Opinions are still flying over the fall schedules unveiled by the broadcast networks at last month's upfront presentations. As the marketplace is digesting all of the strategic moves and fresh content, some of the most valuable opinions belong to media agencies, who will be advising clients in the process of spending billions on commercial time during the upfront buying process. With marketers and their agencies having more programming choices than ever before, the broadcast networks are under mounting pressure to come up with shows that viewers want to watch and make their advertisers happy.
As we have done annually during the past several upfronts, B&C gathered three veteran media agency executives and tossed 10 questions at them based on some of the key broadcast network moves. The execs are: Billie Gold, VP-director of programming research at Dentsu Aegis' Amplifi US; Brian Hughes, senior VP, audience analysis practice lead, Magna Global; and Dave Campanelli, senior VP, director of national broadcast, Horizon Media.
Part 1 of this two-part conversation will cover topics like holding back more new shows for mid-season premieres rather than fall debuts, networks' decision to add more comedy and to bring back reworked past hits to their schedules, and to continuing to offer increased diversity in new show casts. Edited excerpts of the email conversation follow.
The five major broadcast networks—with only 20 new shows scheduled to premiere in September—seem to be counting as much, if not more, on the second half of the season to put on some of their best new programming. Is this a strategy that can work for them, or will viewers watch broadcast in the fall, maybe tune out, and not return? Is it really better to hold back good shows for mid-season rather than putting them on in the fall?
Billie Gold: The biggest ratings makers, or "hits," of the past two seasons have launched in midseason: Fox's Empire and NBC's Little Big Shots. By launching new product in midseason, networks avoid the flood of sampling in fall and, more importantly, competition from football. That being said, the networks are still launching much of their strongest fare in fall and by programming other strong contenders in midseason their hope is not to lose viewers to big cable launches in midseason, which is a good strategy. Viewers will tune in fall, winter, spring or summer if there is strong programming to see.
Brian Hughes: Today's viewing environment has put the broadcasters in a difficult position, especially considering they are held to a different standard than even their ad-supported cable counterparts. For a show to work, it has to toe the line between broad appeal and an audience-grabbing edge. The Walking Dead, for example, could never air on broadcast. Scheduling is one tactic the networks have been trying to figure out with mixed results. There seems to be a universal desire to have more first-run programming throughout the season, which can sometimes mean lengthy hiatuses between new episodes of a particular series. In terms of holding launches to midseason, I can see a couple of reasons this might be happening: First, TV usage is traditionally higher in first quarter (winter months). Second, It provides the opportunity to build promotional momentum, including the use of high-profile sporting events like the NFL and the World Series. Whether or not it will work remains to be seen. We're expecting continued linear TV declines, but there's always the possibility that a new show or two will catch on.
Dave Campanelli: I think viewers have been well trained to find the shows they want to watch, regardless of when they are launched. Cable premieres shows based on production timelines more than anything. I don't think it will hurt the networks to premiere more in the second half of the year.
Broadcast networks continue to develop and put on their schedules more comedy. Has TV drama oversaturated primetime schedules and are comedies, particularly family-centric comedies, a way to draw some viewers back or keep them interested in broadcast? And are family-oriented comedies better suited for many advertisers?
Gold: I wouldn't say dramas have over-saturated the primetime schedule, I just think dramas have had slightly more success in recent years than comedies so there's more of them currently on air. That's not for the lack of networks trying to launch successful comedies. They certainly have strived to do that. Launching a successful comedy can be extremely lucrative to a network and they repeat better than dramas, which is a big plus. Family-friendly comedies are always highly desirable to advertisers and the networks know it, so of course it's a huge lure, albeit, I'm not sure if the broadcast networks see comedies as a way to draw viewers back but rather a way to keep them, since cable doesn't offer as many alternatives in the genre.
Hughes: These things seem to be cyclical—schedules will be light on comedy for a few years and then suddenly there will be a big push. I think family comedies are the low-hanging fruit right now, because it's what has worked the last few years, and typically offers the aforementioned broad appeal that the networks are looking for.
Campanelli: Any time there is an opportunity for co-viewing, there is a potential bump in audience because of it. ABC has been successful with shows like Modern Family, black-ish, The Middle, Fresh Off the Boat, etc., so there might be some mimicking there. Also, comedies play better in syndication, domestically at least, so that could play into it as well.
There are several former broadcast network series being brought back years later, some with new casts and different storylines, some, like Fox's Prison Break, with the same cast. Can they work?
Gold: The networks in previous years have cancelled shows with ratings that they would kill for now. Bringing back programs with familiar characters assures networks that at least some loyal viewers of these shows might return, which is a better risk than investing money in an unknown new freshman offering which has a higher risk of not making it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but looking at history, returning shows are often met with just moderate success, which the networks might be okay with.
Hughes: They can, but we've seen mixed results with these thus far. Revisiting The X-Files was relatively successful for Fox this season, whereas the return of Heroes on NBC was far less so. I think keeping them as event series rather than a full reboot probably gives them the best chance of gaining traction.
Campanelli: It always depends on the quality of the show. For every Fargo and X-Files, there is a Coach, which never even made the air. So it totally depends on how well the programming is executed. But clearly there is a move by networks to capitalize on known properties, movies or shows, to break through the clutter and get sampling. It seems to have worked for Netflix as well (Full House, Gilmore Girls, Arrested Development).
Following a 10-year hiatus from his hit sitcom King of Queens, Kevin James is returning to CBS to star in another comedy, Kevin Can Wait. What are the chances of it becoming another comedy hit for the network, particularly with CBS leading it out of The Big Bang Theory to start the season?
Gold: Any show leading out of The Big Bang Theory is pretty much guaranteed sampling, so the show already has a huge advantage over most sitcom launches. CBS is going to put a show they think has the best shot of success in that lucrative time period and Kevin James has proven to be a likeable and successful comedy entity, so the show already has huge promise.
Hughes: They're certainly giving it every opportunity—it's always a bit of a gamble though, especially for vets like Kevin James. How many failed sitcoms did Matthew Perry star in before The Odd Couple?
Campanelli: It has one of the best comedy lead-ins on TV, so it has as good a chance as any show to be a hit.
A significant number of new shows this coming season will have more diverse casts, including minority actors and actresses in lead and major supporting roles. Do you think this will be beneficial to the networks both in bringing in more minority viewers and also bringing in new ad dollars targeting those viewers?
Gold: As my mom used to say, "It couldn't hurt." Big Bang Theory is the No. 1 comedy on TV, and it's not very diverse, neither is the No. 1 drama, NCIS. But shows with ethnically diverse casts always attract a broader audience as people tend to identify with characters on a deeper level when they share commonalities. With the ethnic make-up of the U.S. changing rapidly, shows with Hispanic, Asian and African American casts, and/or lead characters, will become the norm. Empire's audience is 66% African-American but it is the No. 1 drama on broadcast TV in adults 18-49, which proves that ethnically diverse shows can deliver in huge numbers. It has always been done in the drama arena, but ABC has lead the way in comedy with shows such as Fresh Off The Boat and black-ish. Advertisers go where the audiences flow, so if dollars are being targeted towards specific ethnicities and those ratings rise, dollars will follow.
Hughes: I think it's the cost of doing business at this point. To a degree, the proof is in the pudding, as a great many of the series that have worked over the past couple of years have multicultural casts—Scandal, Empire, Fresh Off the Boat, black-ish—but the bottom line is that the U.S. population is changing and representing the full spectrum of the audience is going to be critical for success.
Campanelli: Diversity in casting is a great thing for TV. So yes, definitely, it will help bring in viewers—and with viewers come ad dollars.
In Part 2 of the conversation, agency execs assess new entries from mega-producers Dick Wolf and Shonda Rhimes; handicap the competition between football and comedy on Thursdays; and predict their long-shot winners for next season.