Broadcasters Used to Worry About Cannibalizing Viewers, but They’re Debuting 64 Shows This Week

Inside ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC’s decision to reembrace a single fall TV premiere week

Broadcasters have rethought the decade-long strategy of avoiding premiering all their fall shows opposite one another in the peak TV era. Photo illustration: ChefBoyRG; Courtesy of ABC, FOX, NBC, and CBS
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When the 2018–19 TV season began a year ago, ABC only premiered half of its fall shows during that first week, choosing instead to stagger its fall rollouts over a month.

That decision was made in part to give some breathing room to the seven new shows it was rolling out and also because ABC was committed to airing the American Music Awards during the third week of the season, which would have disrupted its Tuesday schedule. This year, however, things have changed drastically.

ABC is rolling out 20 of its shows during premiere week (an additional series, Dancing With the Stars, debuted a week earlier). The only remaining fall program, Kids Say the Darndest Things, arrives the following week.

“It’s absolutely a strategy to put most of our efforts into a concentrated period of time,” said Karey Burke, ABC Entertainment president. “And with fewer shows to launch [ABC has just four freshman series this fall], we can afford to do that.”

All of its broadcast rivals—most of whom have also routinely spread out their fall rollouts—now feel the same way. ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC will debut a staggering 64 shows during the first week of the fall season, with just seven stragglers following a week later and no fall shows premiering after that. The CW, as usual, doesn’t debut its fall shows until early October, but this year it’s also sticking to a condensed time frame with all but one series rolling out in a single week.

While broadcasters have tried in the last decade to avoid premiering all their fall shows opposite one another, as they worried it would dent their potential audiences, they have rethought that strategy in the midst of peak TV where they now face heavy competition from cable and streaming every week of the year.

“At this point, the cannibalization is so much broader than just ABC versus CBS versus NBC. It’s every streaming service, plus every podcast, plus every video game, plus every YouTube video,” said Michael Law, president of Amplifi U.S.

This has encouraged networks to reembrace the idea of a single premiere week.

“There’s a seasonality to broadcast television. It’s one of the unique and special things about it, so we’re leaning hard into that,” said Burke, adding that ABC viewers grew up on broadcast TV.

With so many other outlets fighting for viewer attention, a single premiere week “creates an event-type atmosphere for broadcast television, where one show premiering the week of Oct. 20 is much harder to build a lot of momentum around,” said Law.

Plus, with so many delayed viewing options, audiences no longer worry about having to choose between multiple shows premiering at the same time. “It brings back what broadcast television always was, and in a way, how people still think about it,” Law continued.

This especially applies now that CBS and NBC are no longer forced to disrupt their fall lineups as a result of broadcasting a partial Thursday Night Football package, which caused some of their fall debuts to delay until November. In 2016 and 2017, “the Thursday night comedies had to time-period share with Thursday Night Football,” said NBC Entertainment co-chairman Paul Telegdy.

CBS, however, said it might not stick to a single fall premiere week every season.

“Some years, depending on the strength of your nights, you might want to take more of a rolling thunder approach across a traditional premiere week,” said Kelly Kahl, CBS Entertainment president. “And some years, you just think it’s more advantageous to wait two or three weeks to put some shows on.”

Then again, as CBS and its other broadcast rivals have shifted from airing in-season repeats to as many original episodes as possible, “the sooner you can start the shows, the sooner you can make some room to get another show on,” said Kahl.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 23, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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