Big Four Chiefs Debate Traditional Broadcast Calendar: "I'd Forgotten How Dumb It Was"

ABC and Fox chiefs share fatigue with the early May crunch, while CBS and NBC execs seem more wed to the upfront schedule.
Gizelle Hernandez
ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke

The heads of entertainment at each of the Big Four networks gathered Monday afternoon in Beverly Hills to again offer their rebuttal on the persistent industry narrative that broadcast is dead — as well as to debate the deadlock between writers and agents and, interestingly, the current calendar to which they're all married.

"I'd forgotten how dumb it was," said ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke, who took her post in November after several years in the cable and development space. The recent pilot season and the ensuing crunch to cast, film, make pickups and cancellations in time for the networks' May pitches to advertisers proved to be a rough re-entry. "The sheer fierce competition for talent at that time, it's not good for the talent," Burke added. "We're not serving the creatives well, and I don't think we're serving the audience well."

Burke, one of five execs onstage at the Beverly Hilton for the Hollywood Radio and Television Society luncheon, said she's doing her part to fight against the calendar by developing more series off of the traditional cycle.

Michael Thorn, president of entertainment at the newly independent Fox Entertainment, appeared to be on the same page. "If we could design the ideal [scenario], we'd develop mostly off-cycle," he said. "Pilot season, which I don't think will ever go away, would complement it."

CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl and NBC Entertainment co-presidents of scripted programming Lisa Katz and Tracey Pakosta seemed warmer to the schedule, as it is, though both of their networks develop off-cycle as well. "There is something kind of exhilarating [to it]," said Kahl. "You have your whole team working in unison. You're finding out in a couple of months who can cut it and who can't."

"I like the structure it gives and the momentum," offered Katz. "We would love to not be so competitive and all fighting for the same resources — but each year we have things we're excited about, so something is working."

One thing that they all seemed to agree wasn't going anywhere is the upfronts themselves. Though the annual New York event has certainly lost some of the luster of years past, part of an industries-wide trend to spend less on dog-and-pony shows, the presentations remain a vital part of the ever-evolving relationship with advertisers.

"They're built for advertisers, so I think it still serves an important function for them," said Thorn. "I don't know that it goes away. But in terms of programming, it might not drive decisions as much as it has in the past."

"I would love to bust the cycle," added Burke. "But we'll always be there in May with our shows."

Speaking of development, the group was cautious when asked for their thoughts on the standoff between the Writers Guild of America and the Association of Talent Agents. "I don't think we know yet," said Thorn. "The entire business is in a state of disruption. At least for me, I'm a little bit nervous about this development season, quite frankly."