Reinventions Abound for 2011

From 'Idol' to 'Oprah' to ABC and NBC, major changes are on the way

For many networks, 2011
is all about reinvention. And
outside of CBS, big changes
are coming to all of the major broadcast

It starts with TV’s top entertainment
show, Fox’s American Idol. In 2011, the
show faces the same test that it usually
forces its contestants to endure: new
talent will be judged as it unveils the new panel of Randy Jackson,
Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler.

Fox brought back original executive producer Nigel Lythgoe and
is moving the show to Wednesdays and Thursdays, but the question
looms: without Simon Cowell, how will Idol fare?

“The first few weeks probably won’t tell us much,” says one rival
network executive. “People will tune in because they want to check
out the new judges.”

Idol’s ratings tend to drift downwards after the auditions; once the
top 10 are selected, ratings climb again, and that
will be the litmus test. “The question this year is,
at what rate do the ratings come back up? That’s
really dependent on the quality of the final contestants,”
says the rival exec.

Either way, no one expects Idol to lose its berth
atop the ratings. “It will still be the top-rated show
this season, although not as dominant as it has been
in previous years,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP
and director of research at Horizon Media.

And then this fall, Cowell will make
his much-anticipated return to Fox
when X Factor, still red hot in England
after several years on the air,
bows in America.

Another British import will also
have a big impact this year, as ABC
programming chief Paul Lee puts
his stamp on the network for the
first time. And over at NBC, they
may have an unfamiliar challenge:
high expectations, as even rival executives
are expecting better times for
the Peacock under Comcast and wellregarded
Bob Greenblatt.

On the cable side, another giant
television personality also will undergo
a reinvention in 2010—Oprah
Winfrey, who is ending her storied talk
show and launching her eponymous
cable channel, OWN: The Oprah Winfrey

Oprah, Discovery Health and Harpo
Productions first announced their
joint venture in January 2008, with
a planned launch date for late 2009.
That deadline proved hard to make,
and after several executive changes
and programming restarts, OWN was
set to launch Jan. 1.

While the media have been cynical
about the new network’s potential,
many observers expect Winfrey’s premium
brand to carry the day.

“I think it will be the most successful launch on cable,” says Adgate.
“She’s like Conan—the ratings expectations aren’t as high as they were
on broadcast television. She’ll be a cable force within a year or two.”

Advertisers seem to agree, with nine premium brands—Chase,
General Motors, Kellogg’s, Kohl’s, Procter & Gamble, Nissan, Target,
Toyota and Wal-Mart—signing on as OWN launch sponsors.

Speaking of Conan O’Brien, his transformative year was 2010, and
now we’ll discover his staying power on TBS—and how long TBS
sticks with George Lopez in the time slot behind him. But with latenight
invigorated, Turner plans to stretch its brand, adding more
programs that encourage viewers to watch in real time.

“You will absolutely see one or both networks delve into that
world,” says
Michael Wright, executive VP and head of programming
for TBS and
TNT (as well as Turner Classic Movies). “We’re not going
to be doing
car-crash theater, but it would be a natural evolution for
us to move
into that world.”

Shows like Idol and Conan represent the holy grail for programmers
right now: Their live nature compels viewers to watch them in
real time, and they are chock-full of elements that can go viral,
winding their way through today’s intricate and influential
social-media networks.

“All of those activities are additive to the experience of
watching the show,” says Wright. “We call it the electronic
campfire. There’s a sense that on some level, some 20 to
30 million Americans are in their living rooms watching
these shows together. That sense of connection is something
human beings crave.”

In the end, the goal for 2011 is the same as it ever was:

If you make hits, people will watch them,” says Preston
Beckman, Fox executive VP, strategic program planning
and research. “It still comes down to that.”

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