Definition of a Hit Changes With the Times

This week’s fall premieres kick off an anxious season of ratings spin and recalibration for the Big Five broadcast nets
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Related: Crime, Lifestyle, Talk Rookies Line Up in Daytime Starting Blocks

Stability remains a popular concept among network schedulers. If a show delivered a number last season on Thursdays at 8, odds are still good it will return in that time slot. Last year, the itchy trigger fingers of yore grew more still, sparing us the spectacle of shows being yanked after an episode or two. All of that being said, though, staying the course in a landscape of massive change is a lot easier said than done. Broadcast networks used to worry primarily about each other, along with whether or not Nielsen was accurately measuring viewership. But toss in those heat-seeking cable dramas, then the dreaded DVR and, more recently, buzzy series debuting on the cool-kid OTTs, and stability risks seeming like sandy-headed ostrich behavior.

“You can’t point the finger at Netflix or at Hulu or VOD or cable,” said Kelly Kahl, CBS senior executive VP of primetime. “It’s the totality of options people have these days.”

The pressure to deliver a hit is greater than ever, with more cash spent on helping a show break out from the pack, and countless hours of strategy sessions intent on finding the right spot on the schedule. After all, it might only take one hit to change a network’s fortunes, as Fox has shown with Empire.

For the broadcast nets, mid-September is the tense moments before kickoff. “It’s the time of year where you’re sitting in the locker room, banging your helmets against lockers,” said Kahl. “You just want to get on the field and get your gameplan in place.”

What follows is our network-by-network analysis of the fall season.

The Lovers, The Dreamers and ABC

ABC
Big Swings: The Muppets, Dr. Ken
Mission Statement: Do good by doing right—and hope that well-produced, culturally diverse shows pay off.
A Closer Look: Either The Muppets is an indication that creating new series from scratch and selling the concept to the viewing public is too damned hard, or it’s a sign that beloved characters never grow old. B&C’s informal survey of TV critics earlier this summer had The Muppets as the most anticipated fall series, so maybe ABC is onto something.

After a robust 2014-15, ABC has the luxury of pouring its marketing chips on a select few rookies such as Kermit and his fuzzy famiglia. Its Monday, Wednesday and Thursday lineups stay intact, and The Muppets—described by Paul Lee, ABC Entertainment Group president, as a cross between The Office and 30 Rock, only with, ya know, Muppets—leads into Fresh Off the Boat on Tuesdays. That’s followed by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Thursday is, of course, dominated by Shonda Rhimes, while Friday gets Dr. Ken at 8:30; that stars Ken Jeong, perhaps better known as the disturbing Chow from the Hangover film franchise. “ABC has done a lot to help themselves,” said one veteran of the scheduling wars. “They’ve found a niche—family comedies plus diversity plus Shonda Rhimes Night. It’s all very saleable.”

ABC has taken the notion of diverse creators and stars beyond the trend stage to something resembling a new normal; How to Get Away With Murder, Blackish and Fresh Off the Boat all return with critical acclaim and faithful audiences. Lee told the TCA assembly last month that the network will continue to be proactive in putting an array of races and POVs on the screen in order to seed the next generation of talent. “We want families to look at Fresh Off the Boat or Dr. Ken and say, ‘This is a great career for our kids,’” said Lee.

You Go, ‘Girl’!

CBS
Big Swing: Supergirl
Mission Statement: Use schedule consistency, and the massive megaphone of Thursday Night Football, to mint hits and get younger.
A Closer Look: Supergirl isn’t what most think of when they think of CBS, but that’s kind of the whole idea. The comic book adaptation will wait in the wings until Thursday Night Football is finished, then take over the Monday 8 p.m. slot vacated by The Big Bang Theory. The broadcast skies are crowded with superheroes, including several launched in just the past year alone; can Supergirl stand out from the pack?

Critics saw a lot to like in the show. Of all the nightly network tussles unfolding this fall, Kahl concedes he’s “most anxious to see how that plays out.”

CBS boasts its usual, enviable consistency. But assessing the CBS grid, one rival programmer notes a distinct effort on the Eye’s part to “break out of the mold of what people expect, multicam comedies and procedurals.” Leslie Moonves, CBS president and CEO, bristles at any mention of CBS as the graybeard net; Supergirl is a prime opportunity for the network audience to get younger.

During the 8-game Thursday football campaign, which starts Sept. 17, CBS will shift Big Bang to Mondays, leading into new comedy Life in Pieces. After football, CBS goes all drama on Monday, with Scorpion and NCIS: Los Angeles following Supergirl.

The Thursday NFL package sold for a reported $300 million. Last year’s games were mostly blowouts, yet they still averaged around 16 million viewers. Football means delaying the regular Thursday lineup a bit, putting fewer repeats on the schedule—and enjoying ratings like the good old days. “It injects nice stability into the beginning of the season,” said Kahl. “It’s a night you don’t have to worry about.”

The ‘Empire’ Comes Back

Fox
Big Swings: Ryan Murphy’s Scream Queens, Rob Lowe/John Stamos comedy block, live Grease
Mission Statement: Use the momentum of Empire to crank out another hit or two.
A Closer Look: After stumbling out of the gate with misfires like Utopia and Red Band Society, Fox catapulted out of its primetime doldrums on the back of Empire last year. Network brass are keeping the hip-hop smash in the Wednesday 9 p.m. slot, with its lead-in the new crime drama Rosewood. Tuesdays are turned upside down, with Grandfathered (starring John Stamos) and The Grinder (starring Rob Lowe) in place of female-skewing New Girl and The Mindy Project. (New Girl is pushed to midseason and Mindy is hanging out on Hulu.) About the new comedies, Fox’s latest effort to crack the sitcom code, one veteran scheduler observed, “They’re starting to crawl back into the live action comedy world with some big players.” The block leads into Ryan Murphy’s cheeky horror show Scream Queens, described as Heathers meets Friday the 13th.

David Madden, Fox entertainment president, knows one smash does not make a season. “We have a lot more rebuilding to accomplish,” he said.

Fox also returns a couple of promising ’14 debutants in Gotham, on Monday, and The Last Man on Earth in an unchanged Sunday laff block.

For midseason, American Idol will return for its 15th and final season, and should get extra tune-in from past fans of the show. Joining Idol in the winter debuts are dramas Lucifer and The X-Files remake and comedies Bordertown and Guide to Surviving Life.

Fox will air a live production of Grease on Jan. 31. “It will offer the energy and fun and razzmatazz of the highest levels of Broadway and rock ‘n roll,” said Madden.

Some are surprised Fox is not using Empire to lead into a new show, but Madden said Fox wanted to honor the Wednesday 9 p.m. “contract” with viewers, and notes that Empire might be a bit racy for 8 p.m. Dana Walden, Fox Television Group chairman and CEO, described how much one show could energize a network at TCA in August. “Empire has just sent a shock of enthusiasm and excitement through the halls of our company,” she said.

Use Your ‘Voice’ Until It’s Hoarse

NBC
Big Swings: Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris, live productions
Mission Statement: Keeping digging for a scripted hit—it’s out there somewhere.
A Closer Look: Fending off the sophomore slump would actually be a good problem for NBC to have, as that would mean some freshman shows made it back. In fact, only Mysteries of Laura did so among the 2014-15 rookies.

The Voice will continue to draw big audiences, but the reality competition genre got old a couple seasons ago. Sunday Night Football is a promotional powerhouse. Blindspot, which starts Sept. 21 with a mysterious woman found naked in Times Square (extra points for being timely, as naked people in Times Square dominated the local news this summer), gets the post-Voice slot on Mondays and will bring some Blacklist fans along. Dick Wolf’s rookie drama Chicago Med slides in Tuesdays at 9 in mid-November.

Wednesdays are unchanged, while Thursdays, once synonymous with comedy on NBC, are now about dramas. The Blacklist, which saw its ratings plummet after moving to Thursdays, anchors the night, with newbies Heroes Reborn, which gets a two-hour premiere Sept. 24, and Wesley Snipes-to-plined The Player on either side.

Bob Greenblatt, NBC entertainment chairman, said live programming is a way to make a show “undeniable,” but he can expect a degree of denial when it comes to live Undateable on Fridays, not exactly a desirable slot. The staging of The Wiz in December will be a legit TV event, but even the network’s notable live mountings, which have included The Sound of Music and Peter Pan, have lost their novelty, if not many viewers.

One scheduling vet used the word “rudderless” to describe the present-day Peacock. “NBC just does not seem to be coming into the season with anything that is returning in the right direction,” he said. The network has won back-to-back demo crowns, though, so it’s hardly a lost cause.

The ‘Ex’ Factor

The CW
Big Swing: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Mission Statement: Take advantage of lone rookie show slate by marketing the heck out of sophomore returnees.
A Closer Look: The CW has seized that rare commodity in broadcast TV—buzz. Even harder than getting buzz is keeping buzz, but The CW is intent on doing so with well-regarded Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which debuts Oct. 12. TV Guide critic Matt Roush spoke for many when he gave B&C his take: “I loved what I saw of The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, nutty and tuneful and wacky.” Notes a rival programmer of the junior network: “Their shows get talked about. That’s what you want.”

Crazy Ex was developed for Showtime but was deemed to fit at CW. “It’s quirky, it’s out there, it’s blue sky, it’s high-concept,” said Mark Pedowitz, CW president. One more descriptor? “It’s a hoot and a half.”

Crazy Ex pairs with Jane the Virgin, fresh off a rookie season that resulted in a trophy case full of awards. Growing ratings for the returning sophomores, including The Flash, Arrow and iZombie, is a top priority. Greater stability in the schedule will help. “As you become more stable, people know what types of shows you put on,” said Pedowitz. “I think that will help us avoid the sophomore slump.”

The network will once again push back premiere night until mid-October to let the Big Four have their premieres and to minimize the number of reruns later in the season. For midseason, there’s Legends of Tomorrow, Containment and The 100.

Pedowitz sums up the season goals in three words: “Growth with stability.” In the broadcast business, meeting that goal would be the equivalent of a fantasy fulfilled.

Related: Crime, Lifestyle, Talk Rookies Line Up in Daytime Starting Blocks

Stability remains a popular concept among network schedulers. If a show delivered a number last season on Thursdays at 8, odds are still good it will return in that time slot. Last year, the itchy trigger fingers of yore grew more still, sparing us the spectacle of shows being yanked after an episode or two. All of that being said, though, staying the course in a landscape of massive change is a lot easier said than done. Broadcast networks used to worry primarily about each other, along with whether or not Nielsen was accurately measuring viewership. But toss in those heat-seeking cable dramas, then the dreaded DVR and, more recently, buzzy series debuting on the cool-kid OTTs, and stability risks seeming like sandy-headed ostrich behavior.

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