Knowing Where TV Success is Born

With the broadcast networks poised to rake in lots of cash this upfront to go with all those shiny new retrans dollars, here are five ways they can really make the money work next season 5/09/2011 12:01:00 AM Eastern

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No one seems to doubt that the broadcast networks are poised to make a killing in upfront advertising sales this year. With scatter prices hovering about 40% above last year's upfront market rates, buyers are expected to line up to open their wallets in advance this time around.

But as the networks shake down cable and satellite
pipes, as well as affiliates, for retrans cash partly
in the name of dominant primetime programming,
more than ever they need to present the TV community
this upfront with programming strategies that will
keep those ratings burning. Plus, if they’re sick of all
the buzz that cable programming gets, the solution is
pretty simple: make better shows.

With that in mind, we chatted with the heads of
the major networks and came away with five things
they need to do differently with their programming
strategy next season.

Enough Already
With Premiere Week

Network executives admit that “premiere week” is
an archaic tradition, and that launching all of your
content to the viewer in the same week isn’t wise. Then
they all go out and do exactly that, unable to beat back
inertia and break the development-upfront cycle they
all say is so " awed. If last fall’s disastrous premieres for
shows like Lone Star, The Whole Truth, Undercovers and
My Generation were any indication, it might be time to
create a new tradition.

“I don’t think any network right now has the share
of voice to properly launch ! ve new shows in the fall,”
says one broadcast network entertainment president.
With the broadcast networks unable
to reverse their eroding share
of the television audience, they
can’t afford to throw away
their development money by
launching new programming into killer competition.
More and more, the broadcast season is year-round—
let’s not see the story of next season written in the first week.

And since we know all the networks will still slam
their debuts into each other like a massive NASCAR
pile-up, how about at least giving your freshmen some
time to breathe? Really believe in a show? Give it more
than two weeks to find an audience, or at the least try
another time period (and we don’t mean Saturdays).

Bet Big on Comedy

Need new comedy? Put a bunch on the schedule.
Comedy is broadcast primetime’s single most valuable
contribution to the TV ecosystem, as the off-net comedy
pipeline is what so much of cable and stations’
prime-access business is built on. And with cable grabbing
an increasing share of the ratings (and accolades)
in drama, comedy is a genre that broadcast can still
own. “I’ve seen a lot of things work in cable television
because they were different and risk-taking,” says Bob
Greenblatt, recently minted NBC Entertainment chairman.
“While we strive for a larger audience than cable
delivers, I think the broadcast networks have to start
doing that more readily—as evidenced by shows like
Glee and Modern Family.”

The Big Four each ordered between nine and 12
comedy pilots this year (The CW put no comedies in
development) and each have a need for some fresh
laughter. CBS is facing Two and a Half Men without
Charlie Sheen, NBC is preparing for The Office without
Steve Carell, and ABC and Fox are looking to find comedic
successors to hits like Modern Family and Glee.
If success begets success, they will need to keep investing.
While this year’s crop failed to yield enough
good candidates to produce the next breakout hit, that
doesn’t mean the nets will, or should, stop trying.

Be Smart(er) About Midseason

Midseason will have to be planned out and strategized
in 2012—for real this time. Long gone are the
days when the networks could afford to use the second
half of the season as a burn-off period. Broadcast is
now competing with strong cable entries year-round,
and in an increasingly time-shifted viewing universe,
repeats don’t do much for most shows’ ratings. Despite
its ratings rebound, midseason is not just American
’s game anymore.

Network execs agree they need to re-think their marketing
and launch strategies to get some strong, wellpromoted
premieres in the midseason mix. Instead of
a cast-off for fall’s leftovers, the networks should take
advantage of a less-crowded landscape to properly
launch a show. “Holding back Secret Millionaire and
Body of Proof to give them an opportunity to shine really
worked for us,” says Paul Lee, ABC Entertainment
Group president. It’s a strategy that also worked for
Bob’s Burgers and Harry’s Law—both midseason entries
already or likely to be renewed. And after the carnage of last season’s premiere week, the networks would be
wise to spare some choice shows for January.

More Girl Power

CBS’ Nina Tassler, now the sole female broadcast
network entertainment president when Mark Pedowitz
replaced Dawn Ostroff in Gossip Girl-land, and her
counterparts should tap in more than ever to the power
of her gender’s appeal. And it seems she might this
year—CBS has several female-skewing and female-lead
dramas in its crop of pilots. If the series make it out of
development, it could be a new way to further distinguish
the solid CBS brand.

But as with comedy, let’s see the walking along with
the talking. With so many hot dramas already on the
network, it will be hard for one to get picked up, with
a female lead or otherwise. But CBS could use a medical
drama, and it has two in development—The Doctor
and an untitled Susannah Grant project—both of which
have female leads. CBS does so many things well, but it
shouldn’t get stuck being formulaic. Taking a form that
works and twisting it a bit in casting could be just the
way to keep a tried-and-true format fresh.

Want to Catch Fox and CBS?
Find Your Vision

To the other three networks, don’t let Fox and CBS get
out of sight. CBS holds steady as ever, and with a resurgent
American Idol and The X Factor waiting in the wings,
Fox has made it clear it wants to continue its inroads
year round, not just in the spring. ABC, NBC (and to a
lesser degree, The CW) do get some new guy/underdog
dispensation—to a point. They will and should preach
patience while they try to catch up, but they’re going to
need to move fast. At a minimum, new network toppers
Paul Lee, Bob Greenblatt and Mark Pedowitz need to
at least reveal a strong vision/mission/strategy for their
brands when they unveil their programming plans at the
upfronts. If that means sticking with indie power from
NBC and millennial-style dramas for ABC, so be it. But it
should be something clear. NBC has suffered an identity
crisis for too long, and ABC is just plain slumping—so
it’s time for their leaders to come out strong.

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