There is no doubt about it: Network television desperately needs a comeback this fall. A 2008-09 season that produced only one clear new hit and saw several solid veterans slump was followed by a summer in which tumbleweeds could be seen blowing across ratings charts. And all of this happened amidst a whirlwind of well-known challenges, from the floundering economy to audience fragmentation to an increasingly empowered viewer dictating the when and how of consumption.
And while every year the white knight known as the upfront marketplace comes galloping majestically along to save the day, in 2009 the broadcast nets are still holding out for a hero. This year's broadcast upfront—the bellwether of market confidence or lack thereof—is down approximately $1 billion year-to-year, not entirely unexpected given the recession. But the networks also held back a greater amount of inventory for the scatter market, thus ratcheting up the pressure to deliver a strong start to the season. And the entire industry is still wondering if the networks can fulfill that mandate even with a batch of rookies that, as a whole, were very well-received by critics. “That's the big question,” says Larry Novenstern, executive VP at Publicis Groupe's Optimedia.
Further upping the risk factor is the continuing threat from other video delivery systems like cable, which is attracting premium advertisers as it continues to narrow the ratings gap with broadcast. “If you're not getting what you want,” Novenstern adds, “there are other places to go.”
But broadcast television is still the biggest game in town because of its ability to deliver a mass audience, and the networks are coming out firing this fall. So as the season kicks into gear, the industry will begin to find out just where broadcast television stands. And it will also find out a lot about each network. Following is a look at a big question about to be answered at each one.
ABC: Will the early buzz bring viewers?
ABC may have the most on the line this fall, as it looks to bounce back from a forgettable 2008-09 by launching the most new product. The network will debut seven shows: four new comedies on Wednesday night (Hank, The Middle, Modern Family and Cougar Town) and three dramas (Eastwick, also on Wednesday night; high-concept potential Lost replacement Flash Forward; and the Jerry Bruckheimer procedural The Forgotten).
ABC Entertainment Group President Stephen McPherson calls his rookie class “the strongest development we've had in years.” He also says the new shows echo the “ambitious” themes, evidenced in Lost and Desperate Housewives, that have worked for the network in the past.
Indeed, Flash Forward and Modern Family have earned high marks from critics and advertisers. But ABC is also coming off its lowest-rated summer ever despite a valiant attempt to give viewers fresh programming. “I think the summer has been somewhat disappointing for everybody,” McPherson acknowledges.
The bottom line: As good as the network's rookie crop may be, can ABC get the sampling it needs to launch them? “It's going to be about, can we get viewers in to see these shows?” McPherson says. “And if we can get them in, can we build that audience over time? I think we're going to have to show some patience. The landscape demands it.”
But ABC's traditionally large development budget may be on the line in a recession year. It also stands in stark contrast to the cost-saving gambit NBC is employing with The Jay Leno Show.
ABC was in the market for Leno and was contemplating a similar primetime berth for the comedian, according to sources. Like everyone, McPherson is curious about how the variety format will perform in primetime, but also warns that the real measure of success won't come in the first weeks of curiosity-spurred viewing.
“Look at what happened [when Conan O'Brien took over The Tonight Show],” he says, “Big start, and then it kind of fell off a cliff. It gives you caution and says you should be really judicious in the way you analyze the numbers.”
CBS: Will safety once again bring numbers?
CBS managed to launch the only true hit of last season [Warner Bros.' The Mentalist] and saw shows like The Big Bang Theory grow into network mainstays, supplanting the out-of-character missteps of the past like Viva Laughlin and Swingtown. With that strategy paying off, CBS is stitching together another season of consistent offerings. NCIS: Los Angeles, a spinoff of the successful crime drama NCIS, is a no-brainer for the network. CBS also will attempt to launch another comedy, Accidentally on Purpose, with network fave Jenna Elfman, giving it a plum spot on Monday night between How I Met Your Mother and Two and a Half Men.
The Julianna Margulies drama The Good Wife, about a political wife who resumes her career after her husband is disgraced and incarcerated, recalls multiple real-life scandals (Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford) and should appeal to CBS' older demographic. So the network is pinning its young-and-sexy aspirations on erstwhile Moonlight star Alex O'Loughlin, who headlines the medical drama Three Rivers.
“I'll take ratings over buzz any day of the week,” says Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment. “Sometime it's hard to determine whether it's a lot of people talking or fewer people talking loudly. What we realize now is that buzz is kind of fleeting. I think ratings really reflect an audience's commitment and engagement.”
And while CBS is the only broadcast network that actually gained audience year-to-year, its perennial challenge is its mature audience, which is less desired by advertisers. “Certainly we have a sweet spot,” Tassler says. “I think ultimately it's still about everybody watching the show, because you're not going to be the number-one drama or the number-one comedy or the number-one reality show unless everybody is watching it. And within that, you're going to get your 18-49 [demographic].
“We never lose sight of the number-one goal, which is to deliver hit programming,” she adds. “That is always in the crosshairs.”
The CW: Too Cool for the Room?
For The CW, the question is still, can you build and sustain a broadcast network around 18-34-year-old women? “Absolutely,” says Dawn Ostroff, the network's president.
The CW gave Sunday nights back to its affiliates and jettisoned its remaining urban comedies, including the critically lauded Everybody Hates Chris, in favor of more femme-targeted melodramas: a Melrose Place redux, Ashton Kutcher's semi-autobiographical The Beautiful Life, and The Vampire Diaries. They join sophomore drama 90210 as well as Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill, Supernatural, Smallville and reality staple America's Next Top Model. And the network is again using saucy marketing campaigns to drum up buzz.
But for The CW and its modest ratings, alternative viewing methods are top of mind, a consequence of its younger, early-adopter viewer. “Over the past five years, we have all been feeling this sea change” in the way viewers consume content, Ostroff says. “But we have been out there saying, we've got to figure out how to really measure all of these different platforms. You can't wake up in the morning and look at the Nielsen numbers to know who is watching your shows. It's just not accurate anymore.”
While the industry devotes a lot of lip service to new methodologies that measure mobile, downloads and digital platforms, systemic evolution has been slow. The CW could be the canary in the digital coal mine. According to Ostroff, conversations with advertisers include topics such as cross-platform consumption, engagement levels and buzz metrics. The goal, she says, is to create “super-ads” that follow content wherever it is consumed.
“We certainly have been forging our own path,” Ostroff says. “We use the measurement systems that are available to us. But clearly Gossip Girl is reaching a much wider range of viewers.”
According to Optimedia's Content Power Ratings—which evaluate content based on three criteria: television, the Web and mobile—Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill ranked 19th and 37th, respectively, among all television programs, nearly 100 places higher than their Nielsen television rankings.
Fox: Will there finally be some fall Glee?
Fox will attempt to dance its way out of its perennial fall slump this year by shoring up Tuesday and Wednesday with another iteration of So You Think You Can Dance. The network has also put virtually all of its marketing muscle behind Glee, Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy's fresh high-school musical dramedy that critics have fallen over each other to praise. The network is also launching drama Human Target, and sitcoms Brothers and Family Guy spinoff The Cleveland Show.
“I'm actually cautiously optimistic about our fall right now because I think we have the opportunity, at the very least, to have one of our most cohesive falls in a long time,” says Kevin Reilly, president of entertainment for Fox Broadcasting.
Dance will mirror American Idol's schedule with a two-hour performance show on Tuesday and a one-hour results show on Wednesday. That will give Glee, the hope is, a healthy lead-in for its Wednesday 9 p.m. slot. The network will use successful returning series as anchors during the rest of the week—House on Monday and Bones on Thursday.
“That tends to minimize your downside and gives you a chance to really get some traction,” Reilly says. “You don't have that [situation] where you just can't get out of the blocks and have wholesale failure that has, at times, dogged Fox in the fall.”
Of course, Fox's fortunes rise and fall come January with ratings juggernaut American Idol. The show has experienced some viewer erosion over the last few seasons, although it still has a stranglehold on the top of the TV charts. This season, Idol will be without Paula Abdul, a tabloid staple and one of its original personalities. Simon Cowell, whom many consider the show's linchpin (he's also an executive producer), has exhibited weariness over his many media obligations, though he recently re-upped through the 2011 season for a reported $45 million a year.
Still, could the end be in sight for Fox's gold mine? As Reilly puts it: “I'm planning on having a good run here. But I'm certainly hoping that the end of Idol is down the road long enough that somebody else will be dealing with it.”
NBC: What exactly will the Leno effect be?
NBC executives are banking that The Jay Leno Show will mark a sea change in the broadcast model. And with a far smaller budget than a scripted drama (an entire week of the show may cost less than one episode of a typical hour-long drama) begetting a lower ratings threshold for success, Leno could indeed trigger copycat cost-saving measures. “For us and for our competitors, it has really raised the stakes,” says Angela Bromstad, president of primetime entertainment for NBC and its Universal Media Studios.
While NBC is saving money on Leno, it is spending elsewhere. Trauma is a big-budget medical drama that executives hope can replicate the success of ER. And the Ron Howard-produced midseason drama Parenthood boasts a big cast of established stars including Peter Krause, Bonnie Bedelia and Maura Tierney.
All of the networks took CPM (cost per thousand) rollbacks during upfront negotiations, but NBC offered the deepest cuts percentage-wise, in the mid- to high single digits, according to buyers. So a big-tent hit would go a long way toward insulating the fourth-place network from a disastrous scatter season.
“I don't think we could be in a more pressurized situation than we are right now,” says Bromstad, referring to the ad market. “I don't think that it could get any worse than it has been.” Holding back inventory for scatter, she adds, is “a good risk. And I think we're also betting on success, and I think that's telling.”
The network's fall development slate was well-received compared to previous seasons' ill-conceived collections of flops like Knight Rider and My Own Worst Enemy. “We need to do better than we've done the last couple of years,” Bromstad admits. “For us, success is going to be ordering a full season of a new show, hopefully two, launch a successful midseason and have three [shows] come back to the schedule next season. I would love to think that we could have a couple of hits on our schedule this year. I don't think it's impossible.”