If you can’t beat ’em, don’t try to be ’em. After several years of chasing cable and streaming services by trying to program more challenging, highbrow but narrow fare, the broadcast networks are acting more like broadcast networks next season.
The broadcast networks just wrapped a week of upfront presentations to advertisers, showing off their new wares in preparation for booking next season’s commercial buys. But what’s new is old again: Case-of-the-week procedural dramas, multi-camera and family sitcoms, and new shows from trusted TV powerhouse producers are all on tap in the coming year. The dream of the early 2000s (you know, before downloads, streaming services and apps screwed everything up) is alive: So much so that “24,” “Prison Break,” Kevin James and Matt LeBlanc are all making a comeback next year.
“There was a lot of cable envy going on for many years,” said Turner Entertainment chief creative officer Kevin Reilly, the former entertainment president at Fox. “If the broadcast networks are getting back to their knitting, which frankly is where CBS has always lived, that could be a positive. There’s a lot of content to choose from. If you know exactly what you’re getting from broadcast and you like that kind of thing, I think it’s a smart move.”
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That means a new round of lawyers, cops and docs at the nets. ABC’s “Conviction” stars Hayley Atwell as the former First Daughter, who now investigates cases of wrongful convictions. Fox’s “APB” centers on a tech billionaire (Justin Kirk) who invents a new way to help cops fight crime. CBS’s “Pure Genius” follows another tech billionaire (Augustus Prew) who introduces a fresh approach for hospitals to treat patients.
There’s also some irony in the fact that one of the year’s hottest TV trends is shows about time travel, elements of which are seen in NBC’s “Timeless,” ABC’s “Time After Time,” Fox’s “Making History” and The CW’s “Frequency.” It’s as if executives got caught up in the idea and looked to emulate the lineups from 15 years ago. “I think the networks are retrenching to what they do best,” an agent said. “They’re paying attention to the stuff that works for them.”
If those middle-of-the-road shows don’t sound like your cup of tea, the broadcast networks are still planning several big, buzzy limited-run event series and specials. Among them: ABC’s “When We Rise,” an eight-hour miniseries from Dustin Lance Black and Gus Van Sant, about the dawn of the LGBTQ rights movement.
But here are some of the reasons that the networks put away the convertible, dusted off station wagon and merged back into their traditional lanes:
Broad-appeal shows still bring mass audiences to networks hurting for ratings.
As demographically desirable younger viewers flock to other platforms, the linear ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox networks continue to cater to a larger audience that grew up watching broadcast TV and are still used to primetime patterns.
And until Nielsen’s total audience measurement becomes a standard tool for advertisers, the focus remains on both live ratings and time-shifted viewership over the first three or seven days. “Our audience is traditional,” said CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller. “Over 60 percent is watching live in primetime.”
That audience is still tuning into standard network offerings like “NCIS,” which still grabs a tremendous 20 million viewers (when seven days’ worth of DVR/VOD usage is included) on average every week. The median age of “NCIS” is 60, yet because it attracts such a large tent, the show is averaging a 3.1 rating among adults 18-49 — making it one of the top-rated dramas on TV in that demographic as well.
“NCIS” and its spinoffs (“NCIS: Los Angeles” and “NCIS: New Orleans”) came on the heels of CBS’s successful “CSI” franchise. At NBC, entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt attempted at first to bring a cable sensibility to the Peacock when he joined from Showtime, but then Dick Wolf’s series “Chicago Fire” took off, spawning “Chicago Med” and “Chicago P.D.” That served as a reminder to the other networks that CBS didn’t have a lock on that formula. Next year, NBC is even introducing a fourth edition, “Chicago Justice,” while even looking at once again expanding Wolf’s original “Law & Order” universe. It’s not groundbreaking, but it sells.
“When networks try to pivot to something that feels pay cable only, that’s when they tend to go astray,” another agent said. “I think you’re going to continue to see more procedural shows, more franchise series. The networks are realizing they have a consistent, potentially unsexy but profitable constituency.”
As big-name actors and actresses flock to cable and streaming shows, traditional TV stars are still keen on broadcast.
There was a brief window a few years ago where feature film stars like Kevin Bacon were jumping into TV via the broadcast networks. Fox even agreed to Bacon’s desire for a short-order season in order to recruit him for “The Following.” But many top-tier actors and actresses are now going straight to streaming and cable, where the pay is higher and the demands are less taxing.
“For an actor trying to dip their toes in the TV world, a high-end actor or someone who has never considered television, they’re not going to even go to the network,” another talent agent said. “They’re going to go straight to Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, HBO, Showtime, and now even FX, TNT, AMC… There’s big money to be had.”
That leaves traditional TV stars to populate the small screen. And plenty of them are on new shows this year, including Damon Wayans (Fox’s “Lethal Weapon”), Kiefer Sutherland (ABC’s “Designated Survivor”), Ted Danson (NBC’s “The Good Place”) and John Lithgow (NBC’s “Trial and Error”).
Network deals are considered too rigid for auteur-minded writers/producers now used to the freedom of other platforms.
Producers looking to do high-brow fare know better than to pitch their ideas to broadcast, where 22-episode seasons are still the norm (although less so than in the past) and series are still canceled faster.
One agent said his clients are bypassing broadcast because they don’t want to be locked exclusively to one show. “People are telling us they don’t want to work on a network show, either because it doesn’t make sense creatively or they would prefer to develop,” he said. “Overall there are really more creative opportunities for auteurs working in other mediums, places like Netflix and Hulu. Knowing there are so many other buyers, both in streaming, premium and basic to sell in, [broadcast] encompasses a smaller portfolio for our business.”
Familiar franchises cut through the clutter.
Remakes, reboots and revisits have become a part of the broadcast TV diet, and next year new takes on “Lethal Weapon” (Fox), “The Exorcist” (Fox), “Frequency” (The CW), “MacGyver” (CBS), “Taken” (NBC) are a reminder that the networks have become averse to risk. “To some extent broadcast networks have become what the studio system on the movie side became six or seven years ago,” said an agent. “That leads to potential concerns over whether original ideas are dead and whether it can be reinvented.”
Fox TV Group chairman Dana Walden, whose network is so high on “24: Legacy” that it will air behind the Super Bowl, said recognizable intellectual property is important to attract viewers who are distracted by the sheer volume of TV out there. “Obviously, viewers are aware of those titles,” she said. “There’s goodwill. If they’re executed in an incredible way, you get a little bit of a leg up, because they don’t require the same marketing muscle as trying to introduce a brand-new concept.”
Regime changes at the networks triggered some course corrections.
ABC is hooking into new procedurals and CBS is returning to the kind of guy-centric multi-camera comedies that used to work for the network. It’s no coincidence that both networks have new entertainment presidents at the helm this year: Channing Dungey at ABC and Glenn Geller at CBS.
Both Dungey and Geller are actually long-time veterans at their respective networks, so they both know what works and what doesn’t. Neither implemented a radical overhaul of their lineups, but both made a few strategic tweaks in the hope of shoring up weak areas. Quite simply, those tweaks were to go back to what their networks have successfully done in the past, and not being afraid to remove shows that were either long in the tooth (like “Castle” and “Nashville” at ABC) or didn’t quite fit the brand (“Supergirl” at CBS).
“They’re paying attention to the stuff that works for them,” an agent said. “CBS not moving forward with ‘Supergirl,’ ABC getting rid of bloated old shows that weren’t working anymore and just going full-on Shonda Rhimes. At CBS, give Glenn and Leslie credit. They’re going to have Kevin James, Matt LeBlanc and Joel McHale. They basically went after and got the three biggest male comedy stars available.”
Geller said he didn’t think CBS had ever strayed far from the mainstream strategy: “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “Our goal remains the same. We want the biggest, broadest hits we can find.”
The power of the megaproducer.
The networks are doubling down on TV titans Dick Wolf, Greg Berlanti and Shonda Rhimes because… well, they have to. Not only are Wolf, Berlanti and Rhimes proven performers, but network execs want to keep them happy.
All three have five shows at their respective home networks, and with great ratings comes great power. That includes greenlights and renewals for shows that might not have been so lucky under a different producer.
“Greg exerted his power at the CW, Shonda definitely did at ABC, and Dick throws it around pretty aggressively,” an agent said.
Executives are bullish on big advertiser upfront dollars.
Let’s face it, this is probably the key reason the networks don’t need to act like cable or streaming: because broadcast is still a $9 billion industry. Why rock the boat?
CBS CEO Leslie Moonves points to the strength of the network “scatter market” — that’s this time of year, when advertisers pay a hefty premium in order to make a last-minute buy of a 30-second spot. With a strong ad market right now, those available slots are rare–and pricey.
“The upfront is coming at a very good time for network television,” Moonves said. “Our first quarter numbers were the largest they’ve ever been and that was due to how strong the scatter market was and advertising is. We see money coming back to network. The glow of digital, the bloom is off the rose. Basic cable does not have the reach or the ratings we do. You see basic cable in decline, also a positive for us as we go into another season.”
Digital troubles, cable in decline? That may be broadcast bluster, but for now, at least, the networks appear to be enjoying this trip in the wayback machine. Said Moonves: “We’re playing a strong hand.”