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B&C's FALL PREVIEW: Lessons of the Fall

What each network may teach us about the state of broadcast television 9/07/2008 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Rival network executives don't often agree on much, but this year they are on the same page—this has been a strange development season, to say the least.

After the 100-day writers' strike decimated much of the typical pilot season, many of the networks were thrown into something they had all quietly talked about but seldom done: shaking up the traditional cycle.

Each network reacted differently, and in the end we enter a fall season in which the television industry is hoping to learn a lot more than the one dark question that looms over all of network television: Will the viewers come back?

But in a time when new technologies and the on-demand world are evolving the content delivery business almost daily, good old-fashioned television is still a cash cow, as evidenced by yet another strong upfront selling season.

So knowing that primetime lineups do still matter (for now), the television industry should learn quite a bit from this disjointed fall season. In fact, each network should present the answer to a question about how to compete in the changing business.

With Marisa Guthrie

ABC: Is there such a thing as a reset button?

"Start here"? How about "Let's try this again"?

With few new shows ready to launch this fall, ABC is focusing on relaunching its Wednesday lineup of Pushing Daisies, Private Practice and Dirty Sexy Money, a trio that debuted last fall. A fair amount of viewers bit on these shows last fall but didn't exactly eat them up, even before they disappeared after the strike.

Executives at the network say they saw promise in these shows and are hoping the viewers who tuned in the first time around will return, and then some. ABC hopes that since there are fewer new shows across broadcast primetime this fall, there will be fewer messages about brand-new shows to compete with their Wednesday reintroduction.

But if it doesn't work, ABC has plenty of backup. The network picked up five new shows late last month, adding to the shows it wound up piloting later in the year than usual due to the strike.

The network, in fact, has ordered just about the same amount of new product typical of any new season; it will just premiere them throughout the season as they become ready and are needed, says ABC Entertainment Executive VP Jeff Bader, who oversees scheduling.

With plans to roll out several new entries next year regardless of how the Wednesday night relaunch goes, midseason on ABC is shaping up to look like a second crack at fall. But Bader would not go that far.

"It is not like every night will change like we've done in the past," he says of previous fall seasons. "We won't have that many shows. The core schedule won't change."

Watch a promo for ABC's new drama Life on Mars:

The CW: Is there a business in buzz?

The CW has without a doubt established buzz and awareness with such shows as Gossip Girl and 90210. Even after both brought in record ratings last week, the question still remains whether the buzz will translate to long-term ratings.

CW Entertainment President Dawn Ostroff has demonstrated discipline in giving her shows and strategies a shot at jelling. By many accounts, for example, Gossip Girl would have been cut by most other networks based on its performance last year, but there was evidence of a loyal following and it represents the sort of show the network is aiming for. The CW is "really a brand starting to brand," Ostroff says.

But the new target audience for this network—women 18 to 34—is one that is becoming notoriously difficult to capture and measure. "We are the network feeling the pains; our young viewers watch the shows by streaming or downloading or on other sites," Ostroff says. She adds that The CW is working on a ratings system that takes into account all the different ways the network's programming creates an impact across all different platforms and buzz.

That can't hurt, as measuring the effectiveness of off-network viewing is still a project in development. "The problem is we really don't know what impact it has," says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research for Horizon Media. "Gossip Girl is an example of that."

Watch a clip from the new season of Gossip Girl below:

CBS: Can you grow by staying the same?

CBS is treating this like any traditional fall, in more ways than one. Despite the strike, the network completed a full pilot season in eight weeks. Consequently, CBS is introducing five new shows off the bat—the most of any network.

And most of the new shows are back in the CBS wheelhouse of procedural dramas and solid sitcoms. This comes after last fall the network flirted with edgier projects such as Viva Laughlin and Swingtown, which both fizzled.

For this development season, Entertainment President Nina Tassler looked at what is working on the network now and how the veteran shows evolved, and took cues from there. "If you look at the core audience, the core brand, we thought where are there opportunities to evolve and advance it and bring in a different sensibility and different thinking," she says.

The new shows are still in the CBS brand's sweet spot of broad, accessible programming, but also incorporate added dashes of humor, slightly more provocative content and a sense of positivity Tassler believes audiences will embrace.

Aside from Fringe on Fox, two of the other shows most often cited among insiders as having a good shot at breaking out are CBS shows: drama The Mentalist, a procedural drama starring proven CBS star Simon Baker (The Guardian); and self-deprecating comedy Worst Week, following the travails of a man trying to ingratiate himself with the family of his pregnant fiancée.

Whether CBS's relatively conservative approach can dial up its viewership remains to be seen. One rival network executive, who says The Mentalist looks "pretty good," claims it is coming just in time: "They need juice and needed to feed their schedule two seasons ago—now it gets to a more urgent situation."

Watch a clip of The Mentalist below. To watch clips of other new CBS shows, click here.

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NBC: Are pilots necessary?

In the wake of the writers' strike, NBC screamed from the rooftops that it was cutting back significantly on pilot production. With those cost savings in the bank, it remains to be seen if the network can find any new hits to reverse its slumping primetime fortunes.

While detractors of this tack suggest that a pilot is always important as a matter of knowing what is being bought, sold and promoted to viewers, NBC co-chief Ben Silverman calls the traditional pilot process "a little bit of a scam," with pilots costing several millions of dollars more than a typical episode and not being representative of the rest of the series. "I also just think the pilot process hasn't worked," he says. "The rate of failure has been so high."

The executive says NBC was able to get top talent associated with the shows that went straight to series, which he says winds up being a self-fulfilling process. Good people on good shows are a better shot, in his mind.

He says he's "very happy" with where the unpiloted shows, such as Kath & Kim and My Own Worst Enemy, are creatively. But no matter how those shows perform, Silverman claims pilot-less development will continue to be part of his strategy.

"Some shows will continue to go straight to series," he says, but they will have to come with a great reason—such as a first-choice director or stars. "The more and more we do it, the more and more I personally like the straight-to-series model. But you have to have all the pieces.

"It's a total portfolio. We already have ordered pilots on things, presentations, doing things with foreign partners," Silverman adds. "Every program has its own handpicked approach that has formed its own great recipe. It's really all about the specific show, talent, needs around time periods."

Watch a clip of new NBC comedy Kath & Kim below. To watch other clips of new shows from NBC's fall line-up, click here.

Fox: Can the No. 1 network launch a hit in the fall?

Now that Fox has proved it can win the season with a monstrous, American Idol-driven midseason, the network is taking its biggest shot yet at launching a fourth-quarter hit before the baseball playoffs kick in.

Fox has normally held its big guns until January, but this year it is coming our firing in the fall. Fox will debut its marquee rookie, Fringe, a science-oriented drama from primetime powerhouse J.J. Abrams (Lost, Alias, Felicity) on Sept. 8 and then air it Tuesdays at 9 p.m.

"In the past, Fox has struggled more often than not in the fall. We've been in distant fourth even when we pulled ahead late in the season," Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly says. "We want to see our big show Fringe make a little noise, establish itself as a keeper."

Industry insiders are pointing to Fringe as the likeliest candidate to break out this fall. Among the reasons: Abrams' proven track record, and the fact that the program has a procedural feel with payoff at the end of each episode but enough mystery to keep viewers engaged over the long haul, as well as enough humor to show it doesn't take itself too seriously.

But as Horizon's Adgate noted, a strong premiere far from guarantees a hit. That lesson was reemphasized last year with NBC's Bionic Woman, which opened big and then quickly faded.

"There are a lot of shows that start out of the box really fast and the ratings just start to dwindle, particularly new shows," he says. "The first show is just that, it's the first show; there are 20-plus shows after that. And really the second, third, fourth shows are far more important to advertisers."

Watch a clip of Fringe below. To watch other clips of new shows from Fox's fall line-up, click here.

MyNetwork TV: Can you keep the wrestling audience?

Professional sports have long been called a "rented audience" for networks, as sports fans often don't return for other network programming. And while pro wrestling is hardly a real sport, that seemed to be the case for WWE Smackdown at The CW, which jettisoned the franchise after last season.

But with a more compatible lineup of programming, MyNetworkTV hopes it can capitalize on the wrestling audience as it heads into its third season.

Smackdown represents "a promotional locomotive we haven't had in the past," says network chief Greg Meidel. "You will never be able to have enough promotion and money for marketing, so it's huge to have a WWE show with three generations of people who watch as a family looking for it. Even if they don't hear or see promos or billboards or online marketing, they will find that brand. They will seek it out, they will watch it, and we'll have the ability to promote to our target audience."

The network still has a long way to go to compete with the big boys, but "all arrows are pointing up," Meidel claims. Last season the network posted a 33% ratings increase across the board among adults 18-49, though big percentage increases are, of course, easier to achieve when the starting point is low.

"We are more concerned about our own universe than how our competitors are doing," Meidel says, adding that he isn't necessarily expecting another 33% jump in viewership. "Our barometer is how we continue to grow compared to a year ago, a month ago, a sweep ago," he says. "The goal is continued growth and momentum through the schedule, and we'll see some double-digit growth."

Watch a clip of WWE's Smackdown:

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