PBS closed out the 2015 TCA winter press tour today, bringing its palate cleanser of period drama, arts programming and documentaries to wrap up two weeks of presentations by everyone from CBS to Yahoo to Animal Planet to HBO—47 networks and digital network-type things in total.
With so many purveyors of television-esque content offering so much information (and spin), lessons were inevitably learned. Here are three big ones:
1. Social issues are programming issues.
With Fox’s Empire and ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder rating as the top two new dramas of the season and the CW’s Gina Rodriguez taking home the network’s first Golden Globe for Jane the Virgin, diversity was the subject of more celebration than hand-wringing this tour. As Nahnatchka Khan, showrunner of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, told B&C, “People from the creatives to the studios to the networks have been trying to do something like this for years. Now is the time that it’s all coming together."
But high-profile accusations of violence against women drove discussion around two of the Big Four networks. When entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt was pressed during his Jan. 16 executive session by a reporter asking how many women had accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault before NBC felt it had to kill a planned family comedy starring the comic, Greenblatt expressed frustration with the question. “Yeah, you want me to put a number on it? Fifteen yes, two no,” he said, echoing numbers suggested by the reporter. Greenblatt added a moment later, “All I can tell you is there’s a lot of people who have been in business with Cosby for 25 years, and go ask them the same question.”
The next day, Fox Television Group chairmen and CEOs Dana Walden and Gary Newman were asked whether multiple accusations of violence committed by actor Terrence Howard, who has had two restraining orders placed against him by women, were considered before he was cast in Empire. After praising Howard as “a leader among that cast,” Walden said that she and Newman were not made aware of the allegations, widely reported for years, until December 2014, long after Howard was cast. Later, during the Empire panel, the actor thanked Fox for having “looked at the talent and power of right now and this moment and how people have grown and where they’re going to.”
2. Bragging rights: Everybody has them.
FX Networks and FX Productions CEO John Landgraf employed two kinds of charts (pie and bar) in his executive session Sunday as he sought to make the case that “the race for the best in TV is really only a competition between two channels"—FX and HBO. But Landgraf’s slides didn’t measure ratings points or awards won. They illustrated an FX tally of shows mentioned in critics’ top 10 lists from 2014. Without disclosing which critics’ lists were included, Landgraf claimed that HBO had 250 mentions, FX had 213 and the next highest ranking network, AMC, had only 74.
Landgraf wasn’t the only executive to reach beyond old-school measurements when staking out bragging rights. After touting CBS as the No. 1 network in total viewers in her executive session Jan. 12, CBS entertainment chairman Nina Tassler called 18-49—in which CBS is No. 2 this season behind NBC—“a shrinking demo” that is “getting smaller and smaller every year.” Later that day Showtime Networks president David Nevins boasted that Showtime “received more Golden Globe nominations for our series programming than any network this year.” Two days later, entertainment president Paul Lee declared ABC, which discounts other networks’ live sports numbers from ratings comparisons, to be “way ahead of the pack” in the 12-54 and 18-49 demos—not just when compared to fellow broadcasters, “but also the HBOs and the Showtimes,” which are available in only a fraction of the number of homes that ABC is.
3. It’s a good time to be a TV writer.
In scripted programming, it was a tour of firsts. Yahoo (Community), Pop (Schitt’s Creek) and E! (The Royals) presented panels for their first scripted series. On the heels of its first drama (Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce) Bravo showed off its first scripted comedy (Odd Mom Out). PBS, which has yet to confirm whether Downton Abbey will continue beyond next year’s sixth season, announced it is teaming with producer Ridley Scott for a Civil War-era drama series, its first American-made drama in more than 10 years.
Asked Monday how PBS plans to differentiate itself as it ramps up original scripted programming at the same time that cable networks and digital services are doing the same, president and CEO Paula Kerger said, “We feel that there is a unique role in telling a story that is in fact based on historic fact.” New Discovery Channel president Rich Ross recognizes that same unique role, and would like to fill it. Ross identified historical drama series as a genre in which Discovery will likely expand as it moves into scripted, saying the network is “very close” to acquiring one. As for whether the scripted marketplace is to crowded, “I know that there are over 45 networks now doing scripted, but a lot of those networks no one watches a lot,” he said.