With Many Broadcast Shows Delayed, Cable Makes a Fall Play for Advertisers and Audiences

AMC, FX and Food Network seek to take advantage of early-season void

a man standing in front of an old blue car
Production for Fargo, as well as many other popular series, was paused early in the pandemic. Matthias Clamer/FX
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Broadcast ratings for the early days of the new TV season dropped by one-third as broadcasters mounted makeshift schedules to fill the void until their top-tier scripted series can return later in the year.

This continues the migration to streaming, which has accelerated during Covid-19. “Everyone’s down substantially. It’s only a question of how far you’re down,” said Catherine Sullivan, CEO at PHD USA.

Without the usual September rush of broadcast premieres, fourth-quarter ad impressions are up in the air due to upended production schedules. Plus, there’s the risk of Covid-19 outbreaks shutting down production and pushing return dates back even further. Instead, some cable networks are looking to stand out among audiences and advertisers this fall with their own more stable offerings.

Both AMC and FX are rolling out scripted series—including three different Walking Dead shows—that they are hoping will connect with viewers who aren’t flocking to broadcast premieres in the early season.

Because of the broadcast schedule upheaval, “there’s just not a ton of choice out there right now,” said Kim Kelleher, president of commercial revenue and partnerships at AMC Networks. She said her slate is “offering advertisers certainty against a backdrop of uncertainty. We are walking into the end of the year with an excellent foundation of high-quality impressions.”

As most broadcast premieres have been delayed, “we’ve seen some of the benefits of others who have made promises and not delivered,” said Kelleher. AMC added Allstate insurance company to The Walking Dead universe and lined up Warner Bros.’ Tenet as the official studio partner for The Walking Dead’s event episode on Oct. 4.

a woman in a hoodie and cargo pants sitting in a field surrounded by sticks that look like makeshift graves
Zach Dilgard/AMC

FX recently began airing Season 4 of Fargo, which had to be postponed from April when production shut down in March, leaving two episodes still to be shot (production resumed in late August and wrapped last month).

“I’m bummed that we weren’t able to finish Fargo and air it when we originally had scheduled it,” said John Landgraf, chairman of FX Networks and FX Productions, who hopes that the lack of broadcast scripted competition will allow the show to break though. “But on the other hand, maybe that turns out to be an opportunity. We’ll see.”

Discovery Inc., which is mostly unscripted, has taken a different approach to stand out among its rivals. The network created “hundreds of hours” of content from its talents’ homes during the production, according to Jon Steinlauf, chief U.S. advertising sales officer at Discovery.

“That, in addition to not being so dependent on Hollywood scripted production as many of our competitors are, has been an advantage for us,” he said. Ever since the pandemic hit and in this year’s upfront talks, Steinlauf has touted his portfolio’s “inspirational and comforting” content “at a time when there’s so much drama and chaos in people’s lives.”

a man in a black suit standing in a studio surrounded by pumpkins and halloween decor
Food Network

Discovery is also making a play for fall audiences. The company is introducing new seasons of shows across its whole portfolio, and Food Network debuted a trio of Halloween-themed programs—Halloween Wars, Outrageous Pumpkins and Halloween Baking Championship—in mid-September, “earlier than we ever have before,” Steinlauf said.

The lack of broadcast competition “played a part in it,” continued Steinlauf, as well as research showing that people were looking forward to the three end-of-year holidays in particular this year.

For cable networks in the scatter market, “certainly any name program that has performed in the past, there’s opportunity for them to stand out even more where there aren’t as many network prime dramas going on,” said David Campanelli, co-chief investment officer at Horizon Media.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 5, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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