Nets Prime the Pump

Broadcast networks unveil ambitious slates

Trying to gauge the quality of a 22-episode television series by watching three minutes of foot-age culled from the pilot is akin to declaring your major when you’re in kindergarten. And yet, this is what media buyers and clients do every year in May, when the five English-language broadcast networks host their respective up-front presentations in New York.

Sure, even an untrained eye can spot a stinker from the cheap seats in Avery Fisher Hall. Last year, an audible groan rose up after ABC teased the cross-dressing comedy series Work It, an outburst that was followed in short order by a good deal of nervous giggling. But a hit? That’s another story altogether.

Only a handful of new series really seemed to distinguish themselves this year, a limited roster that includes NBC’s apocalyptic drama Revolution, CBS’ cops, mobsters and casinos period piece Vegas and the Fox midseason thriller The Following.

On the comedy front, clients are abuzz about Matthew Perry’s latest NBC effort Go On and Fox’s The Mindy Project, a tour de force created by Mindy Kaling.

This could all change once the pilots begin circulating in a week or so, a deluge that coincides with the period in which clients will begin registering their TV budgets. And even if the National Football League is the only must-buy on the tube, most clients still tend to invest in individual series.

“The programming mix is still a priority,” said Chris Geraci, president of national broadcast, OMD. “Some clients are more concerned with atmospherics and the particular programming environment, and of course we often have our own reasons for aligning brands with certain shows.”

Analysts believe the 2012-13 marketplace should be healthy, though it’s unlikely it will top last year. For one thing, scatter is nowhere near as strong as it was in the first and second quarters of 2011. And in the absence of registered budgets, trying to estimate demand is a matter of guesswork.

“Across all the agencies at SMG, we’re having a more difficult time getting confirmed, approved budgets from clients,” said John Muszynski, chief investment officer, Starcom MediaVest Group Exchange. “We probably won’t get a gauge on where the budgets will be until after Memorial Day weekend, and until that happens, we won’t have a handle on where pricing will be.”

Muszynski added that while it’s possible a few early deals could close before the end of the month, they would likely be “protection deals,” holds placed without establishing any actual pricing.

While it’s too early to predict exactly how the upfront will play out, the smart money says Fox will kick-start the market. “They’ll go out early to the auto and studio categories,” Muszynski said.

For his part, Geraci believes that there’s one surefi re way to get the ball rolling: “The network that goes for share and not price could move very quickly.”

The most beleaguered broadcast net hangs its hopes on Christina Aguilera and a monkey.

Leading off the Peacock’s exhaustive—and exhausting—upfront pitch, NBC broadcasting chairman Ted Harbert on Monday threw cold water on the proceedings, delaying the start of the morning’s entertainment in order to lecture the Radio City crowd on the industry’s outdated currency.

“The conversion of the sales metric to C3 a few years ago was an important fi rst step” in getting a handle on time-shifted viewing, Harbert told the assembled, before adding that live commercial ratings plus three days of DVR playback don’t provide a full picture of American viewing habits. “When you consider the fact that over one-third of all prime-time programs have at least 40 percent of their weekly viewing time- shifted, it’s time to consider moving to a C7 metric,” he said.

If Harbert’s words seem a challenge to parse now, they weren’t much clearer in real time. Beyond the thicket of knotty math (what exactly is 40 percent of one-third?), the Ted Talk struck a discordant note with media buyers on hand.

“He picked a really odd time to bring that up,” said Sam Armando, svp, director of strategic intelligence at Starcom MediaVest Group Exchange. “NBC had a lot to convey about their programming and it’s a shame that nine out of 10 people who walked out of there were talking about C3 versus C7 rather than, say, Revolution.” While Harbert is correct to point out that the ratings system is far from ideal, C7 is a nonstarter. Ninety-eight percent of prime-time viewing takes place within the first three days of playback, a majority that effectively renders the additional four days of little consequence. 

Even Harbert seemed to recognize that there are better ways to warm up a crowd.

Before handing off to entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt, Harbert acknowledged the audience’s forbearance. “Thank you for putting up with my sermon,” he said. “I think I just proved that I’m the worst opening act ever.”

With 10 comedies on the roster, including four new entries set to premiere in September, NBC is practically doubling down on sitcoms. In the fall of 2011, the network had six comedies on its prime-time schedule, though that number would dwindle to five with the Oct. 5 cancelation of Free Agents.

The crowd reacted generously to clips from the new batch of comedies, with the biggest laughs being doled out for the Matthew Perry vehicle Go On and the antic Justin Kirk effort Animal Practice. NBC entertainment president Jennifer Salke noted that Kirk’s co-star Crystal, which plays “a bundle of mischief named Dr. Zaius,” was the highest-testing new NBC character of this development season. (For the uninitiated, Crystal is a capuchin monkey.)

The new comedies will air on consecutive nights, with Go On leading into The New Normal on Tuesdays and Animal Practice setting the table for the family comedy Guys With Kids on Wednesday. This is emblematic of NBC’s new high-risk strategy; slotting freshman comedies back-to-back is a big gamble, as it’s a long-held notion that the most effective way to build an audience for a new strip is to place a familiar sitcom before it.

If NBC has anything resembling a sure-fire hit, it’s Perry’s Go On. The man who inhabited Chandler Bing for 10 seasons can still open a series— even the slipshod ABC comedy Mr. Sunshine enjoyed strong sampling out of the gate—and those who have seen the entire pilot say that it features the actor’s strongest comedic work since Friends.

Meanwhile, almost anything is bound to be an improvement on this season’s Wednesday night schedule, a weak stew of low-rated series like Up All Night and Whitney and flatliners like Free Agents, Are You There, Chelsea? and Bent. For the last two months, Geriatric Jackass, aka Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, has been responsible for NBC’s biggest midweek deliveries—but even it scored a 1.6 in the demo.

The one night NBC seems to have suffered a failure of nerve is on Thursdays, which Greenblatt and Salke essentially left fallow. Sure, The Office is the network’s top-rated scripted series, and shows like 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation draw a particularly well-heeled demo. But with nary a new series on the night and the quiet shrug that is Rock Center With Brian Williams effectively serving as a newsy test pattern at 10 o’clock (the peripatetic series is averaging 3.82 million viewers and a 0.9 in the demo—this in the time slot that once housed ER), there appears to be no way for NBC to actually grow its ratings on this high-demand night.

Thus far, the most buzzworthy new NBC drama is J.J. Abrams’ Revolution, which inherits the plum post-Voice slot from Smash. Also earning a production credit on Revolution is Supernatural creator Eric Kripke. Networked Insights lead analyst Sean Reckwerdt says Kripke is “generating the majority of the positive viewer interest” in Revolution.

With the monolithic Sunday Night Football set to kick off in September and a fall cycle of The Voice in the works, NBC has two huge nights lined up. And a Tuesday results segment of the singers-in-spinning-chairs hit should draw new blood to a night that had been given over to a dwindling Biggest Loser.

Make no mistake: The industry is rooting for an NBC rebound. “It’s in the best interest of everyone that they turn it around,” said one national TV buyer, adding there’s an undeniably sentimental element that informs the NBC conversation. “We grew up on NBC,” the buyer said. “Our clients grew up on NBC. We all want this to work out.”

The slate is a little bit country, a little bit kinfolk, but lacking in that Modern Family magic.

For a network on the verge of finishing last among the Big Four in the all-important 18-49 demo, ABC certainly likes to fl ap its gums.

In what has become one of the most anticipated highlights of upfront week, ABC last Tuesday took the muzzle off Jimmy Kimmel, siccing the late-night host on anything that caught his fancy. Addressing the huddle of media buyers gathered at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, the star of Jimmy Kimmel Live merrily laid into everything from his own network to the perverse logic underpinning the advertising business.

An equal-opportunity offender, Kimmel took shots at his boss, ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee, who last month was the subject of overtures from overseas. “I actually have a question for Paul: Did you really have an offer from the BBC, or was it one of those things when you send flowers to yourself at work?” Kimmel cracked, before adding that the affable Brit elected to stick with Disney because of its superior dental plan.

The fun began in earnest when Kimmel started in on the other broadcast networks. As one might imagine, NBC got the worst of it, though Kimmel also scored a few points against CBS, which, as he said, beats all comers in “the coveted 18-to-49 trips to the bathroom demographic.” (The following morning, CBS Corp. CEO Les Mooves allowed that, while he likes Kimmel, the comic needs to work up some new gags. “Somebody should tell Jimmy that ABC is so far behind us in the demo that the joke went stale 10 years ago,” Moonves said. “He should freshen up his material a little bit.”)

For all the fun that was had at the expense of the broadcast business, Kimmel’s monologue spoke to some of the ad industry’s more baffling underpinnings. For example, while a casual observer might expect that ratings declines would necessarily result in lower pricing, the opposite holds true, thanks to elementary supply and-demand principles. This, as Kimmel helpfully pointed out, is “bullshit,” adding, “We don’t know what we’re doing. Why is this so hard for you to understand? If we had any idea what people want to see, we wouldn’t have an upfront; we’d just put the shows on the air and you’d mail us a check.”

The yuks Kimmel drew from ABC’s ad partners may not be matched in prime time. Like NBC and Fox before it, ABC made a major investment in scripted comedy. Trouble is, none of what was screened last Tuesday appeared to offer the sweet-and-sour complexity of a Modern Family or the black-hearted anomie of Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23.

Buyers were particularly puzzled by The Neighbors, a self-consciously gruesome sitcom about a gated community populated by shape-shifting extraterrestrials.

Bequeathed with the plum post- Modern Family slot on Wednesday night, Neighbors feels more like failed satire than a fully realized family comedy. “I already put in a request for a copy of the pilot,” said one buyer, who hastily added, “That was sarcasm.”

Starting in November, ABC will pair Tim Allen’s sophomore comedy Last Man Standing with the new Reba McEntire multicamera series Malibu Country. Both shows are broad family comedies and could fi nd an audience against NBC’s schizophrenic Friday 8-9 p.m. battery (Whitney and Community).

Midseason sitcoms include logorrheic “boomerang generation” comedy How to Move in With Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life) and The Family Tools, an Americanized take on the U.K. series White Van Man.

Of the six new dramas on ABC’s plate, the most accomplished appears to be Shawn Ryan’s The Last Resort. Also promising is 666 Park Avenue, a horror/suspense offering that is reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby—if The Dakota were transported across Central Park to the Upper East Side. Lastly, the soapy musical drama Nashville could build a following among country music fans, or viewers who can’t wait for NBC’s Smash to return in January.

While it’s difficult to make an informed assessment on a series’ likelihood of success based solely on a few minutes of carefully cultivated video clips, buyers say they’re cautiously optimistic that a few ABC shows will have an impact. “There’s nothing on the schedule that really jumps out at you,” said Armando. “There’s not that ‘a-ha’ moment like we had in years past, like with Grey’s Anatomy and Modern Family.” He added, “We’re a little underwhelmed, but we’re holding out hope that something will pop.”

For a net that’s enjoyed success with high drama, ratings gold is Elementary.

In a development no one could have anticipated, the 125-year-old English detective Sherlock Holmes last week murdered Horatio Caine, and in so doing sentenced the hammy Miami cop to an eternity of syndication.

With very few holes to fill in its prime-time lineup, CBS last week opted to close the books on CSI: Miami after a 10-season run, thereby freeing up the Sunday 10 p.m. time slot for the more popular series The Mentalist. With Simon Baker out of the way on Thursday nights, CBS now has a plum spot available for its newest procedural drama, Elementary.

One of just three new dramas on the fall docket, Elementary is a postmodern interpretation of the Holmes-Watson mysteries. Starring Jonny Lee Miller as a detective struggling with drug addiction (recall that Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes was an uninhibited cocaine enthusiast) and Lucy Liu as the “sober companion” meant to keep him out of harm’s way, Elementary shares strands of DNA with the former occupant of the Thursday 10 p.m. time slot. Chief among these is Holmes’ flair for deductive reasoning and unconventional investigative techniques.

In an era of British leads, Miller may be the only Englishman who’s allowed to declaim his lines in his native accent. (CBS is all over the linguistic map. An Australian, The Mentalist’s Baker speaks in the standard mid-Atlantic accent, while Michael Emerson of Person of Interest is an Iowan who seems British.)

With the benefit of a Person of Interest lead-in, Elementary should have no trouble drawing a crowd. The broadcast competition on Thursday night amounts to ABC’s Scandal, which has drawn a consistent 2.0 rating in the 18-49 demo since it premiered in early April.

Buyers are particularly enthusiastic about Vegas, a period piece based on the life of Sheriff Ralph Lamb, a fourth-generation rancher charged with the unenviable task of bringing order to Sin City in the 1960s. Nick Pileggi (Casino, Goodfellas) wrote the pilot and is an executive producer of the series, which stars Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis. Vegas fills the Tuesday 10 p.m. time slot left vacant by the canceled Unforgettable.

“That one looks really good,” said a national TV buyer. “There aren’t too many 10 o’clock shows that are developed with a male audience in mind, and it’s going to run up against two really ‘girly’ shows. Private Practice is maybe three-quarters female and Parenthood is two-thirds. This could be big.”

While period pieces seem to have a hard time finding an audience on broadcast TV—Pan Am and The Playboy Club are only the latest in a string of historical dramas that failed to live up to the hype—Vegas appears to be that rarest of animals: a network series for adults.

According to Networked Insights lead analyst Sean Reckwerdt, CBS’ decision to deviate from its procedural-heavy model could prove to be a winner. “While there is not nearly the same amount of conversation as there are for the all the other networks, the Vegas conversation trends very positively,” Reckwerdt said, adding that viewers are eager to see Quaid square off against mob heavy Chiklis.

Having survived the battle of CSI spin-offs, CSI: New York shifts back an hour to the Friday 8 p.m. slot, where it will lead into the third new CBS drama, Made in Jersey. Starring Janet Montgomery as a street-smart Italian- American lawyer, the series will compete with a mixed bag of dramas, including NBC’s Grimm, Fox’s Fringe and The CW’s Nikita.

Given its unparalleled stability, CBS’ biggest moves have less to do with adding new series to the lineup and more to do with shifting established shows. Freshman phenom 2 Broke Girls will push Two and a Half Men from its Monday 9 p.m. slot, forcing Ashton, Ducky and the pothead kid to Thursday nights at 8:30 p.m. In reuniting Men with The Big Bang Theory, CBS programming chief Kelly Kahl said he has created a “super comedy hour.”

Men and Bang are the two highest-rated comedies on TV, but at the same time, both shows are getting long in the tooth. As such, the move to consolidate the ratings on Thursdays also presents an opportunity for growth on Monday.

Joining the powerhouse Monday night block is CBS’ lone new half- hour of the fall, the workplace/buddy comedy Partners. The new strip will lead into 2 Broke Girls, which closed out its first season with an average delivery of 11.3 million viewers and a 4.3 rating in the dollar demo.

CBS Corp. CEO Les Moonves has never been shy about projecting his goals for the upfront bazaar (as in years past, he’s already proclaimed that his network will command double-digit CPM increases), but buyers strongly suggest that the market simply will not support that kind of extravagance.

“The speed of the market is closely aligned with how far apart either side is on a number,” said Chris Geraci, president of national broadcast for OMD. “There are expectations that won’t be realized, and that will probably take some time to set in.”

Remains the home of young viewers, adds Britney Spears to The X Factor to seal the deal.

On pace to claim its eighth consecutive full-season victory in the 18-49 demo, Fox doesn’t have an awful lot of hoops to jump through or plates to spin.

Its upfront pitch was essentially an opportunity for programming chief Kevin Reilly to remind everyone about how Fox is the go-to destination for the under-50 set, and he drives the message home by trotting out a stable of youthful series regulars.

It’s a remarkably effective strategy, and even a casual observer can see what a little star power can achieve. Take, for instance, the moment when Simon Cowell introduced Britney Spears as one of The X Factor’s new judges: Not only did a whoop go up inside the Beacon Theatre, but advertisers scrambled to record the moment with their iPhones.

This seemingly effortless marshalling of its forces extends to Fox’s programming strategy for 2012-13. Reilly’s master stroke was to maintain the status quo; in fact, one of the few moves that qualifi es as a biggie was the decision to shift Glee to the Thursday 9 p.m. slot, where it will lead out of The X Factor’s one-hour results show.

Linking thseries to the song-and-dance drama showcase should help ensure that most elusive of qualities on broadcast TV: flow. And the shift is a huge win for Glee, as it will also reap the benefit of an American Idol lead-in after Cowell and Co. close out their second season in late December.

So consistent is Fox’s fall schedule that it will bow just three new series in the fall. On Tuesday night, the freshman hit New Girl will be the meat in a sandwich of the off-kilter family comedy Ben and Kate and The Mindy Project, the much-ballyhooed series from the former writer and star of The Office Mindy Kaling.

The latter half of Fox’s new two- hour comedy block goes head-to-head with a pair of other hilarity-heavy hours: ABC’s Happy Endings and Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23 and NBC newbies Go On and The New Normal.

Some media buyers have said that the three-car comedy pileup will make planning a bit of a chore.

“The networks generally haven’t had more than a few hours of comedy overlap here and there, and now all going to be a little more challenging to decide where to put down some of the money because you don’t necessarily want to buy everything. It’s a famine-to-feast situation.”

The CW
The net banks on hunky bad boys to keep female viewers hooked.

The CW’s 2012-13 schedule is a glittery, sexy paradox, a collection of high-impact, cinematic dramas that appear to have been created in a laboratory in order to reach the greatest number of women 18-34.

Everywhere you look, the network has cast brooding, chiseled hunks, damaged boys who need the healing touch of a good woman and perhaps some kind of serum to prevent them from turning into ravenous monsters.

As a bonus, nearly 90 percent of the network’s female stars are pretty yet unthreatening brunettes. The one identifiable blonde lead is Mamie Gummer, the sunny spitting image of mother Meryl Streep. Unthreatening!

So what’s the problem? Well, as The CW president Mark Pedowitz has been saying since the day he took the reins, the network’s viewers are all but ignored by Nielsen, as they simply do not consume their TV content in the time-honored manner. Instead, they’re watching online streams or on iTunes or via other ancillary platforms, and The CW just doesn’t get credited for those impressions.

While the network is developing a separate measurement system designed to demonstrate its relevance, the show must go on at the linear network. To that end, it will premiere three new series in the fall— Arrow, Emily Owens, M.D. and Beauty and the Beast, all of which will be joined in midseason by the Sex and the City prequel, The Carrie Diaries.

Rather than introduce its new series in the midst of the early-fall premiere fray, The CW will delay its season launch until October.

One thing you won’t see on The CW this fall is scripted comedy, though Pedowitz said the network is inching closer to picking up a 30-minute series. “There were two scripts we were hot on that we will probably put into development,” he said, before adding that the priority was to “restabilize the schedule. And drama was the way to do it."