Knowing Where TV Success is Born

With the broadcast networks poised to rake in lots of cash this upfront to go with all those shiny new retrans dollars, here are five ways they can really make the money work next season
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No one seems to doubt that the broadcast networks are poised to make a killing in upfront advertising sales this year. With scatter prices hovering about 40% above last year's upfront market rates, buyers are expected to line up to open their wallets in advance this time around.

But as the networks shake down cable and satellite pipes, as well as affiliates, for retrans cash partly in the name of dominant primetime programming, more than ever they need to present the TV community this upfront with programming strategies that will keep those ratings burning. Plus, if they’re sick of all the buzz that cable programming gets, the solution is pretty simple: make better shows.

With that in mind, we chatted with the heads of the major networks and came away with five things they need to do differently with their programming strategy next season.

Enough Already With Premiere Week

Network executives admit that “premiere week” is an archaic tradition, and that launching all of your content to the viewer in the same week isn’t wise. Then they all go out and do exactly that, unable to beat back inertia and break the development-upfront cycle they all say is so " awed. If last fall’s disastrous premieres for shows like Lone Star, The Whole Truth, Undercovers and My Generation were any indication, it might be time to create a new tradition.

“I don’t think any network right now has the share of voice to properly launch ! ve new shows in the fall,” says one broadcast network entertainment president. With the broadcast networks unable to reverse their eroding share of the television audience, they can’t afford to throw away their development money by launching new programming into killer competition. More and more, the broadcast season is year-round— let’s not see the story of next season written in the first week.

And since we know all the networks will still slam their debuts into each other like a massive NASCAR pile-up, how about at least giving your freshmen some time to breathe? Really believe in a show? Give it more than two weeks to find an audience, or at the least try another time period (and we don’t mean Saturdays).

Bet Big on Comedy

Need new comedy? Put a bunch on the schedule. Comedy is broadcast primetime’s single most valuable contribution to the TV ecosystem, as the off-net comedy pipeline is what so much of cable and stations’ prime-access business is built on. And with cable grabbing an increasing share of the ratings (and accolades) in drama, comedy is a genre that broadcast can still own. “I’ve seen a lot of things work in cable television because they were different and risk-taking,” says Bob Greenblatt, recently minted NBC Entertainment chairman. “While we strive for a larger audience than cable delivers, I think the broadcast networks have to start doing that more readily—as evidenced by shows like Glee and Modern Family.”

The Big Four each ordered between nine and 12 comedy pilots this year (The CW put no comedies in development) and each have a need for some fresh laughter. CBS is facing Two and a Half Men without Charlie Sheen, NBC is preparing for The Office without Steve Carell, and ABC and Fox are looking to find comedic successors to hits like Modern Family and Glee. If success begets success, they will need to keep investing. While this year’s crop failed to yield enough good candidates to produce the next breakout hit, that doesn’t mean the nets will, or should, stop trying.

Be Smart(er) About Midseason

Midseason will have to be planned out and strategized in 2012—for real this time. Long gone are the days when the networks could afford to use the second half of the season as a burn-off period. Broadcast is now competing with strong cable entries year-round, and in an increasingly time-shifted viewing universe, repeats don’t do much for most shows’ ratings. Despite its ratings rebound, midseason is not just American Idol’s game anymore.

Network execs agree they need to re-think their marketing and launch strategies to get some strong, wellpromoted premieres in the midseason mix. Instead of a cast-off for fall’s leftovers, the networks should take advantage of a less-crowded landscape to properly launch a show. “Holding back Secret Millionaire and Body of Proof to give them an opportunity to shine really worked for us,” says Paul Lee, ABC Entertainment Group president. It’s a strategy that also worked for Bob’s Burgers and Harry’s Law—both midseason entries already or likely to be renewed. And after the carnage of last season’s premiere week, the networks would be wise to spare some choice shows for January.

More Girl Power

CBS’ Nina Tassler, now the sole female broadcast network entertainment president when Mark Pedowitz replaced Dawn Ostroff in Gossip Girl-land, and her counterparts should tap in more than ever to the power of her gender’s appeal. And it seems she might this year—CBS has several female-skewing and female-lead dramas in its crop of pilots. If the series make it out of development, it could be a new way to further distinguish the solid CBS brand.

But as with comedy, let’s see the walking along with the talking. With so many hot dramas already on the network, it will be hard for one to get picked up, with a female lead or otherwise. But CBS could use a medical drama, and it has two in development—The Doctor and an untitled Susannah Grant project—both of which have female leads. CBS does so many things well, but it shouldn’t get stuck being formulaic. Taking a form that works and twisting it a bit in casting could be just the way to keep a tried-and-true format fresh.

Want to Catch Fox and CBS? Find Your Vision

To the other three networks, don’t let Fox and CBS get out of sight. CBS holds steady as ever, and with a resurgent American Idol and The X Factor waiting in the wings, Fox has made it clear it wants to continue its inroads year round, not just in the spring. ABC, NBC (and to a lesser degree, The CW) do get some new guy/underdog dispensation—to a point. They will and should preach patience while they try to catch up, but they’re going to need to move fast. At a minimum, new network toppers Paul Lee, Bob Greenblatt and Mark Pedowitz need to at least reveal a strong vision/mission/strategy for their brands when they unveil their programming plans at the upfronts. If that means sticking with indie power from NBC and millennial-style dramas for ABC, so be it. But it should be something clear. NBC has suffered an identity crisis for too long, and ABC is just plain slumping—so it’s time for their leaders to come out strong.

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