It turns out 2017 was just the appetizer. The TV industry is undergoing a dramatic evolution, and in 2018, the courses are about to get much larger. On this year’s menu: Massive consolidation, including already-announced deals such as AT&T/Time Warner, Sinclair/Tribune Media, Discovery Communications/Scripps Networks and Disney/20th Century Fox; the potential demise of one of the Big 4 networks, along with the closure of many more smaller networks; and the long-anticipated launch of Apple’s ambitious TV programming.
It will be disruptive, but it will also make for a fascinating year for anyone who keeps tabs on the television business. Here are a few questions to ponder as the year kicks off:
There are dozens of unanswered questions about what might happen once Disney takes control of the 20th Century Fox film and TV studios, as well as networks like FX and Nat Geo. But the biggest one swirls around the biggest property left behind in the transaction: The Fox network, which almost everyone agrees (including Rupert Murdoch) will be dramatically different once it’s separated from the studio. With no immediate scripted pipeline, Fox is expected to focus more on news, sports and unscripted fare, along with potentially buying programming from other studios.
Will Fox downsize its staff, as a result? What happens to 20th shows on Fox like “The Simpsons” and “Empire”? Will Fox Television Group chairpeople Dana Walden and Gary Newman stick around? And most immediately, as the networks pick up pilots for fall, will Fox still be in the game this spring? What will its fall schedule look like?
There are legitimate concerns over consolidation and the behemoth that will result when Time Warner and AT&T merge. And there are surely some officials inside the Department of Justice who regret the decision to approve the Comcast/NBC Universal merger a few years ago, and don’t want to make the same mistake again. But the Donald Trump DOJ’s decision to file a civil antitrust lawsuit to block AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner appears more politically motivated than a desire to protect consumers.
Trump, of course, is highly critical of Time Warner’s CNN and never passes up a chance to attack his “enemies” through any means necessary. “[This] stretches the reach of antitrust law beyond the breaking point,” said AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said. AT&T will likely look to make concessions to get approval before heading to the courtroom, but Stephenson has said that dropping CNN to seal the deal is a “nonstarter.” More likely, pundits believe AT&T might even be willing to sell DirecTV in order to get the acquisition approved. Then it will see whether the DOJ was truly concerned about AT&T’s market power, or if it’s really about CNN.
Following the Fox/Disney news, the sky appears to be the limit in terms of how many other companies may opt to merge and get bigger in order to survive this digital age. CBS, Sony, Lionsgate, Viacom and others are said to be on the table. Then there are the big Silicon Valley companies flush with cash: Citi analysts made headlines this week by suggesting that there is now a “40 percent likelihood” that Apple will acquire Netflix.
No one was asking for an “American Idol” revival this fast, just two years after its Fox finale in 2016 — except for producer FremantleMedia North America. The production company was worried about losing the brand’s power if it sat on the shelf too long, and so now it’s back — premiering Sunday, March 11, at 8 p.m. Besides FremantleMedia, the only real constant is host Ryan Seacrest, who’s back to oversee the proceedings with new (pricey) hosts Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie. By the end of its run on Fox, “Idol” — the most powerful show on television for much of the 2000s — was still a decent performer among adults 18-49, but a shell of former self, having been overshadowed by NBC’s “The Voice.” Curiosity might help open the new “Idol,” but the music space is still saturated by both “The Voice” and also Fox’s new “The Four,” which gets a jump on the “Idol” return by premiering on Jan. 4.
Apple spent 2017 firming up its new TV team, hiring away Sony’s Jamie Erhlict and Zack Van Amburg to head up its video operations, as well as WGN America’s Matt Cherniss to oversee development. Among the projects in the works: A space drama from Ronald D. Moore; a new take on “Amazing Stories” from Amblin TV, Bryan Fuller and Hart Hanson; and a scripted peek inside the world of morning TV starring and produced by Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston. It’s not clear whether any of these shows will be released by the end of 2018, but at the very least, we’ll have a better idea how these shows will be released and marketed. Via Apple Music? A new streaming platform?
Even before Roy Price’s exit from Amazon, the streaming service had been rethinking its programming strategy. Despite a string of critically lauded series, the service failed to make inroads with buzz or many awards, and even its acclaim started to falter. Now, the focus is on big-budget event-style series, including Guillermo del Toro’s “Carnival Row,” starring Orlando Bloom; Julia Roberts in the political thriller “Homecoming”; Matt Weiner’s anthology series “The Romanoffs”; and a new TV series take on “Lord of the Rings.” Amazon has almost completely shuffled the heads of its programming teams, with Sharon Tal Yguado now in charge of scripted series and Heather Schuster running unscripted; now the search continues for Price’s replacement. Albert Cheng is currently running Amazon Studios on an interim basis, but names floated around to take the job permanently include Walden, A&E’s Nancy Dubuc, YouTube’s Susanne Daniels, Paramount TV’s Amy Powell, NBC’s Jennifer Salke and 20th Century Fox Film’s Stacey Snider.
Hollywood’s sexual harassment scandals were the top entertainment story of 2017 — and the overall #MeToo movement was the nation’s biggest news of the year. (No small feat, given the insanity happening under this new White House.) As 2018 begins, the industry is expecting more revelations, while TV shows rocked by the news are undergoing their own evolutions. When Netflix’s “House of Cards” returns for its final season, it will be with Robin Wright as the show’s sole lead — as star Kevin Spacey was forced to exit in the wake of multiple allegations of harassment over the years and even on the set. Meanwhile, the status of Amazon’s “Transparent” also remains up in he air following several allegations against star Jeffrey Tambor. Although at first it appeared that Tambor had quit the show, he later claimed that he did no such thing. Amazon has not yet revealed how the show will handle Tambor’s presence — or lack of presence — as Maura Pfefferman when production resumes.
Similarly, on the news side, NBC and CBS haven’t yet finalized their post-Matt Lauer and post-Charlie Rose plans. Both morning hosts were fired in the wake of sexual harassment revelations, and for now “Today” is continuing with Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb, while Rose’s co-anchors Norah O’Donnell and Gayle King have anchored as a duo. “Today” has actually improved its standing vs. “Good Morning America” in the weeks following Lauer’s exit, and “CBS This Morning” has held steady — leading plenty to note that neither show ultimately needed those expensive male anchors. Given the fact that ratings have held steady, there’s also perhaps a chance both shows simply continue as they are now.
We ask the same question every year. Services like Netflix are awash in data; how has none of that information ever leaked out? Beyond the drips and drabs that Netflix occasionally shares (mostly as fun trivia), the industry has had to rely on numbers from outside sources like Nielsen. But that data is limited to what audiences watch on their TVs, leaving out a large chunk of audience consuming programming on their mobile devices. And Netflix is quick to pooh-pooh that data anyway. But it’s the best we have, and Nielsen data mostly confirms what we probably already knew anyway: This year’s hits included Season 2 of “Stranger Things,” while “The Crown” had a smaller following.
There’s no shortage of Schadenfreude in Hollywood, as rivals secretly (and not so secretly) root for Netflix to stumble. But other than a few cancellations, Netflix has continued to grow in size, stature and acclaim — and even those execs rooting for a misstep can’t help but be in awe of the streaming service’s power. But especially in Hollywood, nothing gold can stay forever. Netflix is spending $8 billion this year in programming, but that also means it’s become so large that some of its content will just naturally fall by the wayside. And with competition growing — including the aforementioned Apple, a renewed competitive rival in Amazon and Disney’s coming offerings — there’s always a chance that Netflix is MySpace. Unlikely. But 2018 will be a pivotal year in the streaming game.
Spike TV, the network that was once TNN and The Nashville Network, is undergoing yet another transformation: Paramount Network launches on January 18 as Viacom’s premium basic cable network, with a high-end programming strategy on par with FX and AMC. Beyond shows making the transition, like “Lip Sync Battle” (which will help christen the relaunch with a special live edition), Paramount will bow with the six-part event series “Waco,” starring Michael Shannon, Taylor Kitsch, John Leguizamo and Melissa Benoist. Later, Paramount has the Kevin Costner drama “Yellowstone,” a long-awaited series remake of the cult film “Heathers,” and the John Wells comedy “American Woman.” But in an age where major cable entertainment networks are experiencing declines on par with the broadcasters, introducing a new network will be a challenge.
The successful returns of “The X-Files,” “Gilmore Girls” and “Full House” (rebranded as “Fuller House”), followed by this fall’s hit rebirth of “Will & Grace,” has only encouraged the revival trend. Recent successful remakes and reboots include Netflix’s new take on “One Day at a Time,” and CBS’ new “MacGyver” (paired with its earlier redo of “Hawaii Five-0”). Now, even more are on the docket: Next up, ABC’s return of “Roseanne” this spring, NBC is kicking around a new “The Office,” while Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt are mulling a return to “Mad About You” and a remake of “Magnum, P.I.” is in development at CBS. Is this how NBC eventually brings back “Must See TV”?
Brace yourself. And prepare a stiff drink.
Joe Adalian and I discussed some of the headlines likely coming our way in 2018 for the latest edition of KCRW’s “Screengrab.” Listen below!
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