The old world order of network TV came crashing down last week.
In recent years, May upfronts — the annual schmoozefest in which webs unveil their fall lineups to cynical crowds of baby-faced ad buyers — was all about one network: NBC.
The broadcaster traditionally kicked off the week crowing about its first-place finishes in every daypart and every conceivable demo. Other webs (particularly CBS) had good stories to tell, but NBC essentially set the agenda for the rest of the webs.
Plainly put, the Peacock’s been plucked. Its decline from first to fourth this season was reflected in its lifeless presentation. Even having a new show from Jerry Bruckheimer — the new king of TV, with a record 10 skeins on the skeds next season — didn’t add much sizzle to the affair.
By contrast, perennial also-rans ABC and Fox last week revealed their transformations into the new belles of Broadcast Row. And CBS, the former Geezer Net, touted its young-demo dominance and viewer victories.
It’s no surprise, then, that most analysts believe those three nets will be in a tight race for first place in adults 18-49 next season, with NBC struggling to get back on its feet.
As for all the positive vibes emerging from the upfront, they’ll soon meet harsh reality, as webs begin to sell billions in ad dollars against their new lineups. Early predictions are that the nets will improve only slightly on last year’s overall upfront haul of just under $9 billion.
While most in the biz last week were talking about the fall from grace of NBC, other notable trends emerged:
- The nets are looking to scare up viewers by scaring them.
Just about every web unveiled a spooky thrillfest. The WB has gone “Supernatural” with McG. ABC and CBS have alien invasion dramas while NBC will kick off Monday nights with an actioner about mysterious sea creatures who (you guessed it) might be aliens. Even “The Night Stalker” is coming back.
It would be easy to call it the “Lost” effect, but none of the shows seems like a rip-off of ABC’s smash. And surprisingly — and pleasantly — nobody’s attempting to clone “Desperate Housewives.” Yet.
- Low ratings? No problem! Particularly when it comes to comedies, the nets have set the bar for success low this season — real low. Nielsen-challenged skeins such as “Arrested Development,” “The Office,” “Rodney” and “Bernie Mac” were spared the knife. ABC even ordered more “Jake in Progress,” the John Stamos laffer that averaged a mere 5.4 million viewers in its admittedly tough Thursday slot.
- Vertical disintegration is in. NBC and ABC passed up pilots produced inhouse in favor of those from outside suppliers. Peacock is putting just one new show from NBC U TV Studio on its fall sked, while the Alphabet bought more than half its skeins from studios other than Touchstone.
“It felt as if every network realized their health is dependent on scheduling the right shows, and that it didn’t matter where they came from,” says Gary Newman, prexy of 20th Century Fox TV.
NBC U TV topper Jeff Zucker admits the Peacock couldn’t just stay in its own sandbox this season. “We’re not in a position to play games,” he says.
- Screw stability! After years of trying to minimize schedule disruption, the nets seemed to abandon caution when it came to moving shows to new timeslots.
Almost every night of the week has been made over, save for Saturday and Sunday. The WB, looking to bounce back from a tough season, transformed at least half of its sked every night of the week.
“We have no reason not to be aggressive,” says Frog entertainment prexy David Janollari.
With NBC back down to earth on Thursdays — and CBS now dominating the Peacock’s once-mighty stranglehold — rival webs are feeling competitive on the night again.
ABC moved cult fave “Alias” to the night, while WB relocated net staples “Smallville” and “Everwood” to do battle. Even UPN smells blood, relocating “WWE Smackdown” to Fridays in order to launch an urban-tinged comedy block on the night.
“We want to be in business on Thursday night,” ABC entertainment prexy Steve McPherson says. “Are we looking to win? Of course not.”
- The comedy drought continues. With the exception of Fox, none of the other nets increased their overall laffer tally this season. Webs kept several of their frosh sitcoms on the bench for midseason, hoping to find a more hospitable environment for their new entries.
So much of NBC’s woes can be traced to one major issue: The lack of any standout comedies on the web. Once a laffer powerhouse, Peacock has seen its comedy stable dwindle in recent years.
For the second consecutive year, NBC enters the fall with just four laffers — and none of its three returning shows managed to break a 4.5 average rating in the demo this year.
NBC Entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly says he’s hungry to get more sitcoms on the air, but this is not the right time.
“If the other nets do have more on the air, I won’t be envious, because frankly, it’s not going to work,” he says. “These shows don’t self-start.”
The Peacock’s continued inability to get back into the comedy game is symptomatic of the net’s overall woes. “NBC was the network,” one web exec says.
And now? Just a few days before NBC announced its lineup, one exec at a competing net conceded he wasn’t even concerned about what the Peacock had planned. “Who cares?” the suit shrugs. “I mean, they’re irrelevant to us now.”
By contrast, ABC, which was formerly described as “beleaguered,” is suddenly very relevant.
McPherson was able to wow auds with a confident-but-not-cocky presentation that sent a clear message to advertisers and rivals: The Disney net is back in the game. He wisely did not gloat, however, realizing that while ABC may be the media darling of the moment, the net still has plenty of work ahead.
“This is a comeback in progress,” he said, delivering one of the week’s best soundbites. McPherson even took a TV cliche –“It’s all about the shows” — and made it seem like a revolutionary line.
Almost every other net took a minute during their respective upfronts to acknowledge ABC’s performance this season. Dana Walden, prexy of 20th Century Fox TV, argues it’s “impossible not to be impressed with the progress and the improvement” at the Alphabet. “What’s changed is, there’s a decisiveness there and a vision now,” Walden says.
While net execs used the occasion to praise or needle their rivals, the weeklong upfronts maintained a limited perspective, dealing only in a world where the Big Six exist. No one addressed the huge changes on the horizon with the advent of video on demand and TiVo-like devices, or the steady decline in network viewership over the years, or even cable.
Though they acknowledged their rivals, they mostly wanted to tout their own accomplishments. Fox was particularly ebullient, with newbie topper Peter Liguori touting his net’s historic first-place finish among adults 18-49.
“We don’t know what it’s like to be No. 1,” Liguori said. “It’s exciting and daunting at the same time.”
Liguori flashed his cable roots with a few of his moves.
Scheduling two shows in the same 9 p.m. timeslot — “Prison Break” and “24” — is reminiscent of how FX slates various dramas Tuesdays at 10 p.m., thus minimizing repeats.
He also showed cable-like patience by renewing “Arrested Development” for a third season.
Then there’s CBS.
There’s nothing particularly sexy about the Eye, but there’s also no denying it: Ten years after he took the reins, Leslie Moonves has completed his transformation of the Eye.
“This is the culmination of many years in the building,” Moonves says. “It takes many years to build a schedule and many years to tear it down.”
In past years, Moonves’ on-stage jabs at NBC and other webs sometimes came off as defensive. This year, the braggadocio — with the Peacock’s slide providing a running joke — was legit, since CBS is actually tops in demos (when the Super Bowl isn’t counted).
Moonves even had reason to crow about UPN, the other Viacom broadcast web under his watch.
“CBS has really become what NBC was: They have all these coveted shows that are upscale,” one longtime studio and network pro says. “And UPN, which always had WB-envy, is going to take the audience the WB has abandoned as they try to get broader. UPN isn’t there yet, but they know where they’re going.”
Still, even though some nets clearly had tougher years than others, TV types came back to Hollywood from Gotham feeling energized.
“I think the success of ‘Lost’ and ‘Desperate Housewives’ has given everyone cause to be optimistic about the potential of a great show to attract a big audience,” Walden says. “And the way the networks reacted to good pilots by putting them on the air gives me hope again that there are showmen back in these entertainment president jobs.”
There was even a glimmer of hope for NBC, which still stands to rake in almost as much (if not more) ad coin than any other network during the upfront selling season.
Says Warner Bros. TV prexy Peter Roth: “The lesson learned from this year — and it’s an old and venerable statement — is that you really are always just one or two hits away from being in a significantly improved position.”