Why the TV Grid Still Matters
With competition at an all-time high, scheduling has never been more important
By Marisa Guthrie -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/20/2010 12:01:00 AM
That may be a glimpse at one scenario, but for the multibillion- dollar broadcast television industry, that possibility lies somewhere in the distant future. The network scheduling chiefs still have their jobs, and their infl uence. With competition—and fragmentation—at an all-time high, billion- dollar annual programming budgets and an advertising marketplace always looking for a better return on investment, scheduling has never been more important.
So, as the fall season kicks off in earnest this week while the networks look to keep the gravy train on the tracks for one more year, here is why the schedule looks the way it does.
It’s Still the Live Viewing, Stupid
Yes, DVR penetration is growing; Nielsen puts it at 37%, up more than 50% over 2008. But that still leaves more than 60% of the viewing audience watching programs live and (presumably) watching commercials, which is ultimately what pays the bills.
“The majority of television viewing is still done the old-fashioned way,” says Preston Beckman, executive VP of strategic program planning at Fox. “That’s obviously evolving. I don’t know if it’s going to go away in the near future because we still have to ! gure out what’s a hit and what’s not a hit. And that’s still dependent on ratings. We live in a very insulated world out here, so we think everyone consumes media the way we do. It still seems that come May when we get in that scheduling room, all the sudden everybody starts thinking it matters.”
Madison Avenue also apparently still believes in the power of live television. This year’s upfront haul at the broadcast networks may not be back at pre-recession levels, but at $8.6 billion, it was nevertheless up 6% over last year.
“Don’t forget, there’s a huge ad market still out there,” says Kelly Kahl, senior executive VP of CBS Primetime. “Content is still king, but we still have a heck of a good business selling ads during the shows.”
Yes, Lead-Ins Still Matter
For all of the lip service paid to the empowering effects of time-shifting technology and the itchy remote thumb, the Nielsen numbers show that television is nevertheless still a passive medium for many. As in the days of only a few networks when viewers had to get up from the couch to change the channel, schedulers still exploit this by building “" ow” through a night of primetime programming with compatible lead-ins for new shows to spur sampling.
CBS is relocating The Big Bang Theory, TV’s top-rated comedy in the 18-49 demographic, to 8 p.m. Thursday, leading into the new William Shatner vehicle $#*! My Dad Says. Raising Hope will get the plum post-Glee slot at 9 p.m. Tuesday, and Fox executives are hopeful that viewers will stick around for 9:30 p.m. comedy Running Wilde. NBC will give new comedy Outsourced the post-Office slot Thursday at 9:30 p.m. And ABC is putting Detroit 1-8-7 behind Tuesday’s Dancing With the Stars results show. “We still look at flow,” says Jeff Bader, executive VP of planning, scheduling and distribution at ABC. “Shows still get the majority of their audience from their lead-in. That hasn’t changed.”
Protecting Your Own
As networks are producing or co-producing more of their content at in-house studios with an eye toward syndication, back-end and international revenue potential, nurturing these programs fundamentally impacts scheduling.
Of the seven new shows on ABC’s fall schedule, four of them—No Ordinary Family, Detroit 1- 8-7, My Generation and Body of Proof—are from ABC Studios. CBS Television Studios not only produces the NCIS and CSI franchises, but also The Good Wife and new series Hawaii Five-O, The Defenders and Blue Bloods. On Fox, Lone Star and Raising Hope are from 20th Century Fox Television. And Universal Media Studios is behind Law & Order: Los Angeles, Outlaw and big-budget thriller The Event. It is no coincidence that the shows getting the most marketing muscle from each network are on this list.
Scheduling, according to CBS’ Kahl, “is really about being a guardian of these assets. [It’s] a lot about helping get these assets to a mature point where they can get into syndication, be distributed internationally. We can have great success as long as you can get your content to a critical mass where it becomes desirable.”
Nets Still View Each Other as Main Rivals
Despite the proliferation of content and the broadcast networks’ waning share of the collective viewing audience, as crazy as it may sound, they still view each other as the prime—if not only—competition. That’s because, summer phenom Jersey Shore and a few other exceptions notwithstanding, the biggest shows on TV are still on the broadcast networks: American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, Grey’s Anatomy, House, NCIS, Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory.
“The other broadcast networks are still your biggest competitors,” Kahl says, “because they are still the biggest impediment for you getting a large audience for your shows.”
That said, executives still claim that their paramount priority is putting their own best foot forward—and hoping the competition crashes and burns on its own. “What I’ve learned during almost 20 years of scheduling is if you react to the other networks, you generally do the dirty work for them,” Fox’s Beckman says. “It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Let’s Try Premiere Week— One More Time
The controlled madness of launching dozens of new shows as well as season premieres of favorite returning series has been oft-debated. Last season, NBC launched its Jay Leno-heavy primetime schedule early in hopes of getting a jump on the competition. And The CW has traditionally debuted its new shows before the crush of premiere week.
But this year, the Big Four English-language broadcast networks are going back to the scrum, launching the overwhelming majority of new and returning shows this week. And while this post-Labor Day embarrassment of riches generates copious buzz and higher-than-average tunein, even those doing it aren’t convinced it’s the right move. Clearly, if opening numbers across the board are down, look for the networks to scatter again at launch time next fall.
“Does it make sense to launch 20-plus new shows simultaneously? No,” says Mitch Metcalf, NBC’s executive VP of program planning and scheduling. “But the question is, what’s a reasonable number? Viewers want to see new shows and they want to see their favorite returning shows, but they certainly don’t want to be overwhelmed.”
E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie
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