TV in 2015: A Look at the Biggest Questions Television Will Face

Late Show
Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS
Late Show

This is the year TV goes over the top, as Internet services–requiring only a broadband connection–begin to give viewers a way to bypass costly traditional cable and satellite subscriptions. These systems are called “over the top” because they’re often fed through set-top boxes like Roku and Apple TV or gaming devices like Xbox. This revolution leads our list of things to keep an eye on as the year begins.

How will HBO’s Internet TV work, and are more options from other networks and companies going to spur cord-cutting?

The premium cable network will unveil a stand-alone version of HBO Go later this year, allowing those who don’t subscribe to the channel to view it à la carte. “The paradigm is changing,” says HBO programming president Michael Lombardo. “This is not a move that cannibalizes existing subscriptions but is for those people who are not otherwise interested in a panoply of cable.” HBO hasn’t yet announced a launch date, whether the service will include only the main channel or all of HBO’s offerings, or exactly how it will function, but the network can look to CBS All Access and Dish Network’s upcoming Sling TV, featuring 12 channels (including ESPN), for ideas. Similar services in the works from companies like Sony also hope to attract viewers uninterested in buying bundled channels. “It’s a validation of the [digital streaming] business model,” says Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer. “We said from the beginning that this is going to be the way most people watch television.”

Will a new king of late night emerge?

After several botched transitions, NBC successfully replaced Jay Leno last year, with Jimmy Fallon bringing improved ratings to The Tonight Show. Now CBS will revamp its signature 11:30pm program when David Letterman steps down from Late Show on May 20. Stephen Colbert takes the desk in September, dropping his smarmy Colbert Report character. “I’m excited for him to be able to show people his real personality,” says a rival late-night executive. Fallon is currently far enough ahead in the ratings that even if he loses some viewers to Colbert, he should stay No. 1, but ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live!, which is in second place, could take a hit. In March, CBS debuts a new host on The Late Late Show, as British actor James Corden takes over for the unconventional Craig Ferguson. And at Comedy Central, The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore launches January 19 to fill the Colbert Report void. “These new shows change dramatically from Day 1 to Month 6 to Year 2,” says the late-night executive. “They’re organic, living creatures that take time to get on their feet.”

Can the new bosses at Fox stage a turnaround?

Recently promoted Fox TV Group chairmen Dana Walden and Gary Newman, along with their key lieutenant, Fox entertainment president David Madden, face a daunting task this winter: making hits of new shows like Empire, which debuted strong on January 7 (9.9 million viewers), the Rainn Wilson drama Backstrom (premiering January 22), and the quirky Will Forte comedy The Last Man on Earth (March 1) while developing new programs to plug the network’s weak spots. With the exception of freshman success Gotham and Fox’s animated comedies, the network lacks bench strength–but Walden, Newman, and Madden have years of experience working on hits as studio chiefs and have tapped proven creatives like Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story, Glee) to come up with new series. (Murphy, who is producing the horror-comedy anthology Scream Queens for Fox, is also behind sister network FX’s upcoming American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.) “Someone called Gotham ‘fearless fun,’ and I like that phrase,” Madden says. “I like the idea of doing shows that don’t apologize for being entertaining, but that doesn’t mean they’re not smart or have characters who aren’t complicated and flawed.” Gotham was developed under previous entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly but was launched by the new administration, which has embraced the hit and holds it up as an example of the direction the network should take. Another goal: a hit family comedy, says Madden. “That’s a big target for us.”

Can The Blacklist succeed on Thursday?

NBC will rely on the ratings boost from The Blacklist‘s post-Super Bowl berth to jump-start its Thursday lineup beginning February 5. “To have something we can use as a bullet–those things don’t come along that often,” Jeff Bader, NBC president of program planning, strategy, and research, says of the move. “It’s worth taking the shot.” NBC hopes the James Spader thriller, which was a huge success on Mondays, where it aired after The Voice–will help boost two new Thursday shows: The Slap (8/7c) and Allegiance (10/9c). The Blacklist faces formidable competition from ABC’s Scandal, but Bader isn’t worried: “They’re both strong dramas, but their appeal is to different groups.” According to research, The Blacklist draws more older men, while young women watch Scandal. Bader acknowledges that Monday ratings could suffer if returning medical drama The Night Shift struggles in Blacklist‘s former 10pm slot, but he’s confident the move will pay off.

Can the major cable networks stem their ratings erosion?

Of last year’s Top 10 basic cable networks, only No. 1 ESPN grew in the key 18-49 demographic. TBS, USA, History, and A&E all suffered double-digit drops. (A&E fell the most, 34 percent, mostly due to the collapse of Duck Dynasty.) Even FX and AMC, home of Sons of Anarchy and The Walking Dead, respectively, had small declines. As a result, many networks have entrusted new leaders to help stem the tide. Former Fox executive Reilly, now in charge of TNT and TBS, has the mandate to add FX-style edge to the mainstream lineup (which includes the likes of Rizzoli & Isles). At Discovery, new president Rich Ross is keenly aware that he needs to grow his audience. “The channel is more narrowly niche than it needs to be,” he says. “Being more inclusive to women and younger men is a way for us to build back the audience. We want to be the No. 1 TV brand not just for men, but for the whole family.”

Jane the Virgin
Greg Gayne/The CW

Will the Emmys finally award nontraditional programmers?

With Orange Is the New Black and Transparent, respectively, Netflix and Amazon are in a race to become the first streaming service to win a major comedy Emmy. And The CW could finally get some Emmy attention thanks to Jane the Virgin‘s Golden Globe nominations. The CW has been virtually ignored by the major awards over the years, which has frustrated network president Mark Pedowitz. Unlike the Globes, it’s hard for a younger-skewing show to land an Emmy nomination, due to the TV academy’s older membership. Netflix, whose House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black picked up drama and comedy Emmy nods last year, is also looking for its first big win. “Our early breakout into the major categories,” says Netflix’s Sarandos, “was way more gratifying than the ultimate trophy count.”