Broadcast Re-Takes the Big Stage

Even minus a breakout hit in 2015-16, traditional networks’ mix of scale and old-world glamour still draws a crowd. Our look ahead at the big week.

Why This Matters

WHY THIS MATTERS
In a world of niche TV tastes, broadcast nets preach value of scale.

Upfront week, once a singular event symbolizing the network TV business, still offers some of the reassuring signifiers of broadcasting’s glorious past. Take the host venues across Manhattan, for example, which haven’t changed much in recent years and offer a combined hundreds of years of cultural lore: Radio City Music Hall (NBC), Carnegie Hall (CBS), Avery Fisher Hall (ABC), the Beacon Theatre (Fox), and New York City Center (The CW).

As glamorous as it is, the ritual is now preceded by dozens of presentations—some nearly as glitzy—from a host of cable, SVOD and digital video rivals, many of whose programming generates far more buzz in today’s zillion-channel universe. And the sales pitch won’t be easier for broadcasters this year. This past season, they failed to produce a bona-fide hit in an industry dominated by talk of skinny bundles and skinnier overnight ratings.

Speaking of ratings, this will be the last upfront before Nielsen’s Total Audience metrics become currency. Attendees at the upfronts can expect plenty of stats showing the long tail of shows, rather than live/same-day fireworks. “There’s linear success, and delayed viewing success, and off-network success,” reasoned Andy Kubitz, ABC’s executive VP, program planning & scheduling. “The hit of the future plays in all those realms.”

Throw in networks’ quest to own more of their slates and you have a scheduling jigsaw puzzle of historic proportions.

Despite the complexity, the biggest U.S. networks still deliver scale. And they use their week on these storied stages to demonstrate that. They shore up their bases, marshaling proof that they are embracing the future even while revering the past. New York’s grand venues still fill up and many private jets full of Alist talent take part in their mid-May shindigs, creating genuinely communal events, a rarity these earbud days. And underlying it all is the awareness that every series finding its way to the oversized screens in these gilded theaters represents a lottery ticket that could turn into the next billion-dollar franchise.

Execs from the Big 5 offered Broadcasting & Cable a sneak peek at the big week. Some highlights:

NBC (May 16)

Radio City is great and all, but perhaps the Ambassador Theater across Broadway might be more fitting for NBC’s wingding; after all, that’s where the musical Chicago plays. In an age of super-serialized, binge-begging series, it’s Dick Wolf’s Chicago-based procedurals that are doing heavy lifting for NBC. The network is adding Chicago Justice, alongside Chicago P.D., Fire and Med.

Wolf is also behind a Law & Order spinoff called True Crime; the first season, about the murderous Menendez brothers, has nothing to do with Chicago.

NBCU’s presentation will be a symphony of sorts, with shows presented thematically for the first time, regardless of whether they’re part of NBC, Telemundo or any of NBCU’s cable networks, including Syfy and USA. JenniferSalke, NBC entertainment president, calls it an “intertwined” song and dance. (NBCU Cable and Telemundo used to stage their own spectacles during the big week.)

While its ratings are slipping, The Voice continues to be a warhorse for NBC. “We ask a lot of The Voice and it continues to perform,” said Salke. “We still feel it’s a great place to launch a show behind.”

Also being tasked with playing launchpad is comedy Superstore. One laffer that Salke and her colleagues are pumped about is The Good Place from Mike Schur, whose work, including The Office and Parks and Recreation, proves that NBC can indeed launch a successful sitcom. “Comedy is not dead at NBC,” insists Salke. “I think we have a real good strategy, and have the goods to deliver it.”

NBC has a few giant promotional pieces in place for summer and fall, in the Summer Olympics and its new half share in the NFL’s Thursday Night Football. Dramas with shorter than normal seasons, including Emerald City, may fit in nicely with Thursday football.

With so darn many holes to fill in recent years, NBC’s upfront presentations at times bordered on interminable. The program will be long again this year, but at least it’s because several NBCU networks are strutting their stuff. “We need a lot less than we’ve needed in other years,” said Salke. “We can be much more strategic as we look to fill fewer time windows.”

Fox (May 16)

Fox’s priorities include keeping Empire hot, and adapting to life after American Idol. Perhaps more than any other network, Fox is keen on revivals. Entertainment president DavidMadden voiced “enormously high hopes” for 24: Legacy. Prison Break is back for a nine-episode run, and a new XFiles isn’t out of the question. “We’re in very, very, very early conversations,” said Madden, noting the challenge of pinning down in-demand lead actors. “We’re hopeful.”

Fox is also betting that Lee Daniels’ Star grabs a wisp of Empire’s pixie dust. While Daniels’ Empire is about a family enjoying blockbuster success in the music business, Star looks at the young hopefuls chasing their dreams. “It’s a fun ride,” said Madden.

Fox brass was encouraged by the critical and commercial success of Grease Live! in January, so expect the net to stay bullish on live productions.

That’s not the case with comedies. Grandfathered and The Grinder ratings are a pittance, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s 2014 Golden Globe for Best Comedy is shrinking in the rearview. Perhaps Son of Zorn, a bizarre mix of live action and animation featuring always-funny JasonSudeikis, can bring back the laughs.

Fox hits the new season without American Idol for the first time since the cast of Scream Queens was in diapers. But Madden remains optimistic. “We’re starting to find some stability in terms of our schedule,” he said.

ABC (May 17)

One of the great mysteries of the current season is, what the heck happened to The Muppets? Everyone loves those creatures, and the critics even dug the show. Perhaps the market for behind-the-scenes-at-a-late-night-talkeris saturated, especially in Middle America. Either way, the comedy’s failure to catch on stings. (ABC has not officially ruled on Muppets’ fate.)

ABC’s 10 p.m. slot is a conundrum too, though Quantico had as good a rookie season as most any drama. Channing Dungey, who took the reins as entertainment president afterPaul Lee’s midseason exit, has a chance to put her stamp on ABC programming and wins high marks from many in the creative community.

“We’ll build on what our strengths are,” said Kubitz. That includes comedies, ShondaLand dramas and unscripted fare like The Bachelor franchise.

A dozen seasons in, Grey’s Anatomy continues to pull in substantial viewers. But MeredithGrey and her colleagues could use some help—stat.

CBS (May 18)

The key word for CBS, as usual, is stability. Supergirl did not take flight the way the network hoped, but neither did it crash. “Once again, we have very few holes to fill, and the bar to make it onto our primetime schedule is very high,” said Leslie Moonves, chairman, president and CEO, on last week’s earnings call.

The network is pleased to have gotten solid performances out of aging series, including The Big Bang Theory, NCIS and Survivor. And while the rookies weren’t quite hits, they at least earned their sophomore seasons.

A fair number of series, including The Good Wife, Person of Interest and Mike & Molly, are departing, opening the door for new blood. (Good Wife creators Michelle and Robert King are behind summer series BrainDead.)

Give CBS credit for diversifying its platform portfolio—getting a foothold in SVOD-land with All Access, which debuts Star Trek in 2017. Rivals would love to knock that smug smile off Moonves’ face, but they’ll have to wait at least another year. “CBS may not be the most glamorous, but it’s certainly the most consistent,” said Bill Carroll, Katz Television Group senior VP/director of content strategy.

The CW (May 19)

The CW has done a bang-up job leveling out its gender split, with The Flash and Arrowdoing a superhero’s work on that front while newbie DC’s Legends of Tomorrow has showed promise. “We have continued to broaden our audience to more adult men and women, and we now have the most balanced audience composition of any broadcast network,” said Mark Pedowitz, CW president.

But how come more females—or anyone, for that matter—aren’t watching Monday mates Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend? CW had the luxury of launching just one series last fall, but Crazy Ex’s ratings have been underwhelming.

The CW renewed 11 series for next year, and a rebooted MadTV is coming back too. “We now have scripted series that we can schedule through the spring and into the summer,” said Pedowitz, “and we’ll be looking for two new shows for fall and one or two for midseason.”