What’s Keeping Broadcast Presidents Up at Night as They Plan Pitches to Advertisers?

Rebuilding lineups and plugging holes

It all comes down to this. The broadcast upfronts are just days away, which means it's crunch time for the network presidents. They and their top execs will be spending the week hunkered down as they review their new pilots and make the final, agonizing decisions about which new and returning shows will and won't make it onto the 2016-17 schedule that they present to advertisers and buyers next week.

All the networks have one goal this week: strengthen their schedules from this season. "It sounds so simple, but it's actually much harder than you think," said CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller, whose network will finish the season first in total viewers, adults 18-49 and adults 25-54. "You want to make moves that are going to improve time periods, but there's the risk that when you move a show, you may hurt the numbers. But you have to make space for new shows, so you have to continue to try new things. It's a balancing act."

Geller is one of two presidents making their upfront picks for the first time this year, along with ABC Entertainment chief Channing Dungey, who replaced Paul Lee less than three months ago. Not coincidentally, both new chiefs renewed the bulk of their current prime-time lineups unusually early (in March), which leaves them with fewer last-minute programming decisions to make than usual.

While NBC will slip to No. 2 this season in the 18-49 demo after two years on top, NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt is actually more optimistic than ever about piecing together his new schedule. "What I'm feeling good about this season, which I have not felt in the four or five previous years, is that we have a fair amount of shows that are working and solid. We've always been plugging holes and trying to just keep things afloat because so much stuff was failing as we tried to rebuild," said Greenblatt. But with a solid foundation of shows like Blindspot, The Blacklist and the Dick Wolf-produced Chicago dramas, "there's a lot of pieces to work with," he said, "and I feel like for the first time in a long time, we're not heading into pilot screenings just going, 'Oh God, we need so many things, and we hope some of this stuff works!'"

Fox, on the other hand, faces exactly that dilemma, as Fox Television Group co-chairmen and co-CEOs Dana Walden and Gary Newman must fill the void left by American Idol, which has ended after 15 seasons, leaving a huge crater in their midseason lineup. "We stepped up our development and have increased spending 30 percent," said Newman. "It keeps us up a bit at night, thinking about how we're going to fill that time next year, but I feel confident that we have the goods"—especially with early pickups for a revival of Prison Break, a 24 reboot (called 24: Legacy) and Star, a new music drama from Empire creator Lee Daniels—"and then we just have to be smart when it comes to scheduling."

At The CW, president Mark Pedowitz renewed 11 shows in March, which at the time included every program that was on the air, but he needs to find spots to launch some new shows in the fall. "Last October we only did one, so we'll probably do two," said Pedowitz, who wants to get his audiences hooked on new shows, even as he's happy with his current lineup. "That doesn't mean that the two that aren't on the schedule won't be on the schedule [later]; it's just, we have really good shows now!"

Even though they are preparing their schedules to present to advertisers and buyers at the upfront, most of the execs admit that they are trying to pick a lineup that will appeal to viewers first and foremost. "You want to put on the shows that are going to have the broadest appeal and are going to attract the largest audience," said Geller. "Everything else will fall into place. If you get those viewers, the advertisers will be there."

This story first appeared in the May 9, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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