Upfronts Preview: Network Executives on Next Year's Goals and Challenges

Michael Schneider

It's hard out there for a network president.

Audiences are no longer watching TV live–they're time-shifting, and if you're lucky, viewers are (a) doing it within three days (when it still counts with advertisers) and (b) still watching the commercials. (Good luck with that.) Viewers also aren't watching repeats anymore–and those repeats used to be where the networks started to turn a profit on an episode. Meanwhile, big stars and producers continue to be lured away by cable and streaming services, where the promise of creative freedom and lesser demands of a smaller episodic order are too good to pass up. Then there's the fact that shows that are cultivated by the networks are moving on to big success in repeats on streaming services–which is fine if you own the show; but otherwise, those streaming services are essentially piggybacking on your hard work.

Nonetheless, it was an OK season for the broadcast networks. Fox's new megahit Empire reminded everyone that the networks can still attract tremendous audiences. And shows with diverse casts hit it big, advancing the notion that TV series should, and can, look like the makeup of America.

Besides Empire, freshman hits at the networks include ABC's How to Get Away with Murder, CBS' Scorpion and The CW's The Flash. Yet most pundits are predicting a down year for the networks' upfront ad sales (in which media buyers make a bet by spending ad dollars "up front" before the season begins.)

During upfront week–which takes place this week in Manhattan–network executives meet with advertisers and showcase their new wares with lengthy, lavish productions in venues like Carnegie Hall. In preparation, last week the networks went through their annual ritual of canceling failing series (and renewing the lucky ones) to make room for new fare.

Before the upfront frenzy began, we asked the entertainment chiefs of each network to fill us in on what their development goals were for the coming TV season. We also asked them what they're bingeing, what they were most proud of this past TV season and what they'd like to change about the TV industry. Here's how they answered:

Paul Lee, ABC Entertainment Group president

What were your goals this development season?
To deliver on our brand promise: Smart, emotional entertainment [what he deems "smart with heart].
What were you most proud of this past year?
I don't know that I can choose just one—the quality of our storytelling, breaking new ground with shows like Fresh Off The Boat, black-ish and How to Get Away with Murder. Also, spinning off a whole sub-brand with [the Shonda Rhimes-centric] "TGIT."
What are you bingeing?
Chasing Classic Cars, hosted by Wayne Carini, on the Velocity channel.
What would you change about the TV business?
I'd like to get more accurate ratings measurement across all platforms.

David Madden, Fox entertainment president

What were your main goals this development season?
Overall, find shows that kick our Fox brand into high gear—bold and fearless character-based dramas, smart and relatable comedies that are genuinely funny, and unscripted series that are fun and aspirational. More specifically, we wanted to find a strong live-action family comedy as well as develop an attention-getting, genre-oriented companion for Gotham on Monday nights. And we have been looking for a new "Fox procedural" built around a unique character.
What was the biggest game changer (or disrupter) this TV season?
I cringe at the thought of bragging, but in this case I am proud to say that it was Empire. Empire was bigger than life, with heartbreakingly ferocious characters and authentic, emotional stories. It's everything I love about television, and it proved to the community that a broadcast drama can drive just as much buzz and have just as much of an impact on pop culture as any live event around. What's more disruptive than the sheer spectacle of a show growing its same-day audience 11 weeks in a row?
What were you most proud of this past year?
See Answer 2.
What are you bingeing?
These days I'm way behind, but right this moment I make a point of keeping up on The Good Wife, Louie, Game of Thrones, Modern Family, Mad Men, Silicon Valley, Orphan Black and Veep. And I just finished watching the season finale of my child from another job, The Americans. I should mention that I'm dying to get to Bloodline and Daredevil.
What would you change about the TV business?
Well, of course we'd love for everyone to watch our shows live. But if I've learned anything in this business, it's that the one thing you can never change is change. So instead I'll answer that I wish we could change the nature of time. This is a creative industry, so having the time to deliver meaningful, big-picture script notes, to make thoughtful casting choices, to experiment with radical choices--that's what makes this job rewarding, and I wish we had the time to savor it a bit more.

Jennifer Salke, NBC Entertainment president

What were your goals this development season?
We set out to develop another hit drama. With the benefit of The Voice lead-in on Monday, we have an opportunity to create another big show and follow in the footsteps of what we did with The Blacklist. I think we have some great choices. In comedy, we aimed to have more original ideas that might break through the clutter and I'm proud of what we accomplished.
What was the biggest game changer (or disrupter) this TV season?
The ratings domination of Empire. Clearly it reached a huge audience that was underserved.
What were you most proud of this past year?
Asking The Blacklist to hold its own on a very competitive Thursday night and watching it deliver week to week in the Live+3 and Live+7 ratings. Clearly, it's appointment viewing for millions and we appreciate all its loyal fans.
What are you bingeing?
I do watch Empire and am deep in the final season of Mad Men. They're very different shows but both are extremely well done.
What would you change about the TV business?
It would be nice if networks wouldn't be so wholly dependent on traditional ratings. Although the system is slowly changing, we need a new way to gauge success. There are many strong shows out there with huge potential to grow but are dying every day because so many projects are vying for everyone's attention.

Nina Tassler, CBS Entertainment chairman

What were your goals this development season?
It's the same every year: develop more hit shows that reach the most number of viewers."
What was the biggest game changer (or disrupter) this TV season?
New technologies and platforms, in a good way, which continue to create more access points to watch our shows.
What were you most proud of this past year?
Three new hit dramas and the growth streak for Mom.
What are you bingeing?
Game of Thrones.

Mark Pedowitz, The CW president

What were your goals this development season?
We were looking for shows that would raise the ante on what we so successfully launched this season with The Flash and Jane the Virgin, and that fit compatibly with the rest of the shows on our schedule.
What was the biggest game changer (or disrupter) this TV season?
I think the industry is beginning to understand that diversity and representation on television really matters.
What were you most proud of this past year?
The Flash is the most-watched show ever on The CW, it has been thrilling to see the success it has had. And the great reaction from critics that both The Flash and Jane the Virgin received this year. This season we have finally started to see the perception of The CW change.
What are you bingeing?
Right now I am planning to catch up on The Americans, Empire and House of Cards.
What would you change about the TV business?
To be able to get a complete, comprehensive measurement of all of the ways people are watching.

Chris McCumber, USA Network president

What were your main goals this development season?
We're focused on the next generation of USA dramas like the techno-thriller Mr. Robot, Colony from Carlton Cuse and Complications from Burn Notice creator Matt Nix.
What were you most proud of this past year?
We're proud that our new drama Mr. Robot has already received critical buzz and accolades from the SXSW and Tribeca Film Festivals. And we are very proud of our expanded partnership with the WWE. We're looking forward to bringing Smackdown over to USA, as well as launching a brand new version of WWE Tough Enough.
What are you bingeing?
I'm a fan of Silicon Valley. So smart. So funny.
What would you change about the TV business?
The networks themselves have to be change agents. At USA, we are looking for a way to break through the clutter by experimenting with different windowing strategies. A great example of that is our roll-out strategy for Playing House, where each week's episode will debut on video-on-demand [VOD] prior to the linear broadcast. This opens up major new sponsorship opportunities for our advertisers across VOD, as well as the potential to grow our audience on additional platforms.

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