Last week, we analyzed all of the new fall TV shows to find out which ones are worth watching. As the new TV season kicks off this week, several media buyers have targeted the very same freshman programs as having the best chance to connect with audiences this fall: Designated Survivor, Pitch and This Is Us.
But they're also scratching their heads over other fall trends, including the surplus of shows revolving around time travel, and another round of programs based on movies, despite the failure last year of Minority Report, Limitless, Rush Hour and Uncle Buck.
The new TV show that is top of mind among buyers, and consistently the first one brought up when talking about the fall season's best bet, is ABC's Designated Survivor, starring this week's Adweek cover subject, Kiefer Sutherland. Sam Armando, lead investment director at Mediavest | Spark, said in the Sutherland profile that putting together a hit series is like completing a puzzle, "and you need all these pieces to kind of fit for success." Designated Survivor, he noted, boasts Sutherland's star power, a relatable premise about an Everyman thrust into an extraordinary situation and propulsive storylines. "All those pieces come together very nicely, so you think it would be successful," said Armando.
Maureen Bosetti, chief investment officer at Initiative, agreed that that the combination of Sutherland's presence and timely political intrigue "got people to lean in, which is something you can't say about a lot of programs [this fall]. And Kiefer is a big component of its success because people have been looking forward to seeing him again on TV ever since 24 went off."
Buyers also singled out NBC's This Is Us as a family drama that stands out among a procedural-heavy fall slate. "It's a little bit different. It's not medical, it's not legal, it's not that type of stuff again," said Armando. "And I think ensemble casts have worked well in many areas." Its upfront trailer went viral in May, with more than 50 million views on Facebook alone in the first 11 days. "It received a lot of digital play and a lot of digital attention of people previewing it. Now whether they liked it or not, we'll see," Armando said. "But the pilot played really well."
The show has "a lot of heart," said Bosetti, "I think people probably felt ready for a good, tug-on-your-heartstrings kind of family drama that's well-acted. I think it will likely be more female-skewed."
This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman's other drama, Fox's Pitch, also received high marks for its ability to combine multiple genres. "Pitch is one of those interesting ones, which brings a lot of different things together: It's a family story and sports-related. I'm very interested to see how that one performs," said Neil Vendetti, president of investment at Zenith. "I feel at its heart, it's a traditional, family drama that tends to appeal more to females."
Pitch "seems to have a little bit of everything," said Bosetti. "And it's diverse. So I think Fox kind of hit on a number of different topics in that show. There's not a lot of built-in equity there, but if they can strike the right chord with all of those different elements, that could be really good."
Vendetti singled out CBS' drama Bull as "a different, more intelligent take on a courtroom show, that I think is unique." The show also has potential, added Armando, if star Michael Weatherly "can bring in audiences the way he did, or the way he allegedly did, with NCIS."
There was less buyer consensus about Fox's live-action/animated hybrid Son of Zorn. Armando liked its twist on the typical superhero show, and said, "it's on a perfect spot on Sunday, which slides right into their Sunday animation block." Vendetti, however, isn't sold yet. "Son of Zorn was just so out there, that I think it'll either be a spectacular success or a dismal failure," he said.
On the other end of the spectrum, buyers are wary about the number of shows based on films or reboots of previous TV hits, like CBS' MacGyver. "There's equity with this new spin on it, but there's a little bit of danger in trying to replicate the past, especially if it can't measure up the original," said Bosetti. Armando added that Hawaii Five-O is one of the few "reboots that has sustained success, and people may question 'success' when I say that. Despite the track record that's not too stellar, the networks seem to try to keep doing it year after year."
While buyers at least understand why networks keep trying their luck with known IP (intellectual property), they're more confused about all the shows on the schedule this fall and midseason that center around time travel, including NBC's Timeless and The CW's Frequency. "Four of the new shows have some kind of time-travel component. So those aren't all going to survive," said Bosetti. "It got very confusing what each of these shows were about," which leads to a "sea of sameness."
While most TV trends tie back to a recent hit movie, film or book, "time travel caught me off guard," said Armando. "I don't know what it was that may have said [to the networks], 'Hey, time travel can work.'"
There was also concern about CBS's "formulaic" and "cookie-cutter" shows like Kevin Can Wait and Man With a Plan, said Vendetti, who admitted that "CBS has had success with traditional sitcoms like that." But he pointed out of Man With a Plan star Matt LeBlanc, "When NBC tried to do Joey and he was still relevant [right after Friends], it didn't work."
Vendetti said Zenith is less concerned this fall about which new shows pop and which ones flop. "Obviously some clients care more than others, but as an agency we're focused a little bit less on the specific programs versus the overall performance of a network and its ability to draw audiences in general," he said. While Empire "was the biggest story in primetime TV over the past couple of years," because no other programs were anywhere near as popular on the network, "Fox still had struggles delivering deals. So I think we have to look at it across the entire slate of programs when we're making an evaluation of who's in a strong position, at least from an advertiser standpoint."