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TV Changes, but Programming Tactics Stay the Same

Upfronts week just concluded, which means it’s time to take stock of the TV business: Ratings are down, live events are up, and IP is more important than ever

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The annual spectacle that is upfronts week is simultaneously the most hopeful and depressing time in broadcast television. Hopeful because it looks toward the future by giving us our first complete glimpse of the next TV season; depressing because the future has never been more uncertain — ratings are declining across the board, and networks are trying to stanch the bleeding with tactics that look back rather than forward. Upfronts are the time when networks make the case to advertisers that their airtime is still worth marketing dollars, mostly by unveiling their upcoming shows and trumpeting the success of their returning ones. This is why upfronts come immediately after the end of the traditional TV season and its raft of cancellations: out with the old, in with the new.

This also makes upfronts the perfect time to assess the health and layout of the broadcast television landscape. The general trajectory of viewing habits is still moving away from television sets and toward computer screens. Major networks respond by trotting out their late-night personalities like highly paid show ponies (Colbert for CBS; Seth Meyers for NBC), spinning the dickens out of their ratings data, and looking forward by returning to the past.

Now that the dust has settled from an avalanche of trailers and TV-biz-related comedy sets, we have a more or less complete picture of what the 2017–2018 broadcast season is going to look like and what it says about what the Big Five (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and the CW) think viewers want. Here are the notable takeaways:

The Late-Night Wars Have Another Battlefront

Last year — before the conventions that boosted The Late Show’s profile and, of course, before the election — there was widespread speculation that Stephen Colbert’s days might be numbered. Why else would follow-up James Corden be selected to represent CBS at the upfronts with — what else — a Hamilton homage? NBC golden boy Jimmy Fallon, who subsequently replicated the Hamilton love with a parody of his own, was a more obvious choice for network emissary given his more prominent 11:30 time slot. These were the faces networks trusted to get clients to open their pocketbooks.

This year, Colbert and Meyers were their networks’ designated spokesmen — both a testament to how quickly fortunes can rise and fall as companies do their best to chase the zeitgeist and a symbol of the recent ratings advantage of the current-events-oriented hosts. Neither of their sets (largely filled with dry, insider-y jokes about the business) were especially hard-hitting. But networks are always trying to divine which way the wind is blowing, and their choice of brand ambassadors can teach us what they’re banking on. Corden is doing just fine — he’s hosting next year’s Grammys! — while Fallon is now in full reputation-salvaging mode, with a lengthy, all-hands-on-deck New York Times profile that brought in the entire 30 Rock C-suite to assert their confidence in the host. Just a few months ago, of course, they didn’t need to.

It’s Time to Learn What “Vertical Alignment” Means

Even though the entire purpose of upfronts is to appeal to advertisers, this year’s series orders indicate that networks — or rather, the conglomerates that own them — are desperately courting new sources of revenue for any given show. Run down the list of new and returning series and a pattern quickly presents itself: NBC’s Champions is produced by NBC Universal television. ABC’s The Gospel of Kevin is produced by ABC Studios. CBS’s Man With a Plan is produced by … CBS Television Studios. Companies increasingly prefer to do business with themselves.

Every TV show is distributed by a network and produced by a studio. Almost every major TV network is part of a larger corporation that also owns a studio — Fox has 20th Century Fox Television, CBS has CBS Television Studios, and so on. The network makes money from shows by selling ads during live broadcasts; studios make money by selling shows not only to networks, but also to secondary networks that air shows in syndication and to streaming services like Netflix. Increasingly, networks are ordering series from within the family, which is why The Hollywood Reporter called this “the most vertically aligned season yet.” Which is an extremely unsexy way to say “Live viewership means ads aren’t a sure bet anymore, so we need to make money wherever we can.” In a sure sign of the times, literally the same people — Dana Walden and Gary Newman — now run both Fox and its studios.

There are still exceptions to the rule, but only because they’re megahits: Both ABC’s Modern Family and NBC’s This Is Us, for example, are 20th Century Fox productions. Look at the fall lineups, though, and you’ll see the trend easily enough: Every single one of the CW’s new shows is from either CBS or Warner Brothers (the network is co-owned by both companies, so it has two home studios), while Fox and NBC ordered exclusively from their corporate cousins. It’s more important than ever to hedge the parent company’s bottom line with potential Netflix money as well as Coca-Cola’s.

The IP Wars Continue

Full-scale revivals (Roseanne, Will & Grace). Spinoffs (The Big Bang Theory’s Young Sheldon, a still-untitled Grey’s Anatomy joint about firefighters). Franchise extensions (Law & Order: True Crime, two Marvel shows on two different networks, and Black Lightning, the CW’s latest addition to the Greg Berlanti superhero empire). Remakes (Dynasty, but from Gossip Girl’s Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz). There is nothing new under the sun, and there’s very little new on television that isn’t a retooled version of the old.

Almost everything that’s been written about the intellectual property boom writ large also holds true here. In a time of fragmentation and industry-wide ratings depression, networks are clinging to a handful of strategies all-but-guaranteed to pull in viewers. That means directly replicating relics of network dominance, like Must See TV–era sitcoms or live musicals (several such projects — NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar, Fox’s Rent, ABC’s The Little Mermaid— have been announced in the last couple of weeks). That means spinoffs in the vein of Frasier or A Different World exclusively for Godzilla shows like Grey’s and The Big Bang Theory. And that means turning what would likely be a reasonably salable premise on its own — singing, fighting, crime-solving — into IP regardless. The CW’s target audience loves sex and drama, but do they care about Dynasty or even know what it is? Does the already well-known story of the Menendez brothers need the added juice of being in the Law & Order universe?

But you can’t blame the networks for claiming every bit of leverage they can in a time of seismic upheaval. Besides, IP can even help a struggling show on the edge cross over into renewal territory — it’s one of the reasons Fox renewed the surprisingly good and low-performing Exorcist. Which brings us to another takeaway:

The Line Between Cancellation and Renewal Is Vanishingly Small

What was once a matter of “Do lots of people watch it or not?” is now a question so complicated it demands a flow chart. The New York Times John Koblin wrote a piece to this effect ahead of the upfronts, but it bears repeating now that the spectacle is concluded: Depressed viewership and fickle audiences mean hits and bombs are now in the eye of the beholder, or at least beholden to more factors — like studio ownership — than raw numbers.

The most obvious example is Timeless, the entertainingly goofy NBC procedural that’s now the lone survivor of last year’s inexplicable time travel boom. (RIP, Time After Time, Making History, and Frequency. You were too ridiculous/silly/forgettable for this world, respectively.) It almost wasn’t, though: NBC initially canceled the show, only to go back on its decision less than 72 hours later after fan backlash and extended negotiations with Sony, Timeless’ studio and a notorious shopper of supposedly dead series. (They’re the ones that made Community-on-Yahoo happen.) Even more intriguingly, NBC straight-up renewed two lower-rated series without all the mishegas — Blindspot and Taken. This isn’t an isolated phenomenon: As Vulture’s Joe Adalian pointed out, ABC’s canceled Imaginary Mary got better live, in-demo ratings for its Monday-night broadcast than three renewed shows, including one on its own network.

It’s not that ratings don’t matter anymore. It’s that they’re now one of several deciding factors in whether a show lives or dies — particularly since the ceiling for a ratings success keeps getting lower, and the gaps among high-, mid-, and low-rated series narrows.

Even the Scripted Empires Are Slipping

Certain shows that once would have been swiftly axed are safe. The flip side is that there are also shows that once would have been dependable tentpoles — but now tank.

The Shondaland empire is not in jeopardy: Grey’s Anatomy still dominates, there’s a spinoff on the way, and a racebent Romeo and Juliet show (!) arrives later this summer. But the #TGIT lineup isn’t the unassailable fortress it once was. The Catch was canceled after a mere two seasons. Just half a season off the air decimated Scandal’s ratings enough — more than a third between season premieres in 2015 and 2017 — that its seventh volume will be its last. And How to Get Away With Murder lost 26 percent of its audience this season alone. The super-producer isn’t doing any worse than the rest of television. She’s just not outperforming it by leaps and bounds, either.

What holds true for one potential savior of broadcast television also applies to another. Empire lost a third of its total audience in a single season, demonstrating the challenge of maintaining viewer interest in a show that jumped the shark approximately 10 minutes into its pilot. The show — once heralded as proof breakouts are still possible — is barely holding onto its coveted eight-figure viewership. Breaking out, it seems, is only half the battle — and the only thing harder than busting through the noise is continuing to do so, week after week after week. Think of it as a cautionary tale for another show now getting the Empire-in-2015 treatment: NBC is currently riding high on This Is Us, now renewed through Season 3. But there’s no longer any such thing as a sure bet.

Reality TV Is Still a Life Raft

Now is the time where we talk about American Idol. It’s back! On ABC! Less than two years after its first incarnation went off the air! Its return is representative of two parallel trends: the IP explosion, which we’ve already covered, and the Teflon durability of cheap, unscripted entertainment, which we haven’t. Put together, those trends make Idol possibly the perfect example of the state of network decision-making.

As much credit as This Is Us has gotten, NBC’s no. 1 show is actually The Voice. ABC is set to continue its game show streak with a Gong Show resurrection hosted by an in-character Mike Myers. And The Bachelor is the rare show that’s actually managed to increase ratings in the midst of this slow-motion apocalypse, hence the recently announced Winter Games spinoff. Unscripted series have always had an advantage over their more expensive, more time-consuming scripted counterparts. Now that scripted series are less reliable than ever, that advantage has only increased.

American Idol still represents an extraordinary case. A new show, on a new network, with new judges — including Katy Perry — using a competitive template that’s now so widely copied as to be essentially meaningless: Is there any value in recycling the Idol name rather than coming up with some generic new one? ABC is betting on it, and that the value will offset the diminishing returns of other franchises like the Shondaplex. Blessedly unchallenging reality TV got the industry through one crisis (the 2007 writers’ strike, where networks compensated for a lack of scripted shows by flooding their schedules with reality). Maybe it’ll help the business through another.

Broadcast TV Still Hasn’t Figured Out How to Talk About Tech

This is a minor trend in the grand scheme of things, but also a telling sign of network TV’s inability to respond to change. (And in the absence of a hilarious coincidence like last year’s time travel tidal wave, it’s also the most interesting ongoing experiment on TV.) CBS’s Jeremy Piven–starring Wisdom of the Crowd is the third series in an oddly specific trend of tech-adjacent shows, not one of which has taken off so far; like Fox’s A.P.B. last spring or fellow Eye production Pure Genius last fall, it’s the story of a Silicon Valley type motivated by personal tragedy to … privatize police work and/or the medical industry?

The concept is silly, but it also serves a very specific purpose: taking a massive social development TV feels some pressure to talk about, but not enough pressure to actually address on its own terms. Instead, the networks are shoehorning tech into genres they already know how to execute — police and medical procedurals. It hasn’t worked yet, and it probably won’t work now for one simple reason: Tech isn’t police work or medicine, and mashing the two together without taking their differences into account is doomed to fail. But it’s still fascinating that networks keep trying.

So Where Does That Leave Each Network?

A quick post-upfronts check-in with each of the Big Five, with a focus on their fall schedules:

CBS has had its strategy locked down for years, and it has no plans to stop giving its older-skewing, middle-American audience what they want. If you like sitcoms about hapless white guys, there’s Bobby Moynihan’s Me, Myself, & I; if you like Hawaii Five-0 and Blue Bloods, there’s S.W.A.T. and SEAL Team (the titles say it all). The Eye stays the Eye.

The CW, under president Mark Pedowitz, continues to elevate teen programming a half-step above the soap opera while maintaining soap opera levels of enjoyability. Part of that involves giving Greg Berlanti whatever he wants, like Black Lightning; part of that involves cutesy rom-coms like cancer dramedy Life Sentence; part of that means weird gambles like military drama Valor, which doesn’t seem quite in line with the network ethos — but echoes other networks’ decision-making.

Fox is … kind of a mess, which explains why the network is venturing into untested territory with its first Marvel show, The Gifted. Lethal Weapon was its only new series last fall that could be called even a modest success; considering Empire’s decline, it’s time to experiment with something like … I don’t know, a Seth MacFarlane live-action space dramedy? The Gifted is bankable Marvel IP; MacFarlane’s Orville, Fox hopes, is close enough to Star Trek to count.

NBC has Sunday Night Football, This Is Us, The Voice, and Jimmy “still no. 1 in the demo” Fallon, so it’s doing fine — or at least as fine as a broadcast network can be in 2017. The Peacock plays both high and low: The return of smart sitcoms like The Good Place continues with Mindy Kaling’s Champions and Seth Meyers’s AP Bio; new-ish iterations of Will & Grace and Law & Order will soon be upon us to pile up the ratings. If it ain’t broke …

ABC, meanwhile, is in rebuilding mode now that its first wave of Shonda hits is starting to peter out. The Mayor expands the comedy brand outside of family heart-warmers with a small-town politics story; Ten Days in the Valley brings Shonda-level melodrama to a story about a TV writer; The Gospel of Kevin has “supernatural Parenthood” vibes, complete with Jason Ritter from Parenthood; and a midseason reboot of Roseanne will answer the network’s call for series about “everyday Americans. The overall impression: a network stretching further than usual in search of hits. We’ll see what sticks.