Broadcast Scheduling Is More Important Than Ever During a Pandemic

Execs navigate COVID-19 upheaval while keeping audiences and advertisers happy

grey's anatomy
Grey's Anatomy is one of several shows ending its season earlier than planned after COVID-19 shut down production. ABC/Christopher Willard
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Key insights:

As the COVID-19 crisis enters its second month in the U.S., broadcast networks have been scrambling to fill the programming slots left open by the cancellation of live sports and create lineups that will be attractive to consumers stuck at home who are looking for entertainment options.

Meanwhile, they’re trying to plan for what will happen if the Hollywood production shutdown continues for months, which will deplete their stock of original programming and could send viewers to other outlets in search of content.

At the center of this perfect storm is the broadcast schedulers, who are juggling all these tasks as their try to steer their respective networks through the pandemic. They have always held one of the industry’s most important jobs, but with bigger stakes than ever thanks to the novel coronavirus, the fate of the entire network is in their hands. “This job has never been more important—and more stressful,” as one put it.

In addition to keeping audiences happy, schedulers also have to make decisions that will help calm nervous buyers who are unsure what kind of shows their clients will be advertising on. “If production has halted everywhere, what the heck are we going to run in, once this slew of programming runs out?” one buyer recently told Adweek. “Do they bring back movies? Do they create stuff digitally?”

“We always try to have contingency plans and map out multiple scenarios, but nobody foresaw this. This is unprecedented.”
Kevin Levy, evp, program planning, scheduling and acquisitions for The CW.

While some of their cable counterparts have addressed coronavirus-related production issues by delaying several of spring’s biggest series until later in the year—including Season 4 of FX’s Fargo and AMC’s latest Walking Dead spinoff, World Beyond—the broadcast schedulers don’t have that luxury, as they are trying to lure viewers now and take advantage of the opportunity to reverse years of linear ratings declines now that TV usage is on the rise with so many Americans sheltering in place.

A scheduler’s job is to expect the unexpected, but none of them had planned for a pandemic that would shut down production potentially for several months. “We always try to have contingency plans and map out multiple scenarios, but nobody foresaw this. This is unprecedented,” said Kevin Levy, evp of program planning, scheduling and acquisitions for The CW.

Assembling a network schedule is like putting together a puzzle: determining how viewers will react to the shows and maximizing audience flow to get the highest ratings, while simultaneously planning for both the short and long term. But with no concrete idea of when production will resume, schedulers find themselves in an unfamiliar position.

“The biggest struggle in scheduling now is you have no idea what pieces of the puzzle you have. And every day, a piece falls off the table, or somebody pulls one out and puts it on the table,” said Andy Kubitz, evp of programming strategy at ABC Entertainment. “So right now, your long-term strategy is about two months and the short-term strategy is the next two days.”

Many of them have devised multiple schedules, depending on the week or month that production will be able to resume. Planning for a pandemic may be new to schedulers, but devising a variety of different scheduling scenarios is par for the course.

“That’s the nature of scheduling in general. I’ve got sheets of scenarios and schedules for many years in advance,” said Noriko Kelley, evp of programming planning and scheduling at CBS Entertainment.

They’ve been hard at work revamping their respective schedules ever since sports events were canceled three-and-a-half weeks ago as the COVID-19 crisis ramped up, when the World Heath Organization classified it as a pandemic.

“Right now, your long-term strategy is about two months and the short-term strategy is the next two days.”
Andy Kubitz, evp, programming strategy, ABC Entertainment

CBS immediately had to find replacement programming for its March Madness games after that tournament was canceled (the network aired repeats of its prime-time shows through the end of March), and other live shows were postponed like The Academy of Country Music Awards, which had been scheduled to air last Sunday (in its place, the network broadcast a two-hour ACM music special).

In those early days of the crisis, The CW chose to delay a few original episodes of shows like The Flash and Batwoman, a better-safe-than-sorry approach to buy the network some time until the pandemic’s long-term impact was clearer.

Once Hollywood production began to shut down, schedulers faced a new challenge: the realization that several of their shows would suddenly be unable to produce the expected amount of episodes for this season.

While most broadcast shows with a traditional 22-episode run will find themselves one or two episodes short this season, a few series were hit harder. ABC will have four fewer episodes of Grey’s Anatomy this season—only 21 of its super-sized season’s 25 episodes were completed; its season finale will air Thursday—while The CW had to pause the final season of Supernatural last month after that show’s postproduction facilities closed down to the coronavirus, preventing further episodes from being finished.

As a result, the CW had to move up one of its summer series, Whose Line is it Anyway?, to March 30 in place of Supernatural.

Several schedulers are working with their specials department on programming and events to fill schedule gaps, like last week’s Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood live concert on CBS and the COVID-19 benefits on Fox and CBS hosted by Elton John and James Corden, respectively.

Some networks are also open to marathons of current shows—as CBS did last week with The Neighborhood—or creating themed nights to showcase repeats.

ABC will soon have to make a decision about the fate of American Idol, which has preproduced episodes airing through April 19 before it is supposed to switch to a live format. The network is still discussing the possibility of a live component to those shows, exploring different options that are consistent with government guidelines.

Similarly, CBS is debating options for what is supposed to be its traditional live finale of Survivor on May 16.

Broadcasters also have several midseason shows, which had completed filming, and are rolling those programs out to provide original programming. Last week, CBS debuted Man With a Plan and Broke, and The CW moved up Season 2 of In the Dark by more than a month, from May 28 to April 16, to plug scheduling gaps.

“For us, the thing that has always worked is a strong, stable schedule. You've seen that prior to all this and you'll see that going through all of this."
Noriko Kelley, evp, programming planning and scheduling, CBS Entertainment

Through it all, schedulers stress that they are still relying on the fundamentals of scheduling to guide them and their networks through these turbulent times.

“For us, the thing that has always worked is a strong, stable schedule. You’ve seen that prior to all this, and you’ll see that going through all of this,” Kelley said. To that end, CBS is focused on the same scheduling goals it has had all season: improving Mondays, shoring up Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays—and ending the season once again as the No. 1 network in total audiences.

That strategy is working, as several CBS shows have seen two-year ratings highs in the past week, including NCIS, MacGyver, Hawaii Five-O and FBI.

ABC is leaning into escapist programming, with its family comedies and big reality shows offering a respite from COVID-19 coverage.

Summer strategy

Once they make it through the end of the traditional TV season in May, the broadcasters will have to contend with their summer lineups.

For ABC, more than half of the various game shows it airs during the summer have already been filmed, but its Bachelor franchise is more of a question mark. Filming on The Bachelorette has been delayed, and last week the network pulled the plug on its Olympics counterprogramming, The Bachelor Summer Games, after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed to 2021.

CBS is also hoping to air its annual summer reality shows—Big Brother and Love Island—but if production remains shut down, the networks will have to come up with alternatives.

The CW has a mix of scripted and alternative originals for summer (Penn & Teller: Fool Us, In the Dark, The 100), with some acquired shows like Bulletproof, Burden of Truth and new superhero series Stargirl (which will air the day after it debuts on the DC Universe streaming service). However, production was halted on two of its scripted summer series: The Outpost and Pandora.

As they look for other summer programming options, ABC and CBS are both considering using repeat programming strategically, as an opportunity to relaunch shows for a new audience to discover.

But if TV production still hasn’t resumed by late summer, the schedulers will have to start getting creative as they look to the rest of the year.

Multiple networks are considering airing movies if they run out of original shows to broadcast this summer or later in the year, and ABC will likely tap its Disney siblings for other programming options. Some schedulers are regularly fielding other creative programming ideas from their peers as they plan long-term.

As one scheduler said, “We are exploring all options.”

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.