7 Network Rules for Next Season
As network executives announced their 2015–16 primetime schedules in mid-May, everyone had at least one reason to gloat: Thanks to the NFL and The Voice, NBC ended the season No. 1 in key advertising demos; ABC bolstered its family-comedy lineup, as well as Thursdays nights with How to Get Away With Murder; CBS renewed five freshmen series; Fox found a megahit in Empire; and The CW had its most-watched series ever, courtesy of The Flash. But executives know their grasp on audiences is fragile, as viewers flock to streaming services and other media. Here’s how the networks will attempt to hold on to fans—and still make some money—no matter how or where they watch.
1. Don’t mess with what’s working
Fox could air Empire—easily broadcast TV’s biggest weapon—any night to help launch a new show or counterattack a rival network. Instead, Empire is staying on Wednesdays at 9/8c. “We decided [moving the show] feels disrespectful to the audience,” says Fox Entertainment chairman Gary Newman. “The live viewing was insane. It felt like the right thing to not ask the audience to change their habits.” In fact, four of the networks are each moving only one show in the fall, with ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, Fox’s Sleepy Hollow, NBC’s Undateable, and CBS’s CSI: Cyber heading to new time slots. Says Kelly Kahl, CBS primetime executive senior vice president: “We try not to goof up what we already have.”
2. Super showrunners are king
Greg Berlanti is on a hot streak, with series on three networks. He’s the executive producer of DC Comics’ three CW shows—Arrow, The Flash, and the new Legends of Tomorrow—as well as CBS’s Supergirl. “He’s the go-to guy in the genre world,” says CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler. At NBC, Berlanti’s Debra Messing–led The Mysteries of Laura squeaked out a renewal, and his new drama Blindspot landed the key Monday slot behind The Voice. Brand-name showrunners who attract rabid and loyal fan bases can help launch new programs and maintain existing ones. Dick Wolf now has three Chicago shows on NBC: Fire, P.D., and the new Med (plus the long-running Law & Order: SVU). ABC rewarded Shonda Rhimes, executive producer of the network’s entire Thursday lineup, with another drama pickup, The Catch.
3. Do it live
NBC executives have wanted a live sitcom for several years, and May’s live episode of Undateable convinced them to air the comedy without a safety net every week next season. The variety series Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris will also be live, as will the holiday production The Wiz. These telecasts help turn programming into events, with the hope that viewers will tune in as they air. “Our No. 1 show is football and our No. 1 comedy is Saturday Night Live,” says Jeff Bader, NBC Entertainment program planning, strategy, and research president. “We’ll try to expand live programming to as much of our schedule as we can. We see it growing in importance.”
4. Repeats are dead
Online streaming, DVRs, and video on demand have made the need for repeats obsolete. Networks used to count on repeats to turn a bigger profit (series’ initial runs mostly cover only the license fees paid to the studios), but ratings have dropped so much, especially for serialized programs, that instead some shows will go off the air for weeks while new ones take their place. Fox, for example, will air the X-Files reboot and the DC Comics adaptation Lucifer on Mondays in winter when Gotham and new drama Minority Report take a hiatus. New Girl will be back on Tuesdays in 2016 after the freshman comedy Scream Queens ends. “Rather than stretch 22 episodes over 39 weeks, we decided to split a number of our shows into two blocks,” Fox’s Newman says. “We can create a big cliffhanger at the end of the fall and then bring it back.” That means midseason may be busier than fall with more new series launches, and executives say they’re shifting their marketing budgets to accommodate that change.
5. Ownership has its privileges
The real profit now comes from streaming-video rights and international sales. But you can only make money on a show’s afterlife if you own it, which is why the networks are stacking their schedules with series produced by their in-house production companies. All of ABC’s new scripted series are owned or co-owned by ABC Studios, and all but one at Fox comes from 20th Century Fox TV. “Owning Shonda Rhimes’s shows is a big deal for us and our bottom line,” confirms Andy Kubitz, ABC executive vice president of program planning and scheduling. “It makes us a healthier business. You see us hitting our stride this year by owning so many pieces.”
6. The laughs can wait
Come November, CBS will not air any Monday-night comedies for the first time since 1949. NBC has just two sitcoms for fall (Undateable and the new People Are Talking), its lowest output since 1978. Even ABC, which is doing well with family sitcoms, is adding only two new comedies, The Muppets and Dr. Ken. The biggest swings will wait until midseason, particularly at NBC, which includes newcomers Superstore, with America Ferrera; Eva Longoria’s Hot & Bothered; and the return of Coach.
7. It’s so hard to say goodbye
American Idol will return for one more heavily hyped season in January, and CBS canceled CSI (a two-hour wrap-up movie is set for September 27). But is this really the last we’ve seen of them? CSI: Cyber will bring on Ted Danson, continuing his CSI role of D.B. Russell. And Newman admits there may be more Idol to come. “The future for the franchise—that story remains to be written,” he says. “There are endless possibilities.”