The major television networks met with all of the major advertising companies this week in an annual event in the industry known as the “upfronts”. The tradition holds that NBC has the first meeting, followed usually by ABC, CBS had their turn on Wednesday, the end of the week featured FOX and The CW getting their respective meetings.
The upfront meeting is where each network will officially unveil their fall lineups and try to generate interest and energy around their programming. These presentations have always been intriguing to me because each network has a strategy for capturing viewers and each one is different in that approach.
Some networks try to reinvent themselves more often than others do, and right now the changes to the television landscape have pushed the major networks and their subsidiaries into recalibrating their offerings. The scramble for ad dollars is characteristically a highly competitive situation, and this week was no different.
First, NBC entered the upfront meetings with the top-rated show on TV (“This Is Us”) and the top ranking for the coveted advertising demographic of 18-25 year old viewers. The network had to just make some small lineup tweaks and they should be set up to have another strong year. They moved their top show to Thursday nights, which is what NBC does, when a program goes well, they change the time slot instead of leaving it alone. It remains to be seen whether this will have a positive or negative ratings effect.
The “Peacock” is bringing back a former hit show from the ‘90s, “Will & Grace” for a limited run, and it will be very interesting to see how they tie this show to a new fan base as well as appeal to the fans who remember the show from the first run. The network is trying to inject excitement back into Thursday nights, which used to be called Must See TV by their marketing team. However, the reality is that “appointment TV” where people looked forward to a program with anticipation and were there every week to watch it, is long gone. I am interested to see how the viewers react to the new Thursday lineup, and whether NBC put their eggs in the right basket.
The last bastion for viewing trends similar to the old glory days of television remains live events such as award shows as well as live sports programming. NBC will have the return of NFL football games on Thursday nights (split package with CBS) and on Sunday nights (the entire NFL season). The Sunday night primetime game is consistently a ratings winner for NBC as well as a robust advertising revenue driver for the network.
The NFL ratings dropped for the first time in several years in 2016, but it still garners tremendous viewership and appeals to key advertising demographics, so the live game broadcasts will still command large committed ad spending.
NBC has very few new show concepts that I read in the reviews from media/TV critics that are worth mentioning. They will focus their marketing and promotional efforts on a special series they produced on the Menendez brothers case. That limited run special will air in the 10 PM slot (Eastern) for set number of weeks.
The executives at ABC will attempt to address sagging ratings overall from the 2016 television programming year by cancelling underperforming shows. They will look to reinvigorate their lineup with new series concepts of all kinds, from comedies to procedural dramas. The trick up the sleeve for this network was a surprise announcement at their upfront that they had given the approval for a straight to series new concept from Shonda Rhymes (Grey’s Anatomy founder) which focuses on a group of Seattle firefighters.
Then, ABC announced that they will also ride the trend of bringing back old shows for limited run type reboots. The network will bring in Roseanne which at one point in the original run was the top-rated show in America. I am fascinated to see how this concept will connect with new fans and younger age groups.
The network also will bring back another former ratings institution, American Idol which has been given mixed reactions from both media analysts and fans of the program alike. It remains to be seen whether the singing contest style can recapture its former glory. The details on the show remain limited with the only piece of news considered significant is that pop singing star, Katy Perry, has signed on to be a judge on the rebooted version of the once stalwart hit program.
It remains to be seen whether Ryan Seacrest will return to host Idol which films primarily in Los Angeles. Seacrest has recently joined the ABC morning talk hit show Live as Kelly Ripa’s new co-host, and that show films in New York. The logistics could be worked out, but it merits watching which path those negotiations could take.
CBS opened their upfront meeting with a performance from Stephen Colbert, who now has the top rated late night slot in the industry. The decision making by CBS and the other networks as well, as far as cancelled and returning shows are concerned was all studio/content rights driven.
The revenues in television have changed with production costs still rising and other revenue falling due to changes in the way the viewer engages with content (i.e. streaming, video on demand). In that regard, CBS proposed changes to the advertising packages which were originally structured around a 3-day window (Live+3) to a (Live +7) cycle or a 7-day window for the ads to run in association with a specific advertising “buy”.
I have covered in the past the decisions on cancelled and renewed programs, and it mainly comes down to rights fees, licensing, and ownership of the content. In short, each respective network tends to renew content that is made in their own studio compared to an outside studio. This is due to the fact that the network owns the backend rights to that content, which has become more valuable than the frontend rights to the program at this point.
CBS used this rationale to explain the cancellation of 2 Broke Girls (produced by Warner Brothers) and the renewal of Elementary (produced by CBS Studios) even though the former had slightly better ratings than Johnny Lee Miller’s turn at the iconic role of Sherlock Holmes. This same rationale was used to explain the cancellation of Person of Interest (Warner Brothers studios) and keeping Elementary because CBS could make more money on the backend rights.
ABC took some heat for cancelling Last Man Standing but it was produced by an outside studio, and they would rather renew and promote a comedy series produced in their own studio because of the enhanced revenue streams it would provide to offset the production costs and licensing fees.
The major networks are also pursuing a trend where they will change the terms of a licensing agreement on a show from an outside studio production company. The networks have been seeking larger pieces of the revenue pie before agreeing to renew a program. That trend will continue as the viewership habits continue to evolve away from live viewing and into watching the content after it originally airs.
CBS has very few new shows and will juggle a lineup of hit shows as well as NFL football and the top-rated shows in several categories will return to a largely unchanged lineup from last year. They will also introduce a rebooted version of S.W.A.T. (originally aired in the 1970s) and the highly anticipated spinoff from The Big Bang Theory entitled: Young Sheldon.
Fox ordered just six new shows for the Fall, and have moved around most of the returning shows in their lineup, keeping just Sunday night’s lineup intact from last year. They will also feature rebooted series from the past with The X Files returning for a limited series run, Prison Break returning for an undetermined amount of new shows, and a revival of Showtime at The Apollo hosted by Steve Harvey.
The CW announced both new concepts for series programming and a new focus on being a multi-channel partner rather than just a television network. They are taking a more forward thinking approach with partnerships with Apple TV, Roku, Amazon, and other streaming video content providers. This is to capitalize on the revenue for the back-end rights to the programming. This traditionally fifth place network also announced a rebooted series concept of their own, Dynasty, which has earned some industry buzz already.
The upfronts represented a continuation of declining advertising revenue in the form of ad buys as the cost/benefit analysis of that form of advertising is being weighed against the changing trends in the way that viewers obtain content. It is always interesting to see which strategies the networks employ to promote their programming, and which of those programs will make the cut when the first sweeps period is considered.
The ways of viewing television have changed and the ways that networks are approaching the production and promotion of their programming has followed suit. These trends will continue as we enter the 2017-18 television calendar, stay tuned.