Lessons for the Fall Season

Online streaming, serialized dramas, unfunny comedies: Networks must be mindful of recent history—or pay a steep price
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Broadcast-network executives will take to the stage in New York City this week to announce the results of the annual, glorified, blind dart-throwing contest that is picking a fall schedule.

Armed with reels of footage, pages of testing results and undoubtedly trays of antacid, those executives have been bunkered in for several weeks, placing their bets. The desired payoff: the one or two shows that will make the development season a winner—or at least allow the execs to remain employed another year.

The executives also carry with them the lessons of the past season, although ABC Studios President Mark Pedowitz says the biggest takeaway of the year—one that decimated spring ratings—wasn't dictated by Hollywood. “The industry learned not to have Daylight Saving Time start as early as it did,” he jokes of the time shift that began three weeks earlier than usual, which industry executives blame for the recent slump in network ratings.

Potential acts of God aside, there is still much the networks learned from the past season that they can control, all of which went into forming the decisions being unveiled this week.

Here are six lessons the networks are using to program the 2006-07 season.

The Jury's Still Out on Streaming Episodes

It is one of the riskier business trends of recent years: Networks continue to offer most of their shows online for free, despite having no idea whether it makes sound financial sense.

“I think it encourages a viewing habit that's not exactly economically advantageous to our business,” says Fox Entertainment President Peter Liguori. “But you can't deny technology is coming.”

The gamble comes down to a simple question of whether the pros outweigh the cons.

The plusses include giving viewers an opportunity to catch a missed episode, generating new fans through online, allowing viewers to watch where they want, and eventually finding the potential for truly monetizing streaming shows on the Internet. NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly also notes that audiences are proving tolerant of watching ads online.

But there is a downside: chipping away at already eroding network ratings and potentially harming the lucrative backend, whether DVD or syndication markets.

The genie, however, is long out of the bottle for the networks; for now, the trend will continue.

And ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson is confident that online airings aren't detrimental to the numbers. “I don't think it's affecting ratings,” he says. “But it feels like the Internet boom a little bit when every dotcom idea was a billion-dollar business without a business model.”

For networks like The CW, which targets younger viewers exclusively, it's more a question of hoping that supply encourages demand. “Our audience lives on the run,” says CW President of Entertainment Dawn Ostroff. “They are watching shows while they e-mail friends or shop online.”

Break Time Can Be Disastrous for Serialized Dramas

What's the best way to deal with a serialized drama like Lost or Jericho when you have only 23 original episodes to run over the entire season?

This year, the networks tried to bunch up episodes in the fall, take a midseason break and then bring new episodes back for a spring run. The strategy failed miserably for both series; neither regained its pre-break audience levels or, more important, its buzz.

“No matter how much viewers love a show, they aren't going to sit and let it go by for weeks,” says NBC's Reilly, who has seen reduced numbers for Heroes since it returned from a hiatus. “It's just much harder to get them back in again.”

Networks are scrambling to build a better model, especially since repeats for these shows tend to crater in the ratings.

ABC's McPherson will hold Lost until midseason and run it straight through, a strategy Fox has long employed for 24.

But Fox's Liguori points out that this leaves ABC to go from September to January without one of its anchoring assets. “I'm not positive, honestly, that our competitors are going to be blessed with a great harvest of new creative in order to accommodate 24-like scheduling,” he says.

Other solutions the networks are considering include staggered launches for more series, as well as adding new footage to repeats, as NBC tried successfully with The Office this season.

A Lack of Half-Hour Comedies Is a Serious Problem

Here's something networks have absolutely no sense of humor about: Yet another season has come and gone without a big, buzz-inducing breakout comedic hit, and there appears to be no quick fix in sight.

“I don't think we learned anything about comedy this year,” says ABC Studios' Pedowitz. “Nothing really worked except Rules of Engagement.”

That CBS half-hour proved a nice complement to Two and a Half Men on Monday nights, but outside of some very modest successes like NBC's 30 Rock and Fox's Til Death, it was another dismal year for a genre no laugh track could help.

Yet networks won't stop trying to find the one hit everyone is convinced could reinvigorate the tried-and-true sitcom.

Perhaps playing off the old quip, Fox's Liguori says, “Comedy is hard, but it's not impossible.”

It's no mean feat in a half-hour. So the networks are turning more to the hour form to show us the funny with such series as Desperate Housewives.

And one of the few rookie hits of the season, ABC's Ugly Betty, proves that networks will also continue to blur the lines between drama and comedy in order to mine laughs.

“People are getting used to going to hours or even alternative to laugh a lot,” says ABC's McPherson. “But we all have to find a way to build half-hour comedies, and the answer might be scheduling them out of comedic hours.”

Networks See the Light About Dark Dramas

It seemed a good idea at the time: launching a bunch of dark, serialized dramas to a viewing public hungry for the next Lost. But after a collective yawn from audiences, the networks plan to lighten up—both in the tone of the shows and the level of commitment asked of viewers.

After high-profile bombs from NBC's Kidnapped to ABC's The Nine to CBS' Smith, there was plenty of compelling evidence that dark and demanding is a potent mix leading straight to disaster.

“I'm not sure how much the time commitment was to blame or if it was creative problems in general,” says ABC's McPherson. “Honestly, I am still dumbfounded why The Nine didn't work.”

The networks are steering clear, frightened of being bitten again by big-budget busts.

“I don't know if 'scared' is the right word,” says NBC's Reilly. “Heroes is dark and serialized, and it works, but a lot of those shows were very dark and tried to tell very complicated stories in a serialized manner. If you missed a week, you'd miss plot points, and that's tough to keep up.”

The shift is now to more light or quirky dramas in the development slate for this year: Witness NBC's Bionic Woman remake and CBS' drama about couple-swapping in the 1970s. You can expect a lot less foreboding in those.

Keep an Eye on Violence (Whatever That Means)

The word “indecency” tortured networks and their standards and practices departments in recent years. But in the wake of the long-awaited Federal Communications Commission report released last month, it's beginning to look like “violence” could become the new buzzword putting Hollywood and Washington at odds.

The tricky part is, no communication has yet come from Washington to define just what the FCC considers “violence” to be. So, as networks decide what to air this fall or put into development for midseason and beyond, they and the studios do so in the dark.

“It's hard to understand what they're saying about violence if they can't define it,” says Pedowitz. “Are they saying when you go to a hospital scene, that is violent? Or is an explosion violent? Does it need to be a physical act? What are they referring to?”

Given this uncertainty, it's hard to incorporate any real changes—yet.

“It's the FCC creating another chilling effect on creativity,” says Liguori. “With no real definition, all we can do is continue to run our shows through [standards and practices], rate our shows, and encourage parents to use the V-chip.”

It's Upfront Week: Write Your Grids in Pencil

Scheduling continues to be a challenge for NBC, and not just on the programming grid.

The network, traditionally the first to announce its slate, must do so without any knowledge of what the competition will roll out through the rest of the upfront week.

Being TV's version of the New Hampshire primary has its problems. Last year, while struggling to resuscitate its primetime fortunes, NBC played possum, announcing one schedule at the upfronts before waiting to see what everyone else did. Network executives then completely revamped the schedule and released a second draft not long after.

This year, Reilly is hoping to avoid a replay of this Hollywood shuffle. “I think there is a good chance we will end up doing something,” he says, “but I don't see another wholesale change in the schedule. Anything's possible, depending on what the other guys do.”

NBC was not alone in making big moves between the upfronts and the start of the season. ABC, for example, fortuitously shifted Ugly Betty from Fridays to Thursdays.

“I guess we'll have to see the way things lay out at the other networks,” Reilly says. “Obviously, you hope you don't have to do anything.”

Network execs say advertisers tend to be fine with post-upfront swaps of shows—provided they're in the same genre. Huge changes to a schedule can raise red flags when a company buys into one show in good faith and ends up with a different show.

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