Playing By the New Midseason Rules

Long gone are the days when the New Year meant taking little chances. Broadcast nets, as well as cable, now come prepared to make bigger swings.
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Midseason, like the rest of the television landscape, is a much livelier place these days. Once the sleepy province of NFL playoff games and the Ice Capades, punctuated by a few anticipated returning shows, the early weeks of the year have become a viable and highstakes arena for big-ticket broadcast and, increasingly, cable fare.

“We really are moving into a year-round schedule with yearround launches,” says Fox Broadcasting COO Joe Earley. “The old days, where 22 episodes aired over 35 weeks with repeats, those are long gone.”

They’ve been replaced, at least around New Year’s, by creative, table-setting strategic plays, with networks basing moves on the successes and failures of the fall and previous midseason tries. And everyone has also learned one big lesson: It helps to have a wild card in your hand, in the form of one major event that can drive viewers and traffic your way, and make even the priciest midseason bets pay off in a world of ever-shifting viewing habits.

This year’s highlights include Fox again attempting to tap the movie box office drain, Discovery following History into the land of make believe and CBS hoping for an Under the Dome-like surprise. The CW also has new futuristic dramas Star-Crossed and The 100.

Each of the Big Four broadcast networks has a big-scale promotional platform, such as CBS’ Grammy Awards and ABC’s Academy Awards presentations. Still, none match Fox’s Feb. 2 broadcast of Super Bowl XLVIII, which could attract even more than the usual eyeballs due to it being played for the first time in the country’s top market, as well as outdoors in unpredictable weather at MetLife Stadium.

This midseason is also different because NBC will air the Winter Olympics in primetime over a 17-day stretch in February, which not only gives it a massive audience to pitch but has caused rival nets to alter their own schedules.

Bearing all of that in mind, B&C took a closer look at five of the most compelling launches coming in the early months of 2014.

It’s fitting that, beyond the Big Four, Discovery is included. Cable networks have been opportunistic year-round, and midseason will be no different. Miniseries have enjoyed a revival on cable networks since at least 2012, when History’s three-night Hatfields & McCoys set ratings records in late May (shrewdly timed for just after the traditional broadcast season). The run continued with last summer’s The Bible. Seeing that, Discovery has fresh gunpowder in Klondike, a six-hour mini that is the first scripted original in the channel’s 31-year history. If that doesn’t spell a shift in strategy, nothing does.

Network: ABC

Big Swing: Resurrection, airing Sundays at 9 p.m., premiering March 9.

Why It May Work: Good fit with Once Upon a Time, potential winner with male demo.

ABC has had a rough time on Sunday. While the network successfully launched Once Upon a Time in 2011, it has so far failed in attempts to build around it. Revenge has struggled since its move to Sundays, and this fall’s Betrayal stumbled right out of the gate.

“We’re putting together an entire night that flows a lot better than the one we had,” says Andy Kubitz, executive VP, program planning & scheduling for the ABC Entertainment Group.

ABC’s midseason entrant Resurrection, about a town whose loved ones mysteriously start returning from the dead, will bump Revenge back an hour in the hopes that the supernatural drama will be a stronger anchor leading out of the fellow fantasy-mystery Once Upon a Time.

“Thematically, Resurrection is more similar to Once Upon a Time than it is to Revenge,” explains Kubitz, adding that “the series nature of Resurrection and emotional feeling translates better as a lead-in to Revenge.”

Resurrection will air a shortened, cablelike eight-episode season, though Kubitz calls the move less strategic than practical: There wasn’t enough room on the schedule to accommodate more episodes. The limited series also appears to be more male-skewing, which has been a tough demo for the network to maintain once college football is off the schedule.

ABC is staggering its midseason premieres, starting up a few in January but holding many until after the Olympics, giving the network its own big platform to promote its series with the Academy Awards, airing March 2.

Kubitz says that ABC will begin airing promos for Resurrection shortly, with a ramp-up toward the Oscars.

“We’ll use the Oscars to push it over the edge,” Kubitz says of the network’s marketing strategy. “Resurrection, in my mind, is a mini movie every week, so I think that will translate real well.”

Network: CBS

Big Swing:Intelligence, airing Mondays at 10 p.m., premiering Jan. 7.

Why It May Work: A limited series doing battle with The Blacklist (with no lead-in from The Voice), and no Monday Night Football to go toe-to-toe with.

The spy thriller Intelligence, CBS’ second crack at a limited series this season, should shine a brighter light on how well serialized series can work on broadcast. After having success with a shorter-run drama with last summer’s Under the Dome, CBS’ limited series Hostages failed to gain traction on a very competitive night.

Intelligence could go a long way toward determining whether they’re going to do this again next season,” says Brad Adgate, research director, Horizon Media.

Hostages had it rough, facing off against NBC’s popular freshman The Blacklist, and contending with ESPN’s Monday Night Football. But for CBS, the time will now be right, and Intelligence stands a much better chance of success.

Granted, it will go up against The Blacklist, but the James Spader drama will not have its normal Voice-infused lead-in until March. CBS made sure of that last month when it moved up Intelligence’s premiere by seven weeks. It will now start out of NCIS (another highly rated property) on Jan. 7 before moving to its regular night on Jan. 13. And by then, MNF’s season will be in the books.

“It’s a little different for CBS,” says Adgate. “Rather than procedural dramas, they’ve been experimenting in this time period.”

And while the Grammys may not ring as many “major event” bells as other networks’ entries, it’s still a big promotional platform, attracting a sizable—and ad-desirable—audience. Last February’s show drew a 10.1 rating with adults 18-49 and more than 28 million viewers.

Network: Fox

Big Swing: Rake, airing Thursdays at 9 p.m., premiering Jan. 23.

Why It May Work: Greg Kinnear’s star turn, an Idol push, big-time Super Bowl promo help.

Hey, Fox’s strategy worked last year for Kevin Bacon; why not Greg Kinnear?

Once again, Fox will launch a midseason series toplined by a known film actor when Oscar-nominee Kinnear stars in Rake as a self-destructive criminal defense lawyer who doesn’t exactly have his personal life together.

“While we don’t set out to say ‘It’s January and we need a drama with a movie star,’ when you have the piece of material like this and you have Greg Kinnear, it’s a no-brainer,” says Fox’s Earley.

The network already tinkered with its launch strategy for Rake; the show was originally slated to premiere following the NFC championship game Jan. 19, which usually averages close to 50 million viewers (approaching the impact of premiering a show in the post-Super Bowl slot).

Rake will instead premiere Jan. 23 in its regular time slot on Thursdays, following a second-week episode of the returning American Idol. Though Early admits Idol isn’t the behemoth it once was, he still believes in the power of the long-running series, which this season could lure the curious with the addition of judge Harry Connick Jr. and the return of Jennifer Lopez. “[Idol is] clearly the most important asset that we have,” Early says.

Taking Rake’s place post-NFC championship: Bacon’s Following, a strategy Earley attributes to making sure the sophomore drama gets its own nice push.

Another important push Fox can use is its turn as broadcaster of the Super Bowl, annually the most-watched program. The last four Super Bowls have averaged north of 100 million viewers. Rake will have aired a couple of episodes by the Feb. 2 kickoff, but the big game will still serve as a major source of promotion.

“It’s a big opportunity to expose [those viewers] to the shows that they haven’t seen before,” says Earley, who also noted that the Super Bowl is probably the only time viewers pay just as much attention to the commercials as they do the game. “It’s one of the rare times on television when all day, people consider the commercials’ content.”

Network: NBC

Big Swing:Believe, airing Sundays at 9 p.m., premiere date not set (after Olympics and Academy Awards).

Why It May Work: Star power from J.J. Abrams and Gravity’s Alfonso Cuarón, good timing around the Oscars and promo fuel from the Olympics.

NBC is going back to the J.J. Abrams well to help its post-NFL Sunday fortunes with Believe, a sci-fi series about a young girl with psychic abilities and an escaped convict tasked with keeping her safe from an organization hoping to use her powers for evil deeds. The series is cocreated by Cuarón, who is sure to get some Oscar notice for his film, Gravity.

The NFL boosts the network’s fall ratings with Sunday Night Football, but it’s no secret that when the year turns over and gridiron action is no longer on the schedule, the air has gone out of the ball on Sunday nights for NBC.

Believe will be part of a new end-around Sunday strategy—a departure from what has been NBC’s tired reliance on aging reality fare.

Last year’s post-NFL Sunday slate on NBC included reality shows such as All-Star Celebrity Apprentice, along with Dateline and The Voice repeats. Following the Winter Olympics, NBC will launch a revamped lineup of all-new series featuring reality series American Dream Builders and another scripted drama, Crisis.

“Because we have two hours of The Voice on Monday and an hour on Tuesday already, it would be good if we could get a few more scripted series established,” Jeff Bader, NBC Entertainment president, program planning, strategy and research, says about the new Sunday plan. “It’s a good time to be expanding our dramas.”

Because of February’s Winter Olympics, NBC is holding back its midseason schedule until after the Games are over. Doing so also allows for 17 days of prime TV real estate to promote its midseason lineup, a strategy the network is no doubt banking on.

“We basically have two fall launches,” says Bader. “We’re going to use the month of February as the platform for the second half of our season.”

While Believe is produced by Abrams’ Bad Robot, the series was cowritten by series executive producer Cuarón. The Academy Awards are slated for March 2, the Sunday following the Olympics, and any potential Oscar wins for Cuarón could cause a few extra viewers to check out the director’s small-screen effort.

Says Bader: “The timing is perfect.”

Network: Discovery

Big Swing: Klondike, a miniseries airing Jan. 20-22, 9-11 p.m.

Why It May Work: Ridley Scott as executive producer, the network’s success at event programming and some good timing.

Discovery tosses its hat into the crowded scripted ring next month with the miniseries Klondike. The six-hour series, based on Charlotte Gray’s book Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike, follows six strangers who battle for survival and wealth in a small frontier town.

“They’re looking around and seeing how other networks are doing with miniseries, particularly History,” Adgate says of Discovery.

Discovery has two reasons for optimism that its first scripted foray will be a successful one. First there is Scott, the huge international film name who also produced this year’s Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy on NatGeo. And then there’s Discovery’s own recent run of staging successful event programming.

In June, Discovery drew nearly 13 million viewers to watch tightrope walker Nik Wallenda cross the Grand Canyon. In 2012, Felix Baumgartner’s Space Jump averaged 4.21 million viewers on a Sunday afternoon, the channel’s highest-rated non-primetime program ever.

Much like TNT is doing with Mob City, Discovery will air the entire six-hour series over three nights, though it will be three consecutive nights from Jan. 20-22. Slotting the series in late January offers the best chance for success, as broadcast networks hold some of their midseason shows back until after the Winter Olympics.

“I think it will do an above-average audience for them,” says Adgate. “I’m not sure [if] it can hit 10 million [viewers], but you just don’t know.” Adgate says it would likely fall somewhere between 5-7 million viewers. And that would be a firm foundation for next midseason’s strategy plays.

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