Upfronts 2017: Media Agency Execs Size Up 2017-18 Broadcast Shows

Revivals, new military series abound as networks negotiate ad sales for the upcoming season
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As media buying of advertising for the broadcast networks’ fall schedules heats up, it is once again a time where the agencies size up the new broadcast shows and their programming strategies for the season. And while every TV viewer has an opinion as to what will succeed and not succeed, the most important opinions belong to the media agencies who are advising their clients as they prepare to spend billions of dollars on commercial time during the upfront buying process.

During the past five upfronts, B&C has gathered three veteran media agency executives and tossed 10 questions at them based on some of the key broadcast network moves. The execs this year 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.

The two part-conversation will cover topics such as the networks’ decision to revive past hit shows and to offer an abundance of new military-themed shows; the decision to bring back ratings-challenged shows that in prior years might have been cancelled; the decision to hold back more new shows for mid-season premieres rather than fall debuts; and how the networks are selling ads in the face of declining viewership.

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Here’s Part 1:

Every year for the upcoming new season the broadcast networks all seem to jump on at least one, and sometimes more, theme when it comes to genre of new programming. This year it happens to be both nostalgia (e.g., resurrecting one-time hit shows) and new shows with military themes. In a two-part question, how do you think the reboots of Roseanne by ABC, Will & Grace by NBC, Dynasty on The CW and S.W.A.T. on CBS will do with viewers? And with all the publicity that real-life military combat abroad is getting, will that have an impact on whether viewers watch these new military dramas?

Billie Gold: Networks gravitate towards resurrecting former top TV shows that they feel will have a built in audience and instant name recognition. With all the increased fragmentation with new originals on not just cable but pay and now OTT services, breaking out with a name or characters that people instantly recognize and have a fondness for, is a huge benefit. Some cases in the past—such as Hawaii Five-0 on CBS, The X-Files on Fox, Dallas on TNT, Fuller House on Netflix–prove revivals can succeed, but we've seen just as many fail. While Will & Grace might prove popular on NBC's new Thursday night, especially with all the original cast onboard, Dynasty on The CW might not find the same success given that show means little to the audience of that network. Riverdale, for example, is not the Archie many of us knew and loved. Roseanne on the other hand will surely get sampled, but it will all be about the chemistry and writing in the end. Bottom line, it's hard for new programs to grab audience these days with each network fighting for an ever-smaller piece of the available viewing audience. Resurrected shows often bring viewers to the show, [at] least to get sampled, which is a big plus and what the networks are counting on. As for military shows, there are already quite a number gracing the airwaves, some with moderate success, but with the world becoming an increasingly unsettled place, people might start shying away from the "realness" these shows depict.

Brian Hughes: The broadcasters have been relying on five key genres for several years now: crime procedurals, reality competition, family comedies, comic book/sci-fi/fantasy shows, and soapy dramas (think Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal). That won’t really be changing much next season, as they will still comprise 62% of the fall schedule. In terms of bringing back classic shows, I think there’s a couple of things going on. One, the availability of library episodes on streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu has likely exposed new audiences to shows that have been off the air for a while, and this may be an effort to get them to spend more time with linear TV. Second, recent efforts, like X-Files and Prison Break, have been relatively successful, and that usually triggers more of the same. There was definitely an uptick in military and government-themed shows for next year, but with the political climate I’m not sure if that will be an incentive to tune in or tune out.

Dave Campanelli: It’s not new for networks to use memorable program brands to grab attention to launch a new show. The hardest thing to do is to break through the clutter. A known brand can do that. What’s interesting this year is bringing back original casts. Previous reboots mostly had new casts for a new generation. Returning the original cast is different than that and I think is born out of the success Netflix has had with Fuller House and Gilmore Girls. Having said all that, the breakout hits of the last few years, such as Empire and This Is Us, were original shows, and most importantly, they are good, new concepts, not just reboots, re-imaginations or retreads.

It seems like every year at least one network tries to promote a new series in a more unorthodox way. For example, premiering a series in multiple markets worldwide on the same day it premieres on U.S. television. Or premiering it online first, prior to its broadcast debut to give it additional and early exposure. This time around ABC will premiere a version of its new series Marvel’s Inhumans, with the first two episodes showing globally in IMAX theaters for a two-week period beginning Sept. 1. ABC will then air the entire series on the network with additional exclusive content beginning with premiere week. Do you think this type of stunt will have any impact on viewership?

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Gold: The sci-fi and comic-book audiences are usually very loyal to these type of shows and reaching this audience on the mediums that they most love—internet and the movie—is the perfect way to create excitement and buzz and get them hooked. It's the same premise behind shows of these ilk premiering at Comic Con—get the core viewers and you have a chance of a hit and while creating pre-season buzz while you're at it. That said, it doesn't mean these viewers will stick around all season, but at least the show will start off with as big an audience as it can expect.

Hughes: No. It is definitely a high-profile way to get sampling for the show, but initial sampling doesn’t necessarily translate to long-term success.

Campanelli: For Inhumans, it could. Marvel is obviously a theatrical brand. So, the potential audience for this show should react favorably to a theatrical premiere. As breaking through the clutter is hard, a theatrical approach for the right brand may be very effective.

Dick Wolf’s several TV drama series continue to do well in the ratings on NBC. Law & Order: SVU will be entering its 18th season and is still getting strong viewership. And his more recent series, Chicago Fire, Chicago PD and Chicago Med have all done well and are among the most-watched series in primetime, not only on NBC but on all of broadcast. With that type of success, what do you think viewer reaction will be to Wolf’s new anthology series for this coming season, Law & Order: True Crime? And what is it about Wolf’s series that keep capturing viewer interest week after week?

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Gold: Wolf knows the winning formula of self-contained drama episodes with human threads running throughout the characters of his shows. It's often hard for viewers to commit to serialized dramas where if you miss a few episodes you're often lost. With the Law & Order franchise you can just tune in and just sit back, plop on the couch and watch. That's why self-contained drama series play much better in syndication. As for his new series L&O: True Crime—The Menendez Brothers, which is a bit of a departure from his usual formula, it looks like it might be another win for Wolf, given that true-crime series are all the rage. It's a limited series each time (a different high profile crime) and it carries the Law & Order brand.

Hughes: True crime is a hot commodity right now. Consider the success of FX’s American Crime Story, the continued growth of Investigation Discovery, and the popularity of podcasts like Serial. So I think it’s seizing on that, with the added pedigree of the Law & Order moniker. As far as why Dick Wolf’s shows tend to last, their procedural nature lets viewers jump in at any time and make them ideal to thrive in syndication.

Campanelli: True crime series are hugely popular right now. With the combination of Dick Wolf and the true crime genre, I certainly wouldn’t bet against it being a success.

Broadcast network primetime entertainment show viewership continues to whittle away each year because of the proliferation of digital competition. So ratings for even the most-watched broadcast series are way down from just a few years ago. Not so long ago, a series with a live plus same day rating of 2.0 in the 18-49 demo would be a candidate for cancellation. Now it’s a hit. This coming fall, the broadcast networks are all bringing back a number of series with 18-49 demo ratings well below a 1.0. Is this a concern to advertisers and does it give the buying agencies ammunition for ad price negotiations?

Gold: Any loss of GRP's is a concern as advertisers put the largest portion of their dollars against this proven medium. That said, TV is evolving and we're watching where eyeballs are going across screens and making sure that we capture these viewers wherever they are. Still, it is somewhat unsettling to see how the evolving viewing landscape is fragmenting and effecting broadcast TV. Despite the loss of available prime GRP's, whether the 2017/18 upfront will be a buyers’ or sellers’ market depends on the number of TV dollars that will flow into the upfront this year. Less TV dollars is usually a buyers’ market; more TV dollars and less GRP's to meet the demand becomes a sellers’ market. It's all about supply and demand.

Hughes: As ratings go down, prices tend to go up, and our biggest concern is paying more for less. That’s why we’ve forged key partnerships in both the TV and online worlds that allow us the get the best value possible for clients. We see it as more important than ever since the average adult 18-49 rating in primetime is likely to be less than 1.0 by the end of 2017-18 season.

Campanelli: I don’t think it is correct to say viewership is down due to “digital competition.” That implies people are not watching TV shows so they can watch YouTube or Facebook videos instead. The evidence is clearly pointing to the fact that viewers of those shows are still watching those shows, they are just watching across various other platforms (VOD, OTT, and to a lesser extent mobile and desktop) and on a delayed basis. So, they are consuming content “digitally,” but they are consuming TV programming that way on a network’s owned assets like the ABC Watch app on Apple TV. The issue then is: how are they measuring (or more to the point how aren’t they measuring) those viewers? That is why low-rated shows, as measured by the now antiquated C3 or C7 metric, are returning; because the viewership is so high on a non-linear basis, making up for the linear C3/C7 losses.

Fox did not have a stellar 2016-17 primetime ratings season, particularly if you eliminate sports, yet it is bringing back several ratings-challenged entertainment shows, and has only three new series on its fall schedule. Clearly it is holding some shows for mid-season, but in general is it possible for a network to follow that type of strategy and successfully turn the network around? Or should there be more new shows on the fall schedule to make a splash?

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Gold: Fox definitely had a tough season minus sports, but given that many of its shows perform well on other platforms in younger demos, bringing back some [of] the lower-rated ones still might be a win in the end-game for Fox. As for not launching too many shows this fall, mid-season is where Fox has often had its best luck (American Idol, Empire, among others). Given the crowded environment in the fall, including sports on Fox and other networks, Fox might feel it has a better chance of its shows being seen when it doesn't have to contend with a plethora of big program launches and an abundance of football, which is now on three nights a week in fall (Mondays on ESPN, Thursdays on CBS and NBC) and of course Sunday Night Football on NBC.

Hughes: I’d say in the world we currently live in, anything is possible, and how success is defined can vary. I don’t think being number one matters much anymore when there are such narrow differences between first and second, or even first and third. What is more interesting are initiatives like OpenAP, which is a first step toward transacting on more sophisticated targets, and exploring new and different ad formats, which both Fox and Turner touched on in their upfront presentations.

Campanelli: The big missing piece of the puzzle right now for those of us on the outside looking in, is how well these shows are doing off linear. What playback is happening on VOD, OTT, mobile, etc. If that upside is big, then a show can be a “success” to Fox, but it might not look like a success to the outside world. Without that information, it’s hard to judge.

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