From Reducing Ad Time to Battling Netflix, Here's How the TV Industry Is Gearing Up for 2016

5 takeaways from TCA winter press tour

TNT will reduce the ad load for new dramas by 50% to “create a better viewing experience,” said Kevin Reilly. Getty Images

The broadcast and cable networks, along with streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, have spent the past two weeks at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour, sharing their plans for midseason and beyond. (You can find all of Adweek's TCA coverage here.) In addition to trotting out the new shows they hope will connect with audiences, the networks also addressed the industry's larger issues—chiefly, how to stay relevant in a dramatically shifting landscape—and how to solve them.

Here are the five biggest takeaways from the TCA winter press tour, and the most significant ways the industry will change this year:

1. Reducing ad loads to entice and keep viewers. "TV is the best advertising delivery mechanism ever invented. It's unparalleled for building brands and moving consumers, but we have overstuffed the bird" and diluted the effectiveness of ads, said Kevin Reilly, president of TNT and TBS, and chief creative officer of Turner Entertainment.

That's why as part of his dramatic overhaul of TNT and TBS, Reilly is going to reduce the ad load on TNT's three new dramas this year by more than half, which will add eight to 10 minutes of program time per hour. (Turner is pursuing a similar strategy for truTV.) Fewer, more effective ads are essential to "create a better viewing experience," Reilly said. And if networks want to keep audiences from flocking to Netflix, reducing their "overstuffed" ad load is a solid first step.

2. The best way to make a series premiere stand out: Drop the ads. Sensing a trend here? Sometimes reducing ads isn't enough. Some networks are eliminating them altogether in order to make a splash of their series premieres. Syfy led the charge with The Magicians debut last month, and at least one other network is following suit. WGN America will premiere its next two series—Outsiders on Jan. 26 and Underground on March 9—without ads.

"In today's competitive landscape, we felt it was important for viewers to get as pure and as uninterrupted an introduction to these worlds as possible," said Matt Cherniss, president and GM for WGN America and Tribune Studios.

3. Even more TV is on the way—for at least one more year. A record 412 scripted series aired last year, along with an additional 750 unscripted series. But the 2016 tally will climb even higher before "peak TV" is reached, said FX Networks CEO John Landgraf. "I think there's a reasonable prospect there will be fewer in '17 than there are in '16. We'll get to 450 shows, and then there will be a contraction down to 350 or something like that," he said. "There's still going to be a lot of TV for the foreseeable future."

For now, it's a game of content chicken, as networks pile on the new series to see which network will blink first. Apparently it won't be Netflix. "We don't think there's too much TV. And if there is too much TV, someone else is going to have to slow down because we have big plans for 2016 and beyond," said Sarandos of Netflix, which will spend $6 billion on content in 2016.

4. It's open season on Netflix. As Netflix has almost single-handedly changed the way consumers watch TV, ushering in the binge-viewing and cord-cutting era, its competitors are no longer content to sit back as Netflix takes over the industry.

NBC pulled back the curtain on one of television's best-kept secrets—how many people actually watch a given episode on Netflix, anyway? It released Netflix ratings metrics from Symphony Advanced Media and declared the streaming service doesn't yet pose a "consistent" threat to broadcasters. (Netflix later dismissed it as "remarkably inaccurate data," but Symphony defended its methodology to Adweek, reiterating that "we have confidence in our data.")

Then, FX continued the Netflix assault later in the press tour. Landgraf blasted Netflix's "wonky" economics, claiming the company "doesn't make any significant profit" despite its hefty original content slate. "Something has got to give eventually in that regard."

Netflix, predictably, was unfazed by the criticism, but the company clearly has a target on its back this season, as its competitors look to prevent it from grabbing even more subscribers and buzz.

5. Making a Murderer could be the season's most influential new show. Hollywood always wants to clone the hot TV series of the moment (think Friends, Lost, Desperate Housewives, Modern Family and Empire), and the next show that the industry wants a piece of is Netflix's red-hot documentary series Making a Murderer. It came up multiple times throughout the press tour (everyone from Secrets and Lies star Juliette Lewis to Love executive producer Judd Apatow raved about it). Especially after the Serial podcast's first season caused a similar fervor, networks are eager to jump on the true-crime bandwagon.

Investigation Discovery is first in line. The network is fast-tracking a Steven Avery special, which will air later this month. And Netflix might also release a follow-up: Making a Murderer's co-directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demhave said they have spoken to Steven Avery "several" times in the past month. "We did record those calls, with an eye toward including them in any episodes, should there be any future episodes," said Ricciardi.

Plus, given Netflix's success in picking a strategic holiday release date for the show—which allowed audiences to binge-watch and obsess over it during the Christmas and New Year break when there was no other new TV content competing for attention—look for more companies to try their luck with that slot this December. 

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