Kelly Kahl has been scheduling CBS' prime-time programming for two decades, but he knows that his job still remains a mystery to most people. "Scheduling is a weird thing: You get it or you don't. There's a certain attraction to this job that's hard to explain," he says. "People look at what we do, and they shake their heads and are like, 'I don't get what you do. You show up in May and put a little schedule together for the fall season. And then what?'"
If only it were that easy. As the broadcast upfronts in New York fast approach next month, the work of Kahl and his fellow broadcast schedulers will again be thrust into the spotlight, as they toil around the clock to finalize the prime-time lineups that could make or break their respective networks during the 2016-17 TV season. And while few outside the business understand what they do, schedulers—setting a network's agenda every single night of the year—have one of the most important jobs in the industry. When the nets unveil their fall schedules to buyers and advertisers in May, it will be the dogged work of those schedulers and their teams that will determine which programs audiences will watch and advertisers will pay for, and which will be long forgotten by the time the whole process repeats itself next year. The fate of billions of dollars in transactions rests with them.
Before they dive into the most frenzied portion of their upfront preparations, Adweek talked shop with the five broadcast schedulers who will be calling the shots: Kahl, senior evp of CBS Primetime; Andy Kubitz, evp, program planning and scheduling at ABC Entertainment; Dan Harrison, evp, strategic program planning at Fox Broadcasting; Jeff Bader, president, program planning, strategy and research for NBC Entertainment; and Kevin Levy, svp, program planning and scheduling with The CW. While the recent seismic changes in the television landscape have caused major evolutions in their jobs and their approach to scheduling, they note that if anything, their contributions are even more essential than ever.
"Scheduling remains the best recommendation engine there is," says Levy. "Scheduling still matters in terms of launching new shows and sustaining shows. Regardless of time shifting and video on demand, there's still no better way to get people to check out a show than positioning in a place that makes sense."
With 412 scripted and approximately 750 unscripted series airing on broadcast, cable and streaming sites last year, and even more in the works for 2016, "if no one knows you're there, it doesn't do you any good," says Kahl. (The broadcast networks will unveil their schedules in New York the week of May 16. Many of the cable nets have already had their presentations, though several major players, including Turner and ESPN, will hit New York next month as well.)
That's why buyers will be looking to those upfront schedules to determine which new and returning shows are most worthy of their advertising dollars. "The schedule is still very important. When we're doing our analysis for whether we think a new show will succeed, you've got to look at what's leading into it and what's leading out of it," says Betty Pat McCoy, svp, managing director and director of investment, GSD&M, who notes that this season's biggest freshman hit, Blindspot, owes much of its success to airing after The Voice, one of NBC's top-rated shows. "That's still how you launch a show, thanks to that schedule."
While some aspects of the job haven't changed—scheduling still revolves around creating ideal "flow," or compatibility between programs on a given night— the broadcast schedulers' jobs are now vastly more complicated than they were for the majority of the medium's existence when they only had to worry about what the two or three other networks were doing. "It was the game of counterprogramming and just trying to get the biggest ratings you could possibly get in any given time period," says Bader.
But with hundreds of other channels now in the ecosystem, along with SVODs (like Netflix and Hulu), VOD, countless other streaming options and additional distractions like social media and video games, the competition is infinite—and includes older episodes of whatever series a network is currently airing. "There's so much competition, it's almost impossible to take into account absolutely everything," says Harrison.
Meanwhile, networks are increasingly producing their own shows via their in-house studios, which means the series have value to their companies long beyond their linear runs, thanks to revenue from SVOD, international and syndication sales. "We've moved into an era where you need to be more than just savvy with your scheduling," says Kahl. "We're program caretakers now. We're asset concierges," tasked with turning those shows into "fully realized assets" that will make money across platforms, and countries, for years to come. "The layers of complexity have increased," Kahl says.
Part of protecting those assets is to position them in such a way that viewers—many of which are content to catch up with programs later via DVR, VOD or streaming—will want to watch shortly after air. Harrison aims to get Fox viewers to watch shows within a three- or seven-day window, and not just so they will be factored into live-plus-3 and live-plus-7 ratings. "Otherwise, the reality is they're probably not going up checking into the show as it falls lower down a priority list," Harrison explains. "Scheduling is about content windowing."
Even as they account for delayed viewing, creating a schedule that drives audiences to watch as much live programming as possible remains key.
"Even if half the viewing is time-shifted, half of it isn't. You're going to go after the biggest slice of audience you can at any one time—and 50 percent of the audience is a big slice," says Bader. That's especially important because while audiences live in a time-shifted world, the network affiliates do not. "We have 240 affiliates that broadcast for us, and they are a completely linear business," says Bader. With most of that advertising sold on a live or live-plus-same-day basis, "they care deeply about the performance of their 11 o'clock news. So what we put on at 10 is very important to them."
The switch to more original content has also robbed schedulers of a crucial safety net. Freshman flops would routinely get yanked after a few weeks and immediately replaced with repeats or other original shows waiting on the bench. But because those midseason shows have already been earmarked for later in the year, with marketing resources devoted to supporting their launches, schedulers are left with few options for instant misfires. "You have to really be prepared to launch these shows and stick with them as long as possible because there's no shortcuts anymore," says Kubitz.
Kahl observes that because of delayed viewing, it takes longer to determine whether people are responding to new shows or not.
"Not too many years ago, it was three weeks in that you had a real good idea whether you were getting home or not. Now, we certainly have to take a longer-term view on these shows because we know with all the competition and all the ways for people to watch, it may take a couple of months for people to get to a new show," he says.
This is all occurring as schedulers have been stripped of one of the most valuable tools in their arsenal: repeats, which are no longer tolerated by most audiences (unless the show has the words "Big," "Bang" or "Theory" in the title, that is). "So we need to figure out a way to schedule with a lot more original programming in a world where ratings have gone down, but costs have gone up," due to the need for more original programming, says Bader. "It's a much more complicated financial picture. We don't have unlimited financial resources to schedule, so how do you program more for less?"
Part of the answer is to shift to a quarterly approach to scheduling, spreading out original shows throughout the year to minimize repeats and keep fresh content flowing throughout the season. "I spend a great deal of my time trying to figure out where and when we're going to be able to launch a show, and do we have enough marketing resources to launch that?" says Kubitz.
Yet while the schedule creation is their biggest spotlight, it also represents just a fraction of their daily and weekly routines.
"The least amount of time is spent on the big moves," especially now that scheduling represents 52 weeks a year, says Bader. Much of their time is devoted to program planning strategy, research, tracking competition's moves, overseeing listings in electronic program guides, coordinating repeats and preemptions with each series' particular story arcs, and determining ways to maintain a show's momentum when it has 22 episodes that are stretched over a 35-week season. "Does sales have all the units they need in a show? Do we need to remove a break for better audience flow? There's a lot of coordination between sales, program operations and affiliates about where are the preempts going to fall, where are the repeats going to fall," says Bader. "It's a lot of moving parts."
And a lot of navigating internal and external forces at the network and studios, most of whom have rooting (and sometimes conflicting) interests and opinions about which shows deserve the most attention and scheduling love. "It's our role to have a big picture view and make tough choices that you understand, well, this department's not going to be thrilled with this," says Levy. "You're making business decisions; it's so much more than, 'This show is better than that show.'"
That is especially the case when it comes time to piece together the fall schedule, which the schedulers have been preparing for since last September.
"The minute your fall schedules are rolling out, you're already asking the question, what does this mean for next fall? Where are there going to be openings?" as Kahl points out. "It's a constant evaluation process. It's really a poker match, and you're constantly assessing the strength of your hand versus everybody else's."
To that end, they've been spending the fall, winter and spring months generating hundreds of scheduling scenarios, involving various shows staying put for next season or shifting to other days and time slots, as they wait for the finished pilots to arrive this month. This early planning will save time in the thick of their heated scheduling deliberations with top network execs in late April and early May.
"When you pull or move one domino, it changes the entire board. 'Oh, yeah I want that show on Monday.' 'OK, but you took it from Wednesday. What are you replacing that with?' And the house of cards just falls down," explains Kubitz. "That's huge data sifting that we have to do. We don't want to be doing that at the last minute, so we're prepping for that right now."
Each network will have its own unique scheduling challenges to tackle going into this upfront. Harrison must fill the huge January-to-May programming void left by American Idol, which has ended after 15 seasons. Kahl and Bader will need to navigate an unusual new Thursday Night Football schedule (CBS gets five games early in the season; NBC will air five Thursday games beginning in mid-November), while both Kahl and Kubitz will be collaborating with new network presidents for the first time (Glenn Geller at CBS, Channing Dungey at ABC). And The CW president Mark Pedowitz wants to launch at least two new series in the fall, which means that Levy has to carve out schedule space even though The CW recently renewed every show currently on its air.
As the schedulers enter crunch time, one of the most important tenets is that any move is possible. "I believe in being pretty open-minded when the process starts. I believe our process always takes us to best, most logical schedule," says Kahl. "Check your ego at the door and let's get the job done."
That helps lead to unexpected developments, like CBS' decision last year to create its first comedy-free Monday night lineup—Supergirl, Scorpion and NCIS: Los Angeles—in 66 years. "Tradition is important to us, but TV today does not much resemble TV from 50 years ago. You can't be so beholden to tradition that it affects good business decisions," says Kahl.
Because there's often no clear-cut right or wrong answer ("You don't know that if we had done scenario B, C or D, we wouldn't have gotten a better or worse outcome," says Levy), the schedulers must help facilitate a final decision among the execs and make sure that everyone remains supportive of it. "You have to keep the group unified and say hey guys, remember we talked about this, we did our due diligence. We made a decision and now we're moving forward with it," says Levy.
In the end, "we try and put together nights where our ad sales can bring a coherent message to market. We're very much conscious of our customers, our viewers whether they're live or delayed, our advertisers who rely on us to reach their consumers and our affiliates of course," says Harrison. "You try and come up with a coherent set of nights, a philosophy that can be communicated as part of the upfront message: come and check out what we have to offer. And that starts with the schedule in May."
And while they undoubtedly will emerge from the process next month with grayer hair, frazzled nerves and several weeks' worth of lost sleep to catch up on, this fraternity of schedulers say there's nothing else they'd rather be doing. "It's still really fun," says Kahl. "Speaking for all of us, we love what we do. You get a little taste of the creative process, and there's also the logic process. So you really get to exercise both sides of your brain. It's the best of both worlds."
Broadcast and cable upfront schedule
Jazz at Lincoln Center
NBC, NBCU Cable Entertainment and Telemundo
Radio City Music Hall
Theater at MSG
This story first appeared in the April 18 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.