
8 p.m.: Station 19
9 p.m.: Grey's Anatomy
10 p.m.: A Million Little Things

FRIDAY
8 p.m.: Shark Tank
9 p.m.: 20/20

SATURDAY
8 p.m.: Saturday Night Football

SUNDAY
7 p.m.: America's Funniest Home Videos
8 p.m.: Supermarket Sweep
9 p.m.: Who Wants to be a Millionaire
10 p.m.: The Rookie

When are you expecting this schedule to launch?

I'm hopeful it's fall. We have such confidence in the schedule. This will be our schedule whenever we're able to get back in production and get on the air. It's our sliding schedule. That said, I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll be able to return these shows if not in mid-September, late-September or early October.

Walk me through the decision to keep a business as usual schedule amid this current landscape. The numbers in L.A. are inching up as everything is reopening.

It was important to share the schedule now so we had something to work toward and generate the inertia we need to launch this slate, when and if we're able. If we discover down the line that we need to make adjustments, we will pivot. We do have contingency plans as to what we will do. We didn't look at this as business as usual because we're putting The Bachelorette on in the fall. We're leaning more heavily on unscripted programming than we ever have before in a traditional fall schedule. It's fewer new scripted shows than we would have in a normal year. It's not business as usual.

We thought we could continue the schedule as is and when we're able to get up and running, we'll be OK. We needed to replace Modern Family and wanted to create a couple spaces to launch new hits. Those were the priorities with moves or ordering new series. Other than that, it's stability and leaning on unscripted. I've seen plans for all of our unscripted tentpole shows to return and I'm pretty confident in their ability, again, once we have clearance and safeguards in place.

How do you do The Bachelorette safely in our new world?

The thinking right now is to quarantine the cast and crew in one specific location with no travel. And to use testing and some social distancing. They have a thoughtful plan they presented to the studio [Warners] and the government that's in the process of being vetted and approved. I'm hopeful, not certain — anyone who says they're certain right now is not speaking the truth — barring a second spike or a second shutdown that we will be able to get these shows up and running.

Is the expectation that all the shows will premiere around the same time or could this be staggered based on when certain productions are able to deliver episodes given when they can safely get back to work?

We're not looking at Premiere Week. We're looking at a cascading schedule of when these shows would get back on the air. It's all contingent on their unique production realities. Some shows might be ready to go sooner, and others may not be up and running until later in October. We have the NBA Finals, which we will be programming; we have a lot of political content this year. And we have alternative programming that's going to help us get through this.

How much of this schedule was designed to make it appealing to ad buyers vs. a perhaps more realistic "corona-proof" schedule like The CW or Fox? I'm sure it's easier to sell an ad against this hopeful schedule and then maybe offer a make-good when and if you can't deliver new episodes.

Honestly? None. That's not good business, to sell an unrealistic schedule. We waited until now to announce what we think our schedule will look like when we return [to production]. This is a premiere schedule, this could premiere in October or November. Worked closely with our ad sales team to message that so we are not selling a bill of goods. Otherwise, we would have done this during our upfront conversations. We thought it was helpful to wait until we had more information and we certainly have far more than we did a month ago. And we'll have more in another month. Even though we have been given the go-ahead by the [California] governor and mayor, we're still in deep in conversations with the guilds and we won't move forward until there's a safe set of standards and have those practices in place. And when we do, production will be slower — and we're prepared for that. For us, I use "cautious optimism" because there's cautious optimism baked in here. The reality is we do have contingency plans should we need to pivot.

What do you do if you have a star who, even with the safeguards in place, doesn't want to go back to work?

We're in the middle of those conversations. It's being led by the studios and the safe practices that they have put in place with the guilds. It's our hope that once the guilds are comfortable, their members will be comfortable. But we're going to be reactive to and supportive of what our talent is concerned about. I hope that's not a bridge we're going to cross. That's why the conversations with the guilds are so deep and thoughtful — they're intended to be representative of all the myriad concerns that could come up. 

You have content from Disney+, Hulu, FX and even Freeform, among others, at your potential disposal. What sort of contingency programming are you looking at?

Our partners have been gracious in opening those conversations with us. We are looking at a lot of options. And we actually already started: we've been airing Disney movies over the past month in partnership with Disney+, which has ben win-win for both ABC and Disney+. We didn't need to go outside to third parties to reach for gently used programming. We also have our own pipeline. We pivoted quickly and ordered some unscripted shows that we haven't announced yet that are easier to get up and running that we could turn to should we need to.

Are you having any conversations about windowing any scripted originals on ABC, if push came to shove? Are you trying to get The Mandalorian?

We certainly would be very happy if they wanted to air The Mandalorian on ABC but we really haven't. Early on, when there wasn't a clear sense of any kind of timeline, we opened the conversations — not around any specific one show or content — but around the idea of some content sharing. Each platform has their own distribution agreements. It's not something we'd want to heavily rely on but it is something we can draw from. I'm hopeful we won't need to but it's nice to know it's there if we need it.

Your schedule relies heavily on shows returning to production. What backup plans do you have if there's a second wave and production has to shut down again? You will have a lot of holes to fill.

[Scheduling head] Andy Kubitz and I have stared at that schedule and it's not pretty but it's not the end of television as we know it. We've proven that we can be flexible and innovative with getting original content on our air. I'll continue to draw upon that muscle that we developed during this time and we'll continue to innovate and get creative. We already have some ideas about how to get through that and have some things we haven't announced yet. There's a lot of ideas in the pipeline; some require partnering with our news division — who is able to produce in a different way than entertainment units can — some require partnering with other partners within the Walt Disney Co. Some are shows we have greenlit but not yet announced that are unscripted and innovative in the way they produce. We have a lot of contingency plans that, should we need them, we'll be able to pivot. As you'll see as we do announce some of these things in the coming weeks, you'll be able to see that they have dual purposes. 

What do you do when you run out of summer originals and the "fall" debuts aren't ready yet? What happens if the NBA can't come back?

Right now, that's not a problem. We're going to have NBA back, which is helping us fill that gap. Should they not be able to able to resume play, we will have to pivot again. And we have a plan for that, too. Nobody thought American Idol — a live, studio-based show — would be able to stay on the air. Nobody knew how Jimmy Kimmel would air. We produced Millionaire with no audience. We have a well of innovation here that I'll continue to lean on in order to continue to try to bring good shows to our audience.

When production does resume, episodes will take longer to produce. Is your plan still to do 22-24 episodes of most of your scripted series?

I think it's going to be tough this year to get to those numbers. Even in my glass half full scenario, as I've seen it lay out, we just may not. If we're aren't premiering until late September, late-October or beyond, we will need shorter orders.

And you still have all these pilots in the mix. How many of your current pilot crop are you going to produce? What becomes of that slate? Will some roll to next season?

It's all a game of Dominoes. We had to shut production down on all 12 pilots. All 12 are still in consideration. We ordered backup scripts on all of them. And now that we've put the framework for what our schedule might look like, we'll turn our attention to evaluating those. We felt so confident in the back-up material we saw from David E. Kelley and Kari Lizer that we did make the decision to go straight to series on those two. The rest of the crop, we will not be able to make all of them. Some of them will possibly go into consideration for midseason series and some could be considered for early fall for next  year.