Programming

Why the TV Grid Still Matters

With competition at an all-time high, scheduling has never been more important 9/20/2010 12:01:00 AM Eastern

The DVR is going to end television as we know it, even
as just a transitional technology until we move to a completely
on-demand world. The idea of network schedules, if
not networks themselves, will disappear into irrelevance.
New programming from content creators will become
available at a certain time every week, but viewers will
just call it up whenever and however it fi ts into their lives.

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
mguthrie@nbmedia.com
and follow her on Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie

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