4 Lessons From The Networks' Report Cards
It's rubber meets the road time in TV land.
Today begins the week in which the nation's big broadcast networks officially unveil their new schedules for the 2014-15 TV season to New York's advertising community – and by extension, the world.
It's called the "upfronts"; named for the practice of trying to sell ad time on shiny new TV ideas before they even begin airing to audiences. But it also feels like a misnomer of sorts, because nothing is really upfront about the process, which involves hyping new shows and downplaying past mistakes in an effort to grab the most advertising dollars in an industry increasingly destabilized by technology and new competitors.
I've always seen the upfronts as a report card of sorts on the TV season; a black and white reading of what worked and didn't from the previous year. Monday in New York City, NBC and Fox are giving big presentations on their fall schedules, which have already been announced. On Tuesday, ABC follows suit, with CBS and TBS/TNT up Wednesday and The CW on Thursday.
Fox executives spoke with reporters Monday morning, trying hard to cast a positive light on a TV season that delivered some tough grades. American Idol, once a crushing force on the TV landscape, will see its total hours aired slimmed down by 20 percent as it struggles to compete with NBC's The Voice and CBS' Survivor.
Overall, Fox will debut 12 new shows next TV season, including five in the fall. Almost half the network's fall schedule will be new shows, including a "prequel" of the Batman saga called Gotham, an Americanized version of the popular British series Broadchurch called Gracepoint and an unscripted show about people creating new society from scratch in isolation called Utopia.
In this new schedule, Fox is struggling with all the challenges facing modern TV networks. They're trying to break the traditional cycle of ramping down in winter and summer that cable TV has exploited so well. They're ordering smaller numbers of episodes to mimic cable's ability to do high-quality shows in 13-episode chunks (Gotham will just air 16 episodes, Sleepy Hollow will air 18, broadcast dramas usually air 22). And they're turning some smaller runs into highly promoted "events," like the midseason drama Wayward Pines starring Matt Dillon and executive produced by M. Night Shyamalan.
"This past (season) was a tough one for us," admitted Fox entertainment chair Kevin Reilly. "We're in a transitional time in television, people are watching more of it than ever before, but on a multitude of platforms."
Here's my sense of what the upfront report card says about the TV season ending this month and the one to come in September.
Lesson #1: Comedy is hard. Some of the highest-profile cancellations of the past TV season were in comedy, including Robin Williams' The Crazy Ones, Rebel Wilson's Super Fun Night, The Michael J. Fox Show, Sean Hayes' Sean Saves the World, Dads on Fox, Trophy Wife on ABC and Community on NBC.
Successful comedies can often be the most profitable kinds of shows on broadcast TV. But the form has never been tougher to crack, with loads of experienced producers and big stars failing this past season – even with shows like Community, Trophy Wife and Fox's Enlisted, which got lots of good reviews and had pockets of fans.
Networks started the season trying to find the next Modern Family or Big Bang Theory. One look at the carnage of cancellations shows they will still be working on it this fall.
Lesson #2: Celebrities can't save shows. Look at the list of canceled shows in the previous lesson, and you'll see lots programs featuring well-known movie and TV stars. Other shows featuring James Caan, Greg Kinnear, Martin Mull, Christian Slater and Toni Collette didn't make it either. For the broadcast networks, it's a reminder of the old adage about old school television: That stars don't make TV, TV makes stars.
Lesson #3: Reality TV's biggest shows are aging faster than the networks can replace them. Fox's Reilly essentially admitted the network's strategy now centers on trying to keep American Idol a solid series, with dreams of recapturing its past ratings heights now officially over. The show's total hours aired will drop from 50-plus to 37 next season, and much of next season's run will air only one night a week, in two-hour episodes.
That's essentially how ABC slimmed down its reality hit Dancing with the Stars. Both Dancing and Idol, once gigantically popular shows created at the beginning of network TV's unscripted series boom, now have audiences pared down to the core fans, with little ability to affect the pop culture zeitgeist in ways they once did.
Fox also canceled Idol alum Simon Cowell's knockoff singing show The X Factor this season, and even NBC's hit The Voice has seen audience erosion. There's a sense that the networks must find a way to replicate the blockbuster impact of early reality TV success, but little indication they have found a way to do so.
Lesson #4: Diversity is an increasingly important strategy. Shows featuring non-white stars and casts with storylines focused on multicultural themes are an important element among the crop of new shows coming this fall. On ABC, Anthony Anderson (Law & Order, Transformers) stars in Black-ish, a comedy about a wealthy black man worried about raising his children with the cultural values he had growing up (the program's original executive producer and showrunner, Larry Wilmore, just got hired to host the 11:30 p.m. timeslot now occupied by Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central in January).
ABC also has a new drama from Scandal creator Shonda Rimes, How to Get Away With Murder (which will become the second network series to star an African-American woman, Viola Davis), and a drama from 12 Years a Slave screenwriter (and onetime NPR contributor) John Ridley, American Crime. NBC features The Office alum Craig Robinson in the midseason show Mr. Robinson and Alfre Woodard playing the president in Katherine Heigl's State of Affairs. Fox has a drama set in the world of hip-hop, Empire, co-created by The Butler director Lee Daniels and starring Terence Howard.
These shows are a great beginning – Hispanics, for example, still remain criminally underrepresented on network TV. But they are a strong signal that the industry has progressed from the days when there might be one new show starring a non-white character across all networks in the fall – a tacit admission that ethnic and cultural diversity matters now more than ever.