The 2014 Upfront Preview

Analogies are often facile things, contrivances designed to hammer home a theme when a light tap of the mallet would suffice. But in light of the fact that it’s a) set in the advertising world and b) is the most self-reflexive show on television, the prospect of using Mad Men as a lens through which to observe the broadcast TV marketplace is too alluring to pass up. In a sense, each of the Big Four networks has a near-perfect analogue in one of the beautiful losers at Cooper Sterling Draper Dead Guy Harry Hamlin Whatever.

 CBS is clearly Roger Sterling. Les Moonves’ silver fox flagship is bold, cocksure and is so damned good at doing its job that it almost makes the business of broadcast look easy. A fine-tuned revenue machine—its unparalleled retransmission consent numbers and homegrown output leaves it less exposed to the vicissitudes of the ad market than its rivals—CBS is something of an impenetrable fortress. But a chest X-ray and a full cardio workup might suggest that the aging network is one highball-and-tobacco binge away from catastrophic collapse.

Although it probably would rather be Peggy Olson, ABC is Joan Harris. Unapologetically feminine, assertive and absolutely devastating when in its comfort zone, the network boasts some of the very few must-watch series on the broadcast dial. Unfortunately, when men aren’t leering at Joan like a horny wolf in a Tex Avery cartoon, they dismiss her altogether. (Perhaps if she wore a football helmet around the home office the boys would take her more seriously.) And while she always appears composed and unruffled—the picture of self-possession—under the surface she’s paddling furiously like a swan on Dexedrine. (It’s a hard-knock life when you’re on track to finish last in the ratings race for the third year running.)

Fox is Pete Campbell. Youngish but starting to age faster than he really should be, the glib smarmball has embraced the ephemera of Southern California after making a hash of things back East. But while many of the attributes he once relied on have all but disintegrated (looking at you, American Idol and New Girl), Pete wavers between archly gaming the system and total system collapse. Like his implacably receding hairline, his mojo is really starting to wear thin. Although he’s got a string of successes under his needlepoint belt, the account exec is going to have to make some big moves in L.A. if he’s going to get back to his A game.

Which leaves NBC. No. 1 with a bullet, the Peacock’s spirit animal is none other than Don Draper. Everything looks fantastic! Look at that mug! Look at those ratings! But take away his gilded props—the lovely wife, the full-time gig, the preternatural ability to tap into the idylls and anxieties of the American collective consciousness—and holy smokes, this guy is damaged goods. Look upon Thursday nights, ye Comedy Gods, and despair! Where once Don strode Madison Avenue like a colossus—not long ago, NBC could spackle dreck like Veronica’s Closet between Friends and Seinfeld and still pull a 13.2 in the demo—now he’s a weepy Cyrano drinking himself into the laundry bin and using Freddy Rumsen as his sock puppet. (Year-to-date, NBC is eking out a 1.1 in the 18-49 demo on the crucial night.)

Cue the defenestration title theme, because it’s time to explore the heart of darkness that is the broadcast TV marketplace.

1

CBS

While CBS has taken its lumps this season, falling 15 percent in its core adults 25-54 demo and losing 20 percent of its 18-49 deliveries, no network is better positioned to make a killing during this year’s upfront bazaar. Network boss Les Moonves already has begun busting out his annual Joe Namath act, telling investors that CBS will once again run the table in June.

“With entertainment, sports and news hitting on all cylinders and the NFL on Thursdays, we are once again very encouraged heading into this year’s upfront,” Moonves said on CBS Corp.’s fourth- quarter earnings call. “I feel confident saying right now that we will lead the marketplace in pricing and volume. But no, I’m not going to make any exact predictions just yet, which, of course, will be a major source of relief to our sales department.”

CBS has so much going for it at the moment that its acquisition of the new Thursday Night Football package is a bit like a door to a parallel universe in which Veruca Salt wins the deed to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The network already has bragging rights to broadcast’s top-rated scripted series in The Big Bang Theory, which will temporarily shift to Monday nights to accommodate the six in-season NFL games. Now it has a second helping of TV’s last great reach vehicle, and much as it does already on Sunday afternoons, football will serve as a powerful promotional vehicle for CBS’ fall schedule.

Having renewed the vast majority of its existing series, CBS has limited available real estate in its prime-time lineup. Moonves last month said the network will pick up just four new series for the fall, an exclusive roster that includes Vince Gilligan’s Battle Creek and an untitled Wall Street drama from Taylor Elmore (Justified) and John Cusack. Both series could plug the ragged hole that opened in the Monday 10 p.m. time slot, which uncharacteristically played host to two flops in Hostages and Intelligence.

(Gilligan may have dusted off a 12-year-old script in Battle Creek, but it’s a corking good read. Sure, it’s no Breaking Bad, but then again, what is?)

If the broadcast market as a whole secures CPM increases in the mid- to high-single digits, look to CBS to lead the pack with hikes of 9 percent and up.

2

NBC

Bob Greenblatt and Jennifer Salke’s decision to steer the HMS Funnybones into the mainstream didn’t revive NBC’s sinking Thursday comedy lineup. The three new family comedies developed for the once-storied night crashed on the shoals of indifference, leaving the network to cling to the twin life rafts that are Community and Parks and Recreation.

More like life vests. While neither sitcom is exactly stealing share from CBS’ The Big Bang Theory and The Millers—Season 5 of Community is averaging 3.01 million live-plus-same-day viewers and a 1.1 in the dollar demo, while Parks is drawing 2.98 million viewers and a 1.2 rating—both represent the sort of arch, wised-up comic sensibility that was once NBC’s stock in trade. Judging by the pilots ordered, NBC is going to give its broad comedy initiative another shot. (Put it this way: the words “love” and “family” pop up in many of the log lines. To be fair, though, so does the phrase “doomsday cult,” courtesy of Tina Fey’s Tooken.)

For all that, NBC wouldn’t be on the verge of its first ratings win in 10 years if it weren’t doing a lot of things well. While down 14 percent versus the year-ago cycle, The Voice remains one of broadcast’s biggest draws, averaging a 3.7 rating among adults 18-49. The Blacklist represents NBC’s strongest new pickup in recent memory; through Monday, April 14, the show is tied with CBS’ The Millers (2.9) as TV’s No. 1 new series. And Sunday Night Football was once again the top-rated, most-viewed program in prime time. (As it kicks off the first season of its eight-year renewal with the NFL, the Peacock will air a divisional playoff along with its customary wild card games. It also has the broadcast rights to the Super Bowl, which more or less guarantees a return trip to the winner’s circle.)

With so much of its recent success attributable to the nation’s insatiable appetite for the NFL, NBC suffers what amounts to Seasonal Affective Disorder once the air is let out of the football. A new scheme to launch midseason drama series on Sundays hasn’t borne fruit, but a deep pilot bench (Constantine and Babylon Fields are particularly promising) could allow NBC to take another crack at that DVR-taxing evening.

3

Fox

In putting the kibosh on The X Factor, Fox basically has to reboot nearly 20 percent of its prime-time schedule—and that’s just for starters. The Tuesday night comedy block has fallen apart like a calving iceberg, the aging franchise American Idol is being held together by spit and Bubble Yum, and even the unassailable Animation Domination block is starting to look like Brad Pitt in the first 20 minutes of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. (Fox’s median age is beginning to flirt with 50, which is particularly jaw-dropping given that its average viewer in 1991 was a sprightly 29 years old.)

Kevin Reilly is trying to stanch the bleeding with the ripped-out pages of the Broadcast Bible, which decrees that the networks plunk down something on the order of $500 million each winter on a whole bunch of pilots, of which roughly three-quarters will never see the light of day. Thus far, the Fox entertainment chairman’s “Look, Ma! No pilots!” initiative has been largely a study in semantics, as the bulk of the network’s auto-pilots (for want of a better word) are projects rescued from other networks (Mulaney, Backstrom) and a handful of series prototypes.

On the comedy front, Fox continues to raid NBC’s chuckle cabinet, poaching the likes of Tina Fey (Cabot College), Will Forte (The Last Man on Earth) and former SNL writer and stand-up comic John Mulaney. Meanwhile, the network has some of the most talked-about drama projects lined up in the Batman prequel Gotham, the dark comedy Red Band Society (among the stack of producers attached to the project are Boardwalk Empire’s Margaret Nagle and someone named Steven Spielberg) and the hip-hop mogul saga, Empire, which stars Terrence Howard, Gabourey Sidibe and Macy Gray, among others.

Reilly’s embrace of the 13-episode cable model gives Fox more flexibility and goes a long way toward eliminating momentum-quashing hiatuses. The short-order push has already reaped dividends in the new hit Sleepy Hollow and the J.J. Abrams techno-procedural Almost Human.

Assuming that overall broadcast dollar volume is flat, Fox should book some $2.2 billion in 2014-15 upfront commitments.

4

ABC

ABC may be more shot full of holes than Sonny Corleone at the Atlantic Beach tollbooth, but the network isn’t spooked. Last week, ABC gave Paul Lee the ultimate vote of confidence, signing the entertainment president to a new multiyear deal. And while critics questioned the move—why lock down the executive who’s overseen four consecutive years of ratings declines?—insiders say that Disney CEO Bob Iger prizes stability over nearly all other virtues.

Lee really has his work cut out for him, as ABC now has no fewer than three Chernobyl time slots where seemingly nothing can thrive. Tuesday at 10 p.m. is only the latest blighted area on the map, as ABC this season launched three straight failures in Lucky 7, Killer Women and Mind Games. (In the aggregate, the trio of freshman dramas averaged a moribund 0.8 in the adults 18-49 demo.) Meanwhile, there’s been no sign of life for years on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 10 p.m.—basically the Land That Time Forgot.

Development has been a stone in Lee’s shoe throughout his tenure—to date, he’s renewed just four of his new in-season dramas: Revenge, Scandal, Once Upon a Time and Nashville, and he’s had about the same hit-to-miss ratio on the comedy front. And of this season’s 14 new scripted series, only Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Resurrection and The Goldbergs would appear to have earned a sophomore run.

Looking ahead, if ABC doesn’t pick up the new Shonda Rhimes potboiler, How to Get Away With Murder, we’ll eat Pharrell Williams’ big, stupid hat. Rhimes is responsible for the indefatigable hospital sudser Grey’s Anatomy and the fizzy, buzzy hit that is Scandal. In its third season, Scandal is one of just four returning broadcast series that has grown its audience; per Nielsen, the show is up 25 percent in the dollar demo, averaging a stalwart 3.0 rating versus its year-ago 2.4.

On the ha-ha side of the ledger, ABC is mulling an order for a comedy starring David Schwimmer, which flies in the face of the Friends Corollary. (“Everyone loves Ross, but they’re a little meh on the Schwimm.”) Michael Imperioli, Kevin Hart and Henry Winkler also are attached to ABC comedy pilots.