With no Hollywood strikes, no networks trying alternative business models (like NBC’s failed Jay Leno experiment five nights a week last season) and an ad economy seemingly on the mend, none of the major networks skimped on prime-time program development for the 2010-2011 fall season. But media buyers and program analysts say the results are mixed.
On the plus side, many executives reached for this story note that ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and The CW all have one or two shows with breakout potential. The flip side: No single show looks to be a big hit right out of the box like Modern Family was last year for ABC.
“Everybody’s got a couple of good singles to talk about but not a big home run,” says Don Seaman, vp and director of communications analysis at Havas’ MPG. Bill Carroll, vp programming, Katz Television Group, agrees. “There are a lot of potentials,” he says. But he adds that forecasting the bona fide hits is harder given all the schedule changes for next season.
One surprise, given that imitation often lies at the core of program development efforts: The networks avoided overtly duplicating two of last year’s biggest hits, Modern Family and Fox’s Glee. “I think part of it is an indication of just how difficult those formats are to develop,” notes Carroll. “But there also seemed to be enough creativity and confidence by the networks” in their development pipelines that they didn’t feel the need to resort to copycatting.
That said, there wasn’t a lot of format experimentation either. Last season, Modern Family was hailed for its docu-comedic approach to storytelling, a new twist on the sitcom format. “I would say it was a very traditional development season,” explains Brad Adgate, svp, director of research at Horizon Media. “The networks spent a lot of money, but there were no breakout formats. The trends this year are familiar—law enforcement and the obligatory twentysomething ensemble comedies with lots of good-looking people navigating romance,” alongside other issues.
Generally speaking, buyers and analysts believe this season’s crop of sitcoms doesn’t look particularly distinctive. “Many of the comedies look similar,” says Maureen Bosetti, evp of national broadcast director at Publicis Groupe’s Optimedia, “like they’re trying to be Friends 10 years later.”
Another surprise, buyers note, is the lack of serialized anthology-type dramas on the new slates to replace the ones leaving the schedules, including NBC’s Heroes, ABC’s Lost and Fox’s 24. While NBC’s new The Event offers one exception, “that’s a void they decided not to fill,” says Adgate, and something of a strategic shift given that until recently the networks suggested “that that was kind of the way of the future,” he adds.
Bosetti’s reasoning: Such fare was deemed too risky in light of the failure of FlashForward on ABC this past season, and the networks’ decision to make safer bets tied to more traditional drama formulas.
Bottom line: CBS is poised to repeat as the total viewer leader next season. “It will be tough to knock them off,” says Adgate. “They helped themselves,” both with development and scheduling moves.
But as to attracting that key demo of adults 18-49, a contest that Fox has won for the last six seasons, it’s anybody’s guess. The X-Factor: the dwindling American Idol, Fox’s choice to replace departing judge Simon Cowell (who will host The X-Factor on Fox in fall 2011) and audience reaction to the replacement. “It all comes down to the post-Simon Idol,” says Seaman. “That will be the story of next season.”
In total, the networks added 25 new shows to their fall schedules, including 16 new dramas, seven new comedies and two new unscripted programs. Here’s a network-by-network analysis:
ABC picked up 10 new shows for the new fall schedule and showed off a number of midseason entrants during its upfront. And while that seems assertive on its face, a number of analysts say they would have liked to have seen more development from the network, given the aging state of its current schedule.
According to Nielsen, ABC is the only major broadcast network to show a total viewer drop in live-plus-7-day prime-time ratings this season (through May 16), by about 4 percent. It also posted a 7 percent decline in delivery of adults 18-49 and a 6 percent drop in adult 25-54—in both cases the most among the Big Four and The CW.
“ABC has some challenges Sunday night and making a move there might have helped,” argues Optimedia’s Maureen Bosetti. She noted that Desperate Housewives and Brothers & Sisters and Thursday’s Grey’s Anatomy all have “erosion problems.” Given the network’s situation, she adds, “They played it fairly safe.”
MPG’s Don Seaman agrees: “I would have liked to have seen more from them.”
The network took some chances, just as it did last season with the stylistically unique Modern Family, which paid off handsomely. This year’s docu-style scripted show is My Generation about a high school class of 2000 that is revisited 10 years later. It will lead off Thursday nights at 8 p.m. Horizon’s Brad Adgate says it’s an interesting concept, “but I wonder if the generation it’s intended for will be home [then] to watch it.”
Another high concept: No Ordinary Family concerns a family that comes home from vacation with super powers. That drama stars Michael Chiklis and leads off Tuesdays at 8 p.m.
Adgate says he believes No Ordinary Family will have a tough uphill battle on its hands leading off the night. “Tuesday has become tougher than Thursday,” he notes, pointing to Fox’s American Idol and Glee, NBC’s The Biggest Loser, and CBS’ NCIS shows all vying for a piece of the audience.
At its upfront presentation, ABC likened both No Ordinary Family and My Generation to “event television” on the order of the departed Lost, a comparison that TV analyst Steve Sternberg describes as “a bit much.” Reviewing the ABC lineup recently on his blog, The Sternberg Report, he writes that “while both shows looked interesting, I would hardly call either ‘event television.’ And neither seemed particularly geared to the Lost audience. But as always, viewers will decide this stuff.”
Noting the network’s ratings declines this season, Sternberg concludes that ABC “needs one or two of [its] new shows to work if it is to avoid slipping in the standings.” And with 10 new entries being tossed into the mix, he says, “one or two is certainly a possibility, given the clips I saw.”
CBS headed into upfront week with the strongest schedule, attracting nearly 12 million viewers on average in prime time and with a nearly 2 million viewer lead over the nearest competitor, Fox (which continues to dominate in delivery of adults 18-49). With a combination of smart scheduling moves and development, CBS did more to shore up weaknesses than the other networks, most analysts concur.
Perhaps the boldest move was shifting hit Monday sitcom The Big Bang Theory to Thursdays at 8 p.m. to establish a comedy beachhead on the night. It’s a direct challenge to NBC, which is trying to re-establish a “must see TV” comedy block that night.
“They really went for it,” says Katz’s Bill Carroll. “I was surprised they put the comedies on Thursday and not Wednesday. But by doing so and also moving Survivor to Wednesday, they made themselves more competitive potentially on both nights.”
Adgate describes the Thursday comedy move as “aggressive but not risky. It would have been easy to keep [Big Bang Theory] on Monday.” But he adds, CBS made the right call by rearranging both Thursday and Wednesday, where this past season’s comedy block, including the cancelled New Adventures of Old Christine and Gary Unmarried were at best “serviceable.”
The network, whose unscripted Undercover Boss was one of the more popular new shows this past season (it returns to Sundays at 9 p.m.), gets good marks from the analysts for development. CBS opened its archives to do fresh takes on two vintage dramas—The Defenders (Wednesdays at 10 p.m.) and Hawaii Five-0 (Mondays at 10).
“Personally I haven’t been able to get the Hawaii Five-0 theme song out of my head,” quips Seaman. He notes that the network is very high on actor Alex O’Laughlin, who stars in Five-0, after roles in the short-lived Moonlight and Three Rivers. “CBS might be able to get the stigma of show killer off of O’Laughlin,” he adds, noting the actor is hugely popular with audiences.
While Five-0 has a slick, fast-paced, almost Miami Vice kind of sensibility, The Defenders, about two Las Vegas lawyers, is more character driven as played by stars Jim Belushi and Jerry O’Connell, points out Adgate. “They’re funnier, more humanized and appealing,” he says.
On the comedy front, CBS picked up Mike & Molly for Mondays. It’s the kind of comedy—featuring full-figured working class heroes—that the network has had success with in the past (substitute King of Queens’ UPS driver with a Chicago cop).
The other comedy, $#*! My Dad Says (Thursday at 8:30), with William Shatner as the dad, and based on a Twitter feed, got mixed reviews. Already some public interest groups have complained that the title is inappropriate for early prime time. That issue aside, says Seaman, “that one is going to live or die with William Shatner.” Some buyers say that CBS has indicated the show is being reworked. But last week a network spokesman said the only change for now is the planned change of one supporting cast member.
In sum, CBS appears to have simply strengthened an already strong hand heading into the new season.
Fox Broadcasting Entertainment president Kevin Reilly told advertisers during the network’s upfront presentation that three key goals for the coming season are seeding new hits, developing comedies and trying to get something going again on Fridays by moving Human Target and The Good Guys to the night.
But tending to American Idol, the network’s dominant midseason franchise, is widely considered by buyers and analysts to be the most critical mission. Not surprisingly for any nine-year-old show, ratings have slipped a little further this past season. As if that weren’t bad enough, the bigger issue is to replace the show’s most popular, colorful and outspoken judge, Simon Cowell, who officially left the show last week during its season finale.
“What happens with Idol will be extremely consequential to what happens with Fox for the full season,” says Carroll. “Whom they choose to replace Simon Cowell with will be the biggest decision they are going to have to make this year.” (Clearly, Fox is setting its sights high: According to Access Hollywood, it offered music legend Elton John $33 million to fill the role, but he turned it down. Fox declined to comment.)
As to development, drama clearly remains the network’s strength. Bosetti says she feels new Monday dramas Lonestar and Ride-Along (the latter is slated for midseason) are particularly promising. “Fox is very drama-heavy…They have a solid schedule with strong lead-ins every night,” she says. She would like to see Fox “develop another successful nonanimated comedy.” Whether any of the new comedies on the fall lineup pan out “remains to be seen,” she adds.
The network has had more success developing animated comedies with legs versus live action, although the new animated Bob’s Burgers drew little praise. “It didn’t look like anything special,” says Seaman, making one of the more generous comments about the show from buyers contacted last week.
Of the live-action comedies (for the first time, Fox is placing two in the 9 p.m. hour Tuesdays), Horizon’s Adgate thinks Raising Hope, “looked okay—a typical, somewhat quirky, off-beat Fox comedy.”
But Fox could face a challenging fourth quarter, notes Adgate, since Fox will cover the National League Championship baseball series, which is usually lower rated than the American League series (which the network carried last October). “I doubt if they’ll come out on top [in the adults 18-49 race] in the fourth quarter like they did last year,” he says.
In other words, the adults 18-49 ratings crown could be up for grabs for the season, Adgate believes. But fortune could still smile on the network, depending on how things go with Idol.
“A year ago, people were scratching their heads over Glee, and it turned out to be a big winner,” he cautions. This year’s wild card is Monday 9 p.m. drama Lonestar, a soap opera set in Texas. “It could take off or just bomb,” he muses.
Raising the stakes for all networks is that Thursday and Friday nights will again be intensely competitive, given CBS’ comedy move on Thursday and some effort by almost every network to rekindle a Friday audience.
Maybe the model isn’t so bad after all. NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker spent much of last preseason talking up the “broken model” thesis to analysts, advertisers, the media and anybody else who would listen by way of explaining the decision to program five nights of Jay Leno at 10 p.m. But with plummeting ratings and TV affiliates in open revolt, Leno was out of prime time by February, barely four months after debuting there. Lesson learned: The key to any model is getting viewers to watch your shows.
“The model is not broken; it’s evolving,” says Adgate, referring to the multiscreen universe in which viewers have a growing number of options concerning when and where to watch. With 13 new shows, he adds, NBC “went out there and made an effort. It’s a complete reversal from last year.”
The biggest question for NBC is to what extent that aggressive development slate will undo the damage incurred by embracing— and then unembracing—its new model this season. The jury remains out until the fall season starts. But the Peacock gets kudos for a solid effort, buyers agree, noting the high caliber of production talent creating NBC shows next season, including J.J. Abrams (Wednesday 8 p.m. drama Undercovers), Jerry Bruckheimer (Monday 10 p.m. action hour Chase) and David E. Kelley (midseason entry Harry’s Law).
“All in all, NBC did a good job,” opines Bosetti. “If one or two of the new shows hit, they’ll be in a better place.” At this season’s end, NBC tied for third with ABC in delivery of adults 18-49, down 4 percent for the season through May 16, according to Nielsen.
But MPG’s Seaman questions some of the casting decisions. With older stars like Kathy Bates (Harry’s Law), Jimmy Smits (Outlaw) and Paul Reiser (The Paul Reiser Show) headlining shows, “it looks to me like NBC is taking over as the old folks network.” That’s all the more surprising, he says, because the network likes to project an image of being upscale and “a little bit of the moment.”
Others counter that star power, aging or otherwise, is simply part of the mix. “There’s a balance of older or younger stars on their schedule,” notes Bosetti, pointing to Chase and Undercovers. Adds Katz’s Carroll, a star like Smits is “beloved” by a huge audience that remembers him from previous hits like NYPD Blue, pretty much guaranteeing sampling.
All that said, NBC did place Smits’ show Fridays at 10 p.m., currently “kind of a dead zone,” says Bosetti. Maybe not this fall, though. Bosetti credits both NBC and CBS (which slated Tom Selleck’s New York cop drama Blue Bloods against Outlaw) for attempting to revive the time period with star-studded shows. (See sidebar on this page.)
One of the network’s bigger bets is The Event, a serialized espionage thriller set for Mondays at 9 p.m. The network expects the program will make a splash—like Flash Forward did out of the gate last season—but hopefully without the subsequent sputter, crash and burn that the latter experienced before the end of its first season.
With double-digit ratings gains across its key demographics (18-34, 18-49 and 25-54), The CW had a positive ratings story to tell this past season. And the fact that the network added just two new shows while expanding for the first time to five nights of all-original programming supports the premise, as Steve Sternberg puts it, that the net has finally found its “own voice and a distinct identity.”
The two new shows are the cheerleader drama Hellcats (Wednesdays at 9) and a new take on the female assassin, Nikita (Thursday at 9). Hellcats falls smack in The CW’s wheelhouse, says Bosetti, while the more action-oriented Nikita “is a little bit of a risk for them—but the show looked good.”
With The CW, she adds, “you know who you’re getting,” and that’s young women. “Keeping it fresh is their main challenge.”
Seaman of MPG concurs. “They’re right on their target” with Hellcats, which has traces of Glee in it (the cheerleader theme). Nikita, starring action-movie heroine Maggie Q, is “a little outside their normal thing, but there is room on their schedule for that to work,” he adds.
But Sternberg believes that Nikita could signal the testing of a strategy shift to add more younger men to the audience mix. Such a shift makes sense, he argues. “It seems to me that The CW is missing an opportunity to own the broader young demo, women and men,” given how much older the other networks skew.
The CW was generally applauded for abandoning the schedule of repeat fare it has run on
Fridays (all the networks appear to be trying harder on the night, too). In the fall, it will move Smallville to 8 p.m. leading into Supernatural. “That’s an indication of strength in their development slate,” says Adgate. Of note in that move is the signaled end for Smallville, a decade-long stalwart for the net, which will end its run after next season. Adgate says the network is smart to move it this fall and set up Supernatural as the Friday anchor for the following season.
At its upfront, The CW Entertainment president Dawn Ostroff labeled the network’s core audience as “Generation D” (for digital). It’s the first generation to be raised on all the digital devices that enable the watch-anywhere-anytime lifestyle that older viewers are embracing more gradually.
Ostroff says the network is using TV with digital tools such as social media to “connect your brands to our viewers. Our demo lives in the digital space, and they don’t see any difference between online and offline.”
It’s the right message, credits Sternberg, who notes that “social networking, chatting, tweeting and any other type of online conversing about CW shows is standard among its young audience base.”
A separate issue, of course, is how to maximize the value of such discourse for marketers and find ways to fully monetize such messaging opportunities. But that’s a work in progress for all the networks now that negotiations are underway for the $18 billion ad sales bonanza.