MBPT Spotlight: Are Those Broadcast Network Upfront Moves Good Ones?

Media agency execs weigh in (Part 1)
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The broadcast networks announced their new fall schedules at their upfront presentations recently, and as in the case every year at this time, everyone has an opinion on those new shows and the ways each network will try to draw in more viewers for the new season. But as usual, one thing of paramount importance to the networks is what the media agencies think, and what advice they give their marketer clients who are in the process of spending billions on commercial time during the upfront buying process that’s now underway.

MPBT gathered four veteran media agency programming research executives and tossed 10 questions at them based on some of the key network moves. The execs are: Billie Gold, VP, director of buying/programming research at Carat; Brian Hughes, senior VP, audience analysis, MagnaGlobal; Sam Armando, senior VP and director, SMGx Strategic Intelligence; and Brad Adgate, senior VP, director of research, Horizon Media.

Part one of this two-part article (the second part runs Thursday) will cover topics like diversity in new show casts, CBS adding its first superhero show and CW adding its third, NBC keeping The Blacklist on Thursday night and NBC’s decision to hold most of its new comedies for mid-season.

ABC is once again making cast diversity a priority with its new shows, putting on for fall a number of different series with minority casts, leads and characters. Do you think this will be beneficial to the network both in bringing in more minority viewers and also bringing in new ad dollars targeting those viewers?

Gold: As borsht belt comedians used to say “It couldn’t hurt.” ABC got a lot of credit last year for bringing in shows with more diverse casts and these shows were largely a success. How to Get Away with Murder, Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat were winners for the network and showed that audiences were eager and receptive to these shows. However, Cristela didn’t work as well for them and Hispanics are a harder audience to reach in network prime. Telenovela may change that (if it hits) and have a wider appeal and I give ABC a lot of credit for embracing the changing viewer landscape. Dollars go where ratings are so if these shows do well, dollars will follow.

Hughes: ABC was the one network we saw make a clear effort to reach a more diverse audience last year, and we called it out as a solid strategy at the time. If broadcast TV is to continue being a broad-reach medium, it needs to be more reflective of the viewing population as a whole, and ABC is ahead of the curve on that. But even looking at broadcast as a whole, 16 of the 23 freshman series that have been confirmed for renewal over-index among one or more multicultural groups.

Armando: Additional revenue streams are beneficial to any business and the fact that ABC is continuing to make this a priority indicates it may have found one. The key, however, is to first create shows that intrigue diverse viewers and appeal to a broad audience as well. Bringing in new ad dollars targeting diverse groups is ideal, but it can’t come at an expense of losing general market dollars. Shows like Black-ish worked because it gave African American viewers characters that they could connect with, but also provided storylines that everyone can relate to. It’s not automatic, but if it were, we would see a lot more of it.

Adgate: Since the country is becoming increasingly diverse, casting members of various ethnic groups makes a lot of sense. Especially since this population segment is younger than the general market.

ABC is putting on The Muppets this fall and the series should draw a large number of kids watching along with their parents. ABC of course is owned by Disney. Do you think the network should be taking advantage of the Disney name more by putting on more programming in primetime that families can watch together? Particularly on Sunday nights?

Gold: Many of us boomers grew up with the ABC Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights. It was good wholesome programming that families could watch together. But times have changed and kids today are otherwise engaged. That’s not saying that the concept couldn’t work if tried, I just don’t think that networks want to risk a high viewership night trying to find a whole block of shows that can appeal to everyone. It’s hard enough finding one or two shows that resonate across generations. That being said, I am not sure how The Muppets is going to pan out for them. It’s a clever concept, but not sure how it will work as a weekly series. As for using the Disney brand, they went all in with the Marvel relationship and while good in demos, it has not really brought in the ratings power that they had hoped for.

Hughes: I don’t think it can hurt — the Muppets have the advantage of being recognizable to kids but also appeal to those of us that watched the original show in the 70s and 80s (dating myself). They’ve done this somewhat with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Some of the most successful shows on the air today — take The Voice, for example — are family-friendly.

Armando: The networks will struggle to grow their audience by just trying to increase its A18-49 viewers only. If, however, they can retain that core group and add others to it, the chance for larger audiences increases. If ABC identifies an opportunity to grow its ratings and, as a result, ad revenue by offering co-viewing properties, why not play to its strengths? Tapping into the franchise they have at their fingertips makes sense as long as they stay true to being a broadcast network and create properties that have broad appeal. The way people consume video may put less relevance on which night of the week this program airs on. While Sunday makes sense, it is probably more important to make sure it is scheduled in a way that the families that watch it later either via a DVR or VOD are counted.

Adgate: ABC has been very successful targeting families with their comedies. How well a familiar brand like the Muppets is could dictate further kids/family viewing. I think it’s easier to get younger kids in front of a TV with the family instead of older kids or tweens.

The CW is adding another comic book genre series Legends of TomorrowThe Flash and Arrow are already the network’s two most-watched series, so the prognosis for Legends looks good. How much more room is there for The CW to keep adding on to its comic book stable of shows or do you think adding Legends of Tomorrow might be pushing the envelope too much?

Gold: There’s plenty of room for growth at the CW, and adding more of what’s working is a good thing. Of all the shows premiering next season if you ask me which ones are a sure-fire hit I would have to list Legends of Tomorrow. Did you see the revenue take on the latest Avengers movie? That being said, the network is not abandoning women. Jane the Virgin has been a critical success for them and this season they’re adding Crazy Ex-Girlfriend which I think may be another critical darling if it’s executed right. I think the network is definitely on the right track for their brand.

Hughes: It depends on their audience strategy — over the past couple of years, they’ve tried to bring in more men and succeeded with Arrow and The Flash. Sci-fi/fantasy and comic book shows do tend to have solid appeal among multicultural audiences as well — Gotham, Agent Carter, and The Flash were on the list of renewals that I mentioned above. So, if it’s working well for them, it’s natural they would want to expand on that. However, it does kind of leave shows like Jane the Virgin, America’s Next Top Model, and the new Crazy Ex-Girlfriend feeling a little out of place. While Vampire Diaries and The Originals do skew female, they still fit thematically with the more male-targeted shows on the schedule.

Armando: The fact that we are asking that question probably answers the question. The Flash became CW’s most watched show and improved its A18-49 rating in that time period by 34%. In 2012/13, Arrow premiered and improved the Wednesday time period 166%. Viewers will let CW know when there is no more room for this genre, but until that happens, the question is why would they stop adding these shows?

Adgate: Viewers will determine if there are too many comic book characters on television. Legends of Tomorrow will debut mid-year so it won’t be as crowded in the fall, so I would say no. These movies are also incredibly popular in movie theaters as well.

Based on the ratings, it seems like NBC may have made a mistake in moving The Blacklist from its 10 p.m. Monday night time period to Thursday night last season. Now the show will also have to compete with CBS Thursday Night Football. Should the network have moved it away from Thursday night or is even a less-watched Blacklist better to draw those weekend retail and auto advertisers than another series in its time period?

Gold: With its strong Adult 18-49 rating it is understandable why NBC took a chance moving it there to grab lucrative Thursday ad dollars as they have been struggling with low ratings on Thursday nights, but the move certainly hurt the show. This season, now going head-to-head with Thursday Night Football on CBS and having an unproven new lead-in with Heroes Reborn, the show will likely take another big hit. NBC could have moved the show back to Mondays this season but it didn’t, choosing instead to launch its new drama Blindspot. Blacklist is still one of its best Adult 18-49 vehicles (especially with delayed viewership counted in) so NBC is obviously willing to sacrifice the bigger ratings for a larger cut of adspend on that night.

Hughes: I’m not sure I agree that it was a mistake. Yes, it did take a significant ratings hit, but it improved its time period considerably after years of marginally performing comedies. So I see what they are trying to do in terms of getting a foothold on the night.  Football will be a challenge, but since Blacklist is already viewed heavily in playback, it might not take as heavy a hit as another show might. The big question mark for me is how well Heroes Reborn and The Player will land — NBC seems to be going for a more male target versus ABC’s highly female lineup, so there might be room for inroads.

Armando: If it is classified as a mistake, it is because of the performance of State of Affairs on Monday, not The Blacklist on Thursday. Compared to Monday, The Blacklist took a hit, but NBC greatly improved Thursday. The problem is that this Thursday improvement came at the expense of Monday at 10:00. The Blacklist now gets “credit” for the audience that views time-shifted or through VOD over the weekend, so it will live with that audience. NBC knows that The Voice can help launch a show (as it did with The Blacklist) and it also knows that the window for that is closing, so it would actually be a mistake not to use that property to try to build another show.

Adgate: Thursday remains an important night for networks because advertisers place such importance on it (the movie and car categories especially). A common programming strategy has been moving a first year show from a strong time period (i.e., lead-out of The Voice or American Idol in its heyday) to a new night and build that night out. If viewers like the show they will follow it or watch it on demand and watch the NFL live.

Is NBC’s strategy of holding most of its new comedies for mid-season a smart one or should it have put at least a few more on for fall? Yes, the network has had trouble establishing comedies but if it is holding them all for mid-season how confident could it be about them working and what message does that send to advertisers?

Gold: NBC has tried launching comedies in 4Q and it has been rough going. They are no longer a destination for must see comedy and it might be a better strategy to hold many of them back to mid-season where the field might be less crowded and they have a better chance of being seen. I am not sure if it sends a message to advertisers that a show isn’t good if it’s held back to mid-season. In fact, many midseason shows are finding success (Empire anyone?/Secrets and Lies (ABC) etc...)  I think the midseason stigma is fading a bit.

Hughes: I think they have a bit of a dilemma there. On one hand, if a drama doesn’t work in particular time period, they have a stable of comedies ready to go if they want to try a different approach. On the other hand, it’s hard to see where they might fit. Fox is looking to be the comedy destination on Tuesdays, and ABC has a pretty solid lock on Wednesdays. NBC tried comedy on Thursdays for years, but hasn’t had much success since the heyday of “must watch TV,” which is why it has gone in a different direction there. That leaves Mondays, Fridays and Sundays. Monday could be an option now that CBS has moved away from comedy there. On Sunday, it will be going head-to-head with Fox and established shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy. Obviously it is going to try out Fridays in the fall, but that’s a tough night, and the two shows will be in the one time period that had other comedies going up against them. There may be a bit of trial and error involved, but the network seems to have given itself some flexibility to allow for just that.

Armando: Given the lack of success NBC has had with comedy over the past few years, it doesn’t hurt to try something new. In the past, the network put comedy in places it thought were built for success, only to find out that the lead-in or lead-out did not provide the cushion they imagined. This time around, patience may provide a better idea of which time periods could be successful and enable it to put their comedies in the best place possible. That time period may be dependent on their success or another network’s failure, and NBC may feel that the picture will be clearer in midseason.

Adgate: There are many popular shows that debuted mid-year, I don’t think it’s a big deal. One advantage is you can promote the shows to higher TV usage and big events such as post season NFL games on NBC. It’s encouraging that despite all the difficulty in launching a hit comedy, NBC hasn’t given up. Maybe this strategy will work.

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