TV Upfronts: Who's Up, Who's Down, Who's Desperate
Fox plots 'Idol' endgame, ABC courts more diversity and NBC wipes its slate clean (again) as the $9 billion ad scramble hits NYC.
This story first appeared in the May 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Pilot season was on a fixed course by the time Empire's unprecedented rise astonished network execs. It was too late for broadcast to ready a pack of copycats, but the Fox drama did prove that traditional TV viewers still can be courted in droves. That is sure to weigh heavily on ad buyers as they prepare to dole out up to an estimated $9 billion in advertising — likely off 6 or 7 percent from 2014-15 — when the broadcast upfront market kicks off May 11 in New York.
Where It Stands: The top series on broadcast — Empire, which averaged a 7.1 rating in the key demo, just shy of Sunday Night Football — is sure to garner more upfront airtime than any of its new shows. Sources say Gary Newman and Dana Walden's first appearance as TV Group chairmen will bring news that the hip-hop drama has been given a heftier 18-episode order. "The heat is now on Empire to sustain its audience and launch something else," SMGx's Sam Armando says of the No. 4 network, which still suffered a dramatic 20 percent ratings drop courtesy of flop Utopia, more American Idol fatigue and Sleepy Hollow's sophomore slump. Idol will return with the same trio of judges, but insiders say the 15th season will be cut back and is expected to be the series' last.
What's New: Unlike predecessor Kevin Reilly, under whom Fox operated as an independent network, Walden and Newman are keeping much of their orders in the Fox TV Group family. They've pushed for male-friendly comedy — with the buzz on Rob Lowe's Grinder making up for its unfortunate title — and a heavy supply of male-led genre plays. Sources say Minority Report's late order was the result of a fight between owners Paramount and 20th TV over the number of episodes available on demand. Other eleventh-hour scrambles included finding showrunner help on The Frankenstein Code and DC's Lucifer.
Surprise Move: Passing on Eric McCormack's Studio City, which was, by all accounts, the closest the network came to developing a soapy Empire companion. Insiders say it came in "a bit bland," and Fox brass feared the Warner Bros. entry would feel "too generic" paired with Empire. (A network spokesperson says talks are ongoing and no formal decision has been made on the future of Studio City.)
Where It Stands: The only Big Four network to improve its 18-to-49 standing (up 5 percent, year-over-year) should give entertainment group chief Paul Lee, along with new boss Ben Sherwood, plenty to crow about. The network scored with multiple diverse breakouts (How to Get Away With Murder, Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat) and Lee's continued success among female viewers. His confidence is reflected in his renewals, with eight first-year shows set to return. (Don't worry: Jimmy Kimmel still has plenty of material for his annual upfront roast, including the late, poorly titled Forever.) What's missing? New series that lure Y chromosomes. "You just have to build on that success with women," says Horizon Media's Brad Adgate.
What's New: ABC largely will stay the course, loading up on diverse fare (an Uncle Buck reboot starring a black family; a second comedy with an Asian-American lead in Ken Jeong's Dr. Ken); and more from Shonda Rhimes (Mireille Enos starrer The Catch) and Rhimes disciples (Joan Allen thriller The Family). Also noteworthy: With the exception of a couple of co-productions, the network ordered only from its sister studio. A Muppets reboot is among the buzziest pickups inside ABC.
Surprise Move: Could ABC's love affair with corporate cousin Marvel be waning? Despite subpar ratings for Marvel's Agents of SHIELD and offshoot Agent Carter, many assumed an Adrianne Palicki-fronted SHIELD spinoff would have a slot on the schedule. (It doesn't.)
Where It Stands: More Thursday Night Football and The Big Bang Theory will continue to drive the No. 2 net. Once again it's largely about managing older series, and entertainment chairman Nina Tassler has earned admirers for playing musical chairs to strong results with CBS' veteran procedurals — one reason the network fell only 4 percent among adults 18-to-49 in 2014-15. "They can't cancel all of these old shows, but you're not going to see any of them grow," says Armando. "Any growth CBS has will be based on new shows."
What's New: CBS will have a lot of familiar IP to tout, with a handful of reboots (Rush Hour, Limitless) and a big DC Comics swing (Supergirl). The latter's fate had seemed iffy only weeks earlier, but the pilot episode is said to have tested well, and the show fits squarely into Tassler's new female-empowerment narrative. In comedy, the network known for Chuck Lorre's multicam fare is moving forward with two single-camera entries, a pricier genre not known to syndicate as well.
Surprise Move: CBS passed on Super Clyde — again. It was two years after the network had developed the Greg Garcia comedy the first time and six months after it abruptly canned Garcia's other half-hour, The Millers.
Where It Stands: With a No. 1 ranking to brag about (thank you, NFL and The Voice), don't expect entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt to issue a mea culpa for the dismal performance of last year's freshman crop. Still, NBC is down 11 percent among adults 18-to-49 for the season, even with a lift from the Super Bowl. Worse, megahit The Blacklist plummeted in its move to Thursday, and the network's comedy slate largely has been wiped clean.
What's New: A lot. On top of straight-to-series pickups Coach and Telenovela, the network's drama offerings are said to be considerably stronger than its comedy ones. While the safest bet is Chicago Med, yet another notch in Dick Wolf's broadcast bedpost, insiders are amped about The Player (a sniper drama that along with Game of Silence had NBC and Sony squabbling over ownership late in the week).
Surprise Move: The Danny Pudi comedy Strange Calls was among the "hot" projects that lost steam, though studio 20th TV is expected to redevelop it (again).
Where It Stands: "Genre" remains the watchword. CW president Mark Pedowitz's push into male-friendly comic book programming has proved a smart strategy, with ratings favorably flat thanks to the net's biggest success to date (The Flash). Meanwhile, its critical darling, Golden Globe winner Jane the Virgin, has struggled to find an audience. The telenovela is averaging a (very) weak 0.6 demo rating — and that's after DVR viewing.
What's New: In addition to the expected Arrow/Flash spinoff Legends of Tomorrow (a Greg Berlanti production with little more than a sizzle reel to show), The CW ordered more genre fare in outbreak thriller Cordon from The Vampire Diaries' Julie Plec. Together, Plec and Berlanti claim more than half of the network's weekly real estate. Also key: Both dramas hail from CW co-parent Warner Bros., which needed the boost given the Big Four largely turned to sister studios this year.
Surprise Move: CBS TV Studios was peddling the musical comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend months after the pilot was dead at Showtime. Its last-minute salvation at The CW requires big changes, but Pedowitz has been keen on comedy and a potential Jane companion.
Additional reporting by Lesley Goldberg.
Updated: This story has been updated to reflect Studio City is still in contention at Fox.