TV Upfronts: Power Plays, Surprises and Status Checks From the 5 Networks
Ratings are (mostly) down and last season's freshman class proved to be a dud, but the coming upfront market is expected to thrive — with $9 billion on the table as analysts predict a 3 to 5 percent increase from 2015.
So what is broadcast's status on the eve of the cash grab, kicking off Monday in New York? The distinction between ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and The CW is more nuanced than ever. "It's harder for buyers to see who's going in with a good story because everyone is down, year over year," says Horizon Media senior vp, director of national broadcast David Campanelli. "When there isn't a huge difference between No. 1 and No. 4, you absolutely have to be about the brand. And the programming has to back that up."
Where It Stands: Behind the rest of the Big Four, that's for sure. Dropping 18 percent with adults 18-49 from the previous season, the Disney-owned network is entering a rebuilding year that sees nine new series chosen by new president Channing Dungey (and boss Ben Sherwood) from a crop of pilots selected by ousted predecessor Paul Lee. ABC, under the hands-on Sherwood, is said to want to shift away from its Lee-era reliance on a slate of heavily serialized soaps, but that will take time — and go-to producers who aren't named Shonda Rhimes.
What's New: The most promising orders are Kiefer Sutherland political drama Designated Survivor — it needs to rate, as the ABC Studios production is rumored to have paid an unprecedented sum to Sutherland — Time After Time and Rhimes’ period spin on Romeo & Juliet (Still Star-Crossed). "There’s been such a reliance on Shonda,” notes one top agent, “and she proved to not be infallible this year with The Catch.” (Still, the series nabbed a second season, and will likely help fill schedule space left open by Scandal's 16-episode season, a move to accommodate star Kerry Washington's pregnancy.) Comedy orders — Imaginary Mary, Speechless, Downward Dog, Untitled Sarah Dunn — are slightly less family-focused than recent years.
Surprise Move: Those cold cancelations, for one. With the dismissal of costly co-star Stana Katic, Castle was primed for a final 13-episode order. Instead, the drama abruptly goes out with the unceremonious airing of dirty laundry. The Nashville cancellation also caught several by surprise, while the decision not to add more Marvel fare had a few cheering. Renewals for The Real O'Neals and The Catch also appear more political than rational, as neither pulled much of an audience this season.
Where It Stands: Another first-timer, CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller will get an assist from hands-on boss Leslie Moonves at Wednesday's presentation — presumably once they've given a final word on those shows still hanging in the balance (Code Black, The Odd Couple, Limitless, Beyond Borders, etc). The network will finish the season at No. 1 in both the demo and viewers, but primetime is not. Expect the tinkering at modestly rated The Late Show With Stephen Colbert to be among the more pressing concerns among reporters. Rumblings of layoffs and considerable changes loom over the once-sure thing, which Chris Licht was brought on to overhaul in April.
What's New: With The Big Bang Theory now showing its age, hitting season lows ahead of its May finale, the network's hunt for the next multicam hit is getting aggressive. Its 2016 orders include starring roles for pricey, proven TV stars including Kevin James (Kevin Can Wait), Matt LeBlanc (Man With a Plan) and Joel McHale (The Great Indoors). On the drama side, CBS still has IP fever, with Training Day and the (about-to-be rejiggered) MacGyver remake both joining the Dr. Phil origins story — you heard that right — Bull, Jason Katims medical swing Pure Genius and Katherine Heigl vehicle Doubt.
Surprise Move: Geller was said to be extremely enthusiastic about the Nancy Drew reboot earlier in the season, but it died on the vine. Also, in the sphere of female-friendly fare and far less surprising, CBS eagerly cut the strings on Supergirl, shipping it off to the more genre-friendly CW, where a more cost-efficient effort will air in the fall. (Remember what the network did with Sarah Michelle Gellar pilot Ringer in 2011?). Also, Man With a Plan was supposed to be a broadcast return vehicle for Jenna Fischer, but she's out in an apparently amicable case of a different creative direction.
Where It Stands: The sparkle of Empire may not be as bright as a year ago, but it's still the top series on broadcast and helped Fox climb out of the No. 4 slot. Bonus: The network also is finally unburdened by the weight of American Idol, but those 30-plus hours won't fill themselves, and much of Dana Walden and Gary Newman's spiel on Monday could focus on how they plan to do so with the continued rebuild — which is now heavily reliant on familiar titles, largely from their own library (see 24, Prison Break) — during their second appearance at the Beacon Theatre. What they won't cop to during their dog-and-pony show: a real weakness in comedy, with all four freshman half-hours already axed.
What's New: Many hopes are pinned to 24 spinoff Legacy (with heavy hype surrounding star Corey Hawkins) as well as Lee Daniels' Empire follow-up Star, which has a few of those, too. There's also The Exorcist, Pitch, WBTV order Lethal Weapon, which is said to have gone over particularly well in screenings, and previously announced limited series Shots Fired and that Prison Break revisit. Comedy, however, remains a work in progress, with one agent noting: "They're trying to figure out what their comedy brand is." Looking ahead, Son of Zorn is said to be an internal favorite — another outing from The Last Man on Earth executive producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who also sold Making History to Fox.
Surprise Move: The internet will continue to cry foul over the cancellations of low-rated pseudo-darlings The Grinder and Grandfathered (not to mention the renewal of Nicole Beharie-less Sleepy Hollow) for some time, but no decision is terribly shocking. And as far as the bloodbath goes, last week was not a terribly dramatic one at Fox. Of course, it had far fewer shows to cut loose. Similarly unsurprising with Walden and Newman at the helm: Only one of the network's 11 pickups hailed from somewhere other than 20th.
Where It Stands: No. 2 to CBS, but only because of the Super Bowl, NBC continues to boast broadcast’s most consistent schedule, thanks to a highly functioning amalgam of sports, The Voice and Dick Wolf shows about the deep-dish pizza capital of the world. “It's a hard schedule to get on right now,” says one agent, noting the few holes on the franchise-heavy lineup. If something’s missing, it’s comedy. (Sadly for chief Bob Greenblatt, Wolf doesn't produce those.) NBC heads into another fall with one lone returning comedy (Superstore). And unlike last year, Greenblatt seems keen on rectifying that problem.
What's New: Five half-hours are currently set to join the 2016-17 NBC schedule, most notably Powerless, from DC Comics; the Tracey Wigfield-penned, Tina Fey-produced Great News; and The Good Place, Mike Schur’s post-Parks and Recreation follow-up starring Kristen Bell and Ted Danson. Sources say The Blacklist spinoff Redemption was an easy decision, as was the obligatory Wolf addition in a fourth Chicago entry, Justice, and Friday will likely get another genre drama in Midnight, Texas.
Surprise Move: What's going on with The Carmichael Show? Critics will likely revolt (or at least fire off a barrage of snarkier-than-usual tweets) if it doesn’t return, and good — arguably even great — buzz goes a long way (regardless of ratings) when your comedy brand is virtually nonexistent.
Where It Stands: Things are strictly status quo at the fifth broadcast network, where an increasingly comic book reliant lineup — thanks, Greg Berlanti! — has kept The CW dead-even. And we all know "steady" is the new "up." With a mere 10 hours to program each week, and all but one series returning next year, real estate on this schedule is virtually nonexistent.
What's New: Possibly more than they need. In addition to that Supergirl save, network president Mark Pedowitz also has added three more hourlongs in Archie comics spin Riverdale, comedic-skewing No Tomorrow and Frequency, which is said to have gone over especially well.
Surprise Move: The network's reliance on comic book IP (and Berlanti) is flirting with the saturation point. Six shows on the new lineup, five of them from the super-producer, are TV takes on existing properties.