Broadcasters Opt to Stay the Course

Nets favor stability, reboots of the familiar, and even more superheroes. Here are the four biggest takeaways from Upfront Week.

Why This Matters

WHY THIS MATTERS
Facing declining ratings and fragmented viewing, broadcasters bank on known quantities to preserve their relevance.

After two months of cable presentations, it was finally the broadcast networks’ turn last week to promote their upcoming programming slates.

This upfront season saw more rookies nab a second season than in year’s past. After a year that saw the broadcast networks renew roughly 30% of their freshman slate, the Big 5 opted to bring back nearly 50% of their new fare for next season. (The batting average was a lot lower for NBC, which brought back only Mysteries of Laura from last year’s lackluster rookie crop).

The big difference in this year’s fall schedules was precisely how much they weren’t different from last year.

ABC and NBC went back to the well with Shonda Rhimes and Dick Wolf, respectively. The Catch, the fourth drama produced by Rhimes’ Shondaland shingle, will join ABC’s schedule in midseason; Chicago Med, the third series from Wolf’s burgeoning Chicago franchise will pop up on NBC at midseason as well. Greg Berlanti added three more shows in NBC’s Blindspot, CBS’ Supergirl and The CW’s DC’s Legends of Tomorrow to give the prolific producer six different shows slated for next season.

During their upfront presentation, ABC did not hide its love affair for the mastermind behind hits Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder. “I should give credit to the person paying for this shindig. Shonda Rhimes, where are you?” joked Disney-ABC Television Group president Ben Sherwood during his brief remarks at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall.

With the red carpets rolled up and the bars closed, all that remains is to sift through the four-day blitz and determine takeaways from the week. Here are the four biggest:

1) If It Ain’t Broke…

Stability was the theme that ruled the week.

“We obviously kept much of our schedule intact,” noted Paul Lee, ABC entertainment group president, who kept his network’s Monday, Wednesday and Thursday lineups together.

Despite whispers that Fox would move its megahit Empire up an hour to serve as a platform to launch new shows, the network opted to keep it in the same timeslot that allowed it to become the phenomenon that it was. Fox TV Group CEOs Dana Walden and Gary Newman explained the decision was to reward the fans.

For its second season, Empire will have an expanded order of 18 episodes, which Fox will split into two batches in the fall and spring. “We do think it can continue to grow,” said Fox Broadcasting COO Joe Earley.

The split-season strategy—something cable networks have used for years—was visible throughout the networks’ schedules, with ABC the biggest champion.

ABC’s plan is to divide the seasons of shows that have larger episode-orders into two parts, with shorter-run series used as midseason gap-fillers. Lee says this will help ABC avoid airing too many repeats. “It just didn’t reflect the way we are watching television,” he said of having reruns littered throughout a season.

For example, freshman FBI drama Quantico will have another rookie Wicked City take over its timeslot during the midseason break. Marvel’s Agent Carter will again fill fellow Marvel series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s void during its midseason break.

2) TV’s Clash of Superheroes

After a season that was populated by numerous comic book-based entries such as Gotham, The Flash and Marvel’s Agent Carter, the networks are going further down that rabbit hole next season, adding DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl and Lucifer. The continued rise of superhero-themed series means the TV heroes will battle more than villains: each other.

CBS’ foray into that land of superheroes, Supergirl, will face off against another DC Comics-based series in Fox’s Gotham on Mondays at 8 p.m. Both series are from Warner Bros.

Kelly Kahl, senior executive VP, CBS Primetime, said he is not worried about an overlapping audience for the two comic book series. “We see this as a much broader show than just a genre or comic book show,” he said, before taking a jab at the Fox series, which does not feature Bruce Wayne as the Caped Crusader: “I haven’t seen a cape on Gotham.”

With so many comic book series on TV next season—there are nine shows from either DC or rival Marvel on the schedule—it’s scary to think there could have been even more. One comic book project that was notably absent from the pilot orders was the potential spinoff of ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but Lee decided against pulling Adrianne Palicki and Nick Blood from the main show.

3) Veterans Postpone Retirement

Aside from all of the networks’ new fare, the fate of many veteran series took up much of the discussion last week.Despite bagging renewals, series including The Good Wife, Castle, Grey’s Anatomy, Vampire Diaries and Supernatural all faced whispers that the end might be near.

Despite the opt-out of Diaries’ female lead, Nina Dobrev, CW president Mark Pedowitz still believes there is a lot of life left in the series about the undead. The show will refocus on the two male stars, Ian Somerhalder and Paul Wesley, who portray vampire brothers.

Pedowitz cited his network’s longest running series, Supernatural, which also has two brothers front and center, as proof of the viability of Dairies into the future. And while Supernatural is about to head into its 11th season, Pedowitz has no plans of canceling the Winchester brothers anytime soon.

“As long as the ratings hold and the boys want to do it, we’re in,” he said. “We have no intention of this being the last season.”

CBS’ The Good Wife, which saw its already-modest ratings fall even further this season, is not in any danger of its upcoming seventh season being the final one for Alicia Florreck. “As long as [Robert and Michelle King] want to continue producing and writing, we love having that show on our air,” said CBS entertainment chairman Nina Tassler.

ABC’s Lee said the same thing about veterans Castle and Grey’s Anatomy (which also lost one of its stars in Patrick Dempsey). “I’d like to see them run for many, many years to come.”

However, not all veteran series were as fortunate. CBS will wrap longrunning procedural CSI with a two-hour movie to kick off its season Sept. 27 and Fox’s American Idol will sing its last tune in 2016.

4) Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

With so much competition from cable and digital networks, the broadcasters are reaching back into the past to help their immediate futures.

Banking on known quantities that come with built-in fanbases, next season will see adaptions of films Limitless, Minority Report and Rush Hour and revivals of former TV series in Heroes Reborn and The X-Files.

Even the Muppets are heading back to primetime next season. ABC is putting a lot of its hopes in this new version of The Muppets—which will be a faux-documentary about the popular Jim Henson character’s personal lives, including Office-like talking to the cameras. Muppets will kick off ABC’s Tuesday and should boost well-liked but modestly-rated Fresh Off the Boat.

It wasn’t just the shows that had a familiar ring to it; many of the new series feature well-known faces.

Fox is banking on a pair of former TV stars in John Stamos (Grandfathered) and Rob Lowe (The Grinder) to anchor its all-new Tuesday lineup (Lowe also stars in NBC’s You, Me and the End of the World). Jane Lynch, fresh off of Glee’s exit, will head over to CBS to topline another comedy, Angel From Hell. Community veteran Ken Jeong will star in his own semi-biographical series for ABC in Dr. Ken, while Neil Patrick Harris will lead his own variety series for NBC just two years following the end of How I Met Your Mother.