Changeups, Curves, Big 'Pitch' May Lead to Hits

Facing stiff non-broadcast competition in an election year, some networks roll out fewer shows
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Related: Critics to Networks: Be Original

Broadcast’s competition comes courtesy of a range of platforms, from the well-heeled OTT arrivistes to the noisy cable news players. With streaming services substantially stepping up their spend, the TV world as we know it now offers as many as 450 scripted original series—and an inordinate number of them will debut in the coming weeks.

“It used to be four of us, in a room, trying to out-scream each other,” said Andy Kubitz, ABC executive VP, program planning & scheduling, of TV’s old days. “Now you have to scream so much louder.”

Sticking with the screaming motif, a couple of unlikely TV stars will dominate the airwaves during broadcast TV’s vital launch period. If the cable nets were happy with their presidential primary numbers, wait until they get a peek at what the Trump-Clinton debates do this fall.

One can debate the importance of the fall premieres in the world of year-round programming, but it will be some time before the traditional season stops mattering. “It’s your internal body clock,” said Kelly Kahl, CBS senior executive VP, primetime. “People know the fall is back to school, the start of football, the new car models and the new TV shows.”

Our network-by-network forecast for the fall follows.

ABC: Situation Right for More Comedy
BIG SWINGS: Designated Survivor, Speechless
STRATEGY: Expand comedy to Tuesdays, give new dramas a chance to replace aging stock.

No one in the broadcast universe has mastered the weird art of comedy, but ABC has come closest. After the success of offbeat, progressive and—most important—funny comedies such as Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, the network is sticking its comedic flag into Tuesdays. American Housewife tweaks the snooty one-percenters, while Speechless mines smart, from-the-heart humor in a family with a special needs child.

“We’re building on what we do best,” said Kubitz.

Our critics could not stomach dramas Conviction or Notorious (see page 10), but Designated Survivor’s edgy logline should spark sampling. Kiefer Sutherland plays a government nebbish elevated to the White House after an explosion wipes out the president and his brain trust. “It’s a noisy premise with a great TV star,” said Kubitz.

Related: Making Room on the Mantel

CBS: Kevin Can Rate
BIG SWINGS: Bull, Training Day
STRATEGY: Use bankable funny men from days of yore to mint new sitcom success.

Kevin James, Joel McHale and Matt LeBlanc head up a trio of new comedies. Already, the respective stars’ shows have their critics— Kevin Can Wait is too similar to James’ The King of Queens; The Great Indoors is mean to millennials and Man With a Plan is too unfunny. But Glenn Geller, CBS entertainment president, cited the value of “highly promotable stars” at the TCA press tour.

CBS knows well the value of a blue-chip comedy—on its own air and off-network. “There’s a dearth of comedy on network schedules in general,” said Kahl. “We saw that as an opportunity.”

Kevin Can Wait leads out of The Big Bang Theory, while new drama Bull, with Dr. Phil McGraw as an executive producer, rides out of NCIS. Rivaling Fox in terms of reboots, CBS will run MacGyver on Fridays. “You can’t afford to take a night off,” said Kahl. “Every night counts into your average at the end of the year.”

Fox: This Rookie ‘Pitch’-er Might Be Special
BIG SWINGS: Pitch, Son of Zorn
STRATEGY: Use potent Empire platform to drive viewers to Lethal Weapon, limit fall debuts with World Series and election on the calendar.

Various Fox rookies, including LethalWeapon, The Exorcist and midseasoner Prison Break, are reimagined movies and TV shows. But David Madden, Fox entertainment president, said woman-makes-MLB drama Pitch is different. “When you do my job, 99.9% of the ideas you’re pitched, you’ve heard some version of them before, and frequently a dozen versions,” he said. “Pitch actually was original. It felt new and it felt important.”

Lethal Weapon is paired with Empire on Wednesdays. Madden notes the rapport between stars Damon Wayans and Clane Crawford. “I love watching those guys together,” he said.

Reboots aside, give Fox points for originality regarding Son of Zorn, a mix of animated (sword-wielding behemoth barbarian) and live action (barbarian’s frustrated family). Madden calls it “a fantastic companion to The Simpsons and Family Guy.”

NBC: (30) Rock-Solid Schedule
BIG SWINGS: This Is Us, Timeless
STRATEGY: Heavy up on marketing behind a trio of launches, utilize Thursday Night Football promo platform.

Not that long ago, when NBC’s upfront presentation was so long it could’ve used an intermission and the network threw scads of shows up against the fall wall, it would’ve been hard to imagine NBC boasting of stability. But it’s a fair brag for the Comcasters these days. “There’s a calmness at the company right now,” said Jennifer Salke, entertainment president.

NBC picked up half the NFL’s Thursday package, splitting gridiron duties with CBS. With fewer holes to fill, NBC can load up marketing behind time travel drama Timeless and teary dramedy This Is Us. NBC has good reason to be excited about This is Us’ prospects—the critics like it (see below), and the trailer racked up a whopping 80 million views. “It’s an infectious kind of show—it zigs when other shows zag,” said Salke. “I think people will find it addictive.”

NBC’s other debutant is comedy The Good Place. “We’re definitely in a position of much more stability,” said Salke.

The CW: You Go, ‘Girl’!
BIG SWINGS: Frequency, No Tomorrow
STRATEGY: Balance superhero stuff with earnest new dramas.

Supergirl was a highly touted rookie last year, and is essentially a highly touted rookie again as it prepares to launch on its new network. As much as the series seemed an odd fit on CBS, Supergirl feels much more at home on The CW. Look for an assortment of crossover episodes among the many superhero shows on the junior net.

The network expects substantial ratings from its new hero. “Whatever [Supergirl] does, it will probably be the No. 1 or No. 2 show for us this season,” said CW president Mark Pedowitz at TCA last month.

CW also gets in on the movie reboot fun with Frequency (2000… Old ham radio…“ I hear Dad, people!”), while dramedy No Tomorrow mixes love, blue skies and bucket lists.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend did not rate on Mondays. Now on Fridays, the new slot may encourage a viewing party or two, and Rachel Bloom’s best actress Golden Globe may stoke sampling. “We support [Crazy Ex],” Pedowitz said. “We think it’s unique.”

Related: Critics to Networks: Be Original

Broadcast’s competition comes courtesy of a range of platforms, from the well-heeled OTT arrivistes to the noisy cable news players. With streaming services substantially stepping up their spend, the TV world as we know it now offers as many as 450 scripted original series—and an inordinate number of them will debut in the coming weeks.

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