This fall, the broadcast networks will premiere almost as many of their new and returning series (48 to be exact) outside of the "official" start of the season — the Sept. 23-Sept. 29 premiere week — as they will during that week. (They will premiere 50 during that week.)
Premiere strategies come and go and there are many reasons why the shifts continue. Among them: getting away from the clutter to (potentially) attract more viewers to new shows, and trying to find the perfect less-competitive places to bring eyeballs back to veteran series.
But for media buyers, strategy and marketing aren't going to be the deciding factors in a show's fate. If a new show is no good, regardless of initial tune-in numbers, viewers will tune out quickly. Initial sampling will only work if a show strikes a chord.
"I think the idea is to avoid the crush of premieres that typically occurs during the first week of the season, but I've never seen any proof that it works," said Brian Hughes, senior VP, and head of the audience analysis practice at Magna Global. "Besides, it's difficult to really gauge viewer interest until a program is up against first-run competition."
"A larger initial audience means there are more people that can return in future weeks, but only if they liked what they have seen, and that's where the content aspect comes in," says Sam Armando, senior VP and director, SMGx Strategic Intelligence. "We have actually seen shows that have been billed 'good shows' fail because they never really got off the ground. Brooklyn Bridge on CBS comes to mind, and it happened more recently with Fox's Lone Star, which was critically praised but never got initial sampling."
Competition will indeed be key as the new and returning series are put in their first paces. Among the most prominent picks to watch: NBC has been promoting the heck out of its new game show The Million Second Quiz hosted by Ryan Seacrest, which will premiere on Monday, Sept. 9 at 9 p.m. Two days later, Fox will offer up the season premiere of its reality singing competition series The X Factor at 8 p.m. on Sept. 11.
On Monday, Sept. 16, ABC will premiere its hit competition series Dancing with the Stars at 8 p.m., while Fox will go head-to-head with the two-hour show when it returns veteran drama Bones at 8 and freshman drama Sleepy Hollow. Fox has been aggressively promoting the latter series, and while DWTS is going to draw its 12 million or so viewers, they will have a median age of 60-plus, while Fox is hoping Sleepy Hollow brings in a somewhat younger audience. Although both networks are premiering early, in this case, the competition will be still.
The following night, Sept. 17, Fox will premiere the new sitcoms Dads and Brooklyn Nine-Nine as part of its Tuesday comedy night that also includes the premieres of returning sitcoms New Girl and The Mindy Project. They will air vs. mainly repeats from the other networks.
Clash of Titans?
CBS is premiering reality hit Survivor on Sept. 18, while ABC will bring back two returning sitcoms on Friday, Sept. 20, in Last Man Standing and The Neighbors. It will also return Shark Tank that night.
Among the new series that will debut during the official premiere week of Sept. 23-29 are CBS Monday sitcom Mom, which is protected at 9:30 between 2 Broke Girls and new CBS drama Hostages at 10. NBC is premiering The Blacklist at 10, so it will go head-to-head with Hostages.
On Tuesday Sept. 24, ABC will premiere an entirely new night of programming. Much-anticipated drama Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will open the night at 8, followed by sitcoms The Goldbergs at 9, Trophy Wife at 9:30 and drama Lucky 7 at 10.
ABC premieres comedy Back in the Game on Wednesday night, Sept. 25. The next night CBS debuts the Robin Williams sitcom The Crazy Ones and it is scheduled to go head-to-head with new NBC series The Michael J. Fox Show at 9. On Friday, Sept 27, Fox premieres new cooking competition series Junior MasterChef, while on Sunday, Sept. 29, ABC debuts new drama Betrayal.
Freshman series premiering the week of Sept. 30-Oct. 6 include CBS sitcoms We Are Men and The Millers, ABC comedy Super Fun Night, NBC comedies Welcome to the Family and Sean Saves The World and NBC drama Ironside. The new CW drama The Originals will also premiere that week.
ABC will premiere freshman drama series Once Upon A Time in Wonderland on Oct. 10, The CW will debut drama Reign on Oct. 17, and NBC will premiere new drama Dracula on Oct. 25.
Waiting On the Game
Fox will wait until after its postseason Major League Baseball coverage in October to premiere freshman drama Almost Human and new sitcom Enlisted the week of Nov. 4-10.
With all the discussions network entertainment brass have with their scheduling execs to come up with the ideal programming places each season, particularly when it comes to premiering new shows, the success rate percentage-wise is not much better than the low double-digits.
"I believe the success of a new show boils down to a couple of things: sampling and content," says Armando. "Early premieres help with the former, but do nothing for the latter."
While Armando did not mention specific shows, a few historic examples prove his point.
During the 2004 Olympics on NBC, the network gave some of its freshman shows lots of promotion during the Games. A week later, some of these new series got major tune-in. Father of the Pride drew 12.4 million and a 5.3 18-49 demo rating for its premiere; it was, however, cancelled before the end of the season. Other NBC freshman series that fall drew large premiere episode audiences during early premieres and were eventually cancelled, including a 6.6 demo for LAX (which averaged 13 million, and a 5.0 in the demo) and Hawaii (10.9, 3.3). Sitcom Joey premiered to some 18 million viewers that year, and because it was a Friends spinoff the network kept it on for two seasons, hoping it would catch on. Viewership kept declining and its last episode drew just 4.1 million viewers.
Armando reminds that NBC actually aired the pilot for its sitcom Animal Practice during the network's 2012 Olympic coverage. The series was one of the first cancelled last fall.
"It was not an early premiere of Animal Practice that did it in, it was because audiences did not like it," Armando says, adding his belief that nothing about the success of a TV series can be linked to the day it premiered.
Dave Campanelli, senior VP, director of national broadcast at Horizon Media says cable has proven that if a network puts on a good show that people want to watch, it can succeed.
"The Walking Dead, Justified, Suits and White Collar all premiered basically isolated with no real lead-in protection," Campanelli says of those cable hits. "They all premiered at different times of the year and come on and off with new seasons at different times of the year, and they are all successful."
His colleague at Horizon, senior VP, director of research Brad Adgate added a few more examples of cable series, such as Duck Dynasty and Breaking Bad that started out with very little promotion and became popular because more and more viewers began watching.
Magna Global's Hughes also stresses that the ratings standards necessary for a show to be renewed and stay on the air have been lowered dramatically, and that decisions to keep a show on are not only based on how many viewers are watching.
"Success for a modern TV series is a bit of a moving target," Hughes says. "There are plenty of lower-rated shows that get renewed for business reasons, such as potential syndication profits."
Campanelli thinks the days of a traditional premiere week and all the strategy networks build around it are over.
"Shows, if they are good quality and are promoted well, can launch successfully regardless of when they premiere," Campanelli said.