As the peak TV age continues to find new peaks, is it better to be a one-stop shop fighting for majority control, or a speciality store, offering curated picks to fill programming gaps the big guys miss? At the Television Critics Association summer press tour, the attending network heads made their pitch, arguing why each of their services is built to survive the upcoming content scourge courtesy of Disney+, Apple+, WarnerMedia, and more fresh, thirsty TV distributors.
That’s right. It was a brand-off. But which shows came out looking the strongest, which networks the most convincing, and which personalities the most deserving of audiences’ future time and attention? IndieWire sat through 17 days of more than 100 panels, and here’s what we learned: There is a whole lot of television, and a lot of strategies are in flux.
Timely Citizenship Narratives
A series of shows will examine the question of who belongs in a country that accepts refugees and immigrants while simultaneously Otherizing them. In August, AMC’s second season of “The Terror” anthology series titled “Infamy” will look at the WWII Japanese American internment through the lens of J-horror, while Amazon’s big-budget fantasy series “Carnival Row” casts fantastical creatures as the refugees. In the fall, NBC’s cheeky “Sunnyside” from “The Good Place” creator Mike Schurr stars Kal Penn as an ousted councilman who seeks to help a group of immigrants become American citizens.
Fond Farewells to Beloved Series
It’s the end of an era for two series that each helped put a network/streaming service on the map. “Supernatural” – a series that existed on The WB before switching over to help establish the fledgling CW – will execute its final hunt and end after a whopping 15 seasons. Over on Amazon, “Transparent” will go out in style with a movie musical that will give Judith Light her proper spotlight. And finally, many tears were shed on the panel for “The Good Place,” which helped establish NBC’s current era of thoughtful, meaningful, and inclusive comedies. What was teased of each program’s farewell tour looked promising – or at least reminded writers why these stories have resonated this long.
To be fair, Hulu’s half-day of shows wasn’t all that impressive, and an axed executive session didn’t do them any favors with the curious press. But Disney’s new adult programming destination made one big announcement during tour that got people talking: Disney+ will be available as an add-on to Hulu, and subscribers will have the option to bundle Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN for a price that’s exactly the same as Netflix ($12.99). Shows like “Reprisal” and “Dollface” put up respectable previews, but the sheer quantity of content being offered for so little — as well as its integral position within Disney’s streaming plans — was what really sent Hulu’s star rising.
“On Becoming a God in Central Florida” (Showtime)
Kirsten Dunst has done it again. After her acclaimed turn in the second season of “Fargo,” she’s back with another smart and satirical take on America. Krystal Stubbs (Dunst) is a single mom trying to achieve the American dream after a pyramid scheme destroyed her family. With shades of “The Lobster” and “Fargo,” “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” is a darkly comic tale set in 1992 about the cult of free enterprise. Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky created the series, while George Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Dunst herself executive produce. This one got people talking.
In Fact, Everything in the CBS Family But CBS
With gorgeous production values and a unique take on womanhood in America, CBS All Access’ “Why Women Kill” is an addictive limited series starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Lucy Liu, and Kirby Howell-Baptiste as three wives who live in the same house but in different eras — the ’60s, the ’80s, and today. A series of events lead to a mysterious murder in each time period, but the victim and killer may not be whom viewers expect. It’s an ambitious and unique series that could easily belong on any premium channel, and content like this and Showtime’s buzzy Gal Godot-starring Hedy Lamarr biopic and the abovementioned “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” shows that the derivatives of the mother network are really what sets the company’s content apart.
Streaming — For Kids!
Netflix and Amazon have offered children’s programming before, but with the looming Disney+ about to launch, a bigger push is being made to lure younger viewers to other platforms. Netflix’s upcoming “Green Eggs and Ham” adaptation boasts big-name talent — Michael Douglas, Diane Keaton, Keegan-Michael Key, Eddie Izzard, among others — and that signature, elastic, Seussian style. Meanwhile, CBS All Access is adding to its library content with more than 1,000 episodes of children’s programming, including “Inspector Gadget” and “Madeline.” New series joining in late 2019 include “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” and an all-new “Danger Mouse.”
Could this be Masterpiece’s next “Downton Abbey”? That’s what PBS is hoping to achieve with the humorous and lavish “Sanditon,” Andrew Davies’ adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel. In the series, country lass Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) visits the growing seaside town of Sanditon and meets the rather haughty Sidney Parker (Theo James), independent heiress Miss Lambe (Crystal Clarke), and the colorful local residents. Romance ensues, but not all that smoothly. While many versions of the “completed” story have been attempted, this eight-hour season delivers far more of that signature Austen wit and social commentary than has been tried before – and with the potential of additional seasons.
ABC Entertainment President Karey Burke didn’t have a great executive session, but given that Afton Williamson’s allegations broke just one day prior, it’s hard to blame her for steering clear of specifics — once lawyers get involved, there’s not much that can be said on-record. Her pre-planned announcements fared much better, as surprise panel for “The Little Mermaid: Live!” went over quite well, and event series like “Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11” as well as more installments of “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” showed more ambition from the network than we’ve seen in a while. Live musicals, event specials, and live shows are a necessary compliment to broadcast’s more traditional programming, as those day-of ad dollars help bottom lines.
Alongside pilot director and EP Nicole Kassell and star Regina King, showrunner Damon Lindelof brought a first look at his upcoming HBO series to the TCAs, and engaged in a thoughtful, clear, and focused discussion on the complex issues presented in the series. Plenty of creators deflect challenging questions or struggle to form coherent responses when pushed, but the “Watchmen” reps took everything the reporters had to throw at them and came out looking better than before. Opinions on the footage are locked up ’til October, but the panel is worth reading over for any prospective viewers.
The big winner at the 2019 TCA Awards — taking home three trophies, including Individual Achievement in Comedy (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), Outstanding Achievement in Comedy, and Program of the Year — was also a talking point during Amazon’s presentation. Jennifer Salke expressed her desire for more seasons, touted the show’s 11 Emmy nominations, and Amazon even set up a Fleabag guinea pig cafe in the back of the room. It’s smart to play into a group that’s already in love with this show, considering their words could help boost the show (and Amazon) toward Emmy wins (if not another season).
Broadcast Networks’ Ongoing Struggle With Morality and Social Consciousness
CBS’ better onscreen diversity is sadly still stymied by the bias seen on its reality shows, while its track record for addressing sexism is still unsatisfactory, as Senior Editor Hanh Nguyen outlined. Meanwhile, over on Fox, “Almost Family” is an American adaptation of an Australian series in which a fertility doctor uses his own sperm without his clients’ knowledge to father countless children. But instead of examining the criminal and traumatic aspects of this medical rape, the series spins it into a heartwarming and occasionally funny take on newfound families.
Fox’s Emmy Hype
Props to Fox Entertainment CEO Charlie Collier for taking questions during his executive session, but the now-independent broadcast network failed to capture a lot of excitement for its upcoming Emmys telecast. Collier kicked off the day by confirming Variety Michael Schneider’s report that there would be no Emmy host in 2019, but rather than provide a substitute source of excitement, the Fox chief seemed unenthused about the whole enterprise.
“We’re so proud to host the Emmys, but no one will say that it is Fox’s Emmys,” Collier said. “We’re happy to have it this year and we’ll pass it on to another network partner next year.” He added that one benefit of going hostless was getting more time to spend honoring shows that are ending, like “Game of Thrones,” “Veep,” and “The Big Bang Theory.” Collier also included Fox’s “Empire” in that same group — even though it’s not nominated for anything, which could explain why Fox is fine setting expectations at a minimum. With just 18 Emmy nominations this year, Fox doesn’t have a lot of shows in the running, so the Emmys will essentially serve as an advertisement for a lot of other networks.
Revival, Reboot, and Franchise Fatigue Continues
Between “BH90210,” questions about a “Fresh Off the Boat” spinoff, and pretty much everything on The CW, the onslaught of “reimagined” properties is still going strong. Though there are some that could prove worth the effort — like another ABC spinoff, “Mixed-ish” — “BH90210” has been banished to the Valley by critics, the “dark and gritty” “Nancy Drew” seems to be playing into overdone trends, and all these superhero shows that are built from universe-building crossover events (“Batwoman,” please be good) are hard to get excited about.
NBC’s Executive Panel
What executive panel, you ask? Precisely. Despite scoring the third most Emmy nominations of any network and hosting plenty of critical favorites (“The Good Place!” “This Is Us!”), NBC Entertainment Chiefs Paul Telegdy and George Cheeks didn’t sit down to answer questions about their great ratings and/or great shows. That NBC was the only broadcast network not to conduct an executive Q&A only made it worse, as did their half-day of programming on the last day of tour. There was time, there was demand, so have a seat and do some bragging!
Similar to NBC’s executive panel, Netflix’s loss is more of a no contest. The streaming behemoth skipped another TCA Press tour, missing out on an opportunity to plug beloved upcoming series like “Dear White People,” “GLOW,” and “Mindhunter” — not to mention high-priority new shows like “The Dark Crystal,” Ryan Murphy’s “The Politician,” and “Unbelievable.” Sure, Netflix executives would’ve faced some tough questions about recent cancellations like “Tuca & Bertie” and “The OA,” but a) they’ve proven quite capable in past sessions of saying “no comment” whenever they need to, and b) getting the network’s side of things out into the world is usually better than remaining mute. Netflix, please come back to the TCAs — we love so many of your shows.
Additional reporting by Tyler Hersko, Libby Hill, Steve Greene and Tambay Obenson.