Every four years, the networks must launch their new fall shows right in the middle of a presidential campaign. It’s never easy. This year, it may be nearly impossible.
“The entire marketplace is loud because of a political conversation taking place at the exact same time you’re trying to have an entertainment conversation,” said Andy Kubitz, ABC Entertainment’s executive vice president of program planning and scheduling. “And this year it’s even magnified by the bully pulpit of some of the candidates and makes it a little more difficult to get our message out there.”
In other words, the carnival nature of Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton has become must-see TV – and that threatens to distract viewers from watching actual primetime TV, or even paying attention to what’s coming to the small screen. “You can’t get away from the Trump-ism of the world,” Kubitz said. “The almost surreal, stranger-than-fiction aspect of the election is definitely sucking some of the air out of the promotional world.”
Kubitz said he likes to use the analogy of the networks “screaming at the top of our lungs, in a room full of people screaming at the top of our lungs. Trying to get your message across to these people is so difficult. Now that you have Mr. Trump screaming even louder than all of us combined, it has caused a problem for us.”
Adding to that struggle: The fact that more outlets, including streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, are premiering major series in the fall. Then there’s the return of NFL games (including an extended Thursday night package now shared by NBC, CBS and the NFL Network), big blockbuster films (“Rogue One”) and even more online distractions (like Snapchat and Pokemon Go) competing for attention.
“It’s extremely difficult for us to launch these shows and turn them into successful series as is,” Kubitz said. “It’s definitely one of those situations where we have a lot of things working against us.”
But Kelly Kahl, CBS primetime senior executive vice president, said the networks have weathered an avalanche of noisy distractions before, and can do it again this time as well. “Sure, it’s a pain in the rear end, but we’re all in the same boat,” he said. “It’s a fact, there’s nothing you can do about it. You pick yourself up and go, ‘how do we best work around it?'”
The first presidential debate takes place on Monday, Sept. 26, followed by the vice presidential debate on Tuesday, Oct. 4, the presidential town hall debate on Sunday, Oct. 9 and one more debate on Wednesday, Oct. 19. The election is on Tuesday, Nov 8.
That’s a lot of pre-emptions. “As for the debates and election coverage, it’s annoying and interrupting,” said Steve Kern, NBC Entertainment’s senior vice president of program planning and scheduling. “But the debates commission picks out the dates way in advance, so when we’re figuring out the schedule we know where they are. We also know the other networks are in the same boat. If our shows are going to be pre-empted on a Tuesday the third week of the season, so will be the shows on CBS, ABC and Fox. No one is at a competitive advantage.”
But no one wants to launch a new series, then pre-empt it a week, then bring it back the next week. That’s why some of the networks have done a crafty schedule tap dance this fall. At NBC, that meant waiting until the third week of the season to premiere freshman Monday drama “Timeless.” That left a 10 p.m. hole on the first Monday of the season, which NBC will utilize to give new Ted Danson comedy “The Good Place” a sneak preview behind “The Voice.”
At CBS, which normally likes to launch most of its series during premiere week, that meant spreading its debuts around — some before the debates, and some after. “I think the shows most vulnerable are new shows, and more or less we’ve been able to avoid that,” Kahl said. You play the hand you dealt. Each year is different. In this case, I think it’s a positive. “It will allow us early on to focus promotion on Kevin James’ new show, on ‘Bull,’ on ‘MacGyver.’ Those are priorities. We can put focus on those shows and delay the others a little bit, and give them the attention they deserve.”
With so much going on in the fall, the networks have tempered the number of new shows they’re launching. NBC only has three new series this fall – although Kern said that’s more a function of not having any shelf space. Between returning series and football on both Sundays and Thursdays, “Whether the election was happening or not we’d still only be launching three new shows in the fall, based on the time periods that we have available to us,” he said.
Kubitz said he learned four years ago, during the last presidential election, that “you have to minimize the inconsistency of your schedule as much as possible. This year we delayed the launch of our [new drama] ‘Conviction’ so it wasn’t on two weeks, then off, then on again. We’re delaying [Tuesday launches] three weeks so we can get at least 4 episodes before election night kicks in. Four years ago, ‘Happy Endings’ and ‘Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23’ were on two weeks, then off, then on, and then off again. That created a difficult time for them to launch. We’re trying to avoid that scenario from four years ago.”
Despite all the noise, Kahl said he believed viewers were still aware that the broadcast networks are back in full force in September. “I’m still confident we have the mass and scale to get people to our premiere week,” he said. “I think people still know its premiere week, even with streaming and cable. It’s like the changing of the seasons. People just know. It’s going back to school, it’s new cars and its new TV shows. People get it, they know it and they look forward to it.”
Kern, whose network at least had the Summer Olympics as a platform to promote fall shows, agreed: “The one thing broadcast TV has at its advantage, everyone – whether they watch or not – they know that the networks come back with new programming in the fall. 50 or 60 years of ingrained history doesn’t get thrown out after two years or three years of people watching Netflix. People may not watch the networks, but they know the new programming starts in September.”