Late September launches come with more risk

Once again, the turning of the seasons heralds the broadcast networks’ annual fall rush for viewers, with ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW tossing many of their new shows all at once into the ratings arena to see which ones stick and which ones get yanked.

It might not be pretty. In a 27-hour stretch from Sept. 22-23 alone, seven new network TV series will premiere: “The Forgotten” (ABC), “The Good Wife” (CBS), “NCIS: Los Angeles” (CBS), “Modern Family” (ABC), “Cougar Town” (ABC), “Eastwick” (ABC) and “Mercy” (NBC).

With competition from cable, movies, videogames and the Internet only increasing, it hardly seems the most effective way for the networks to roll out their new wares. But scheduling execs at major broadcast networks say they stick with the fall TV season and premiere week for one simple reason: That’s when audiences are thinking about and looking for new TV.

“The audience really tells us in the research we do, in terms of focus groups and surveys and so forth, that they look for new shows in the late September period,” says Mitch Metcalf, exec VP of program planning and scheduling for NBC Universal. “Habit is an incredibly important part of TV, and people turn their attention toward TV when the summer ends.”

Jeff Bader, exec VP of planning, scheduling and distribution at ABC Entertainment Group, agrees. “There is a rhythm to the TV season,” he says. “It bonds with the school season and the weather.”

This phenomenon is further entrenched by Nielsen each year setting the start of the TV season around the third week of September, stoking the networks’ competitive fires and the desire to stake out dominance in open timeslots as quickly as possible.

“For better or worse, all the networks see a starting gun, which is Sept. 21 this year,” says Preston Beckman, exec VP of scheduling for Fox. “If you start too early, other networks can take advantage of premiere week. If you start too late, other networks can establish their shows and get your audiences.”

The networks always take slightly different approaches to rolling out new programs, depending on factors like the number of new shows they have and their marketing needs.

Bader says ABC in the past has spaced out its premieres, but its circumstances this year led to a more traditional premiere week rollout.

“We admittedly are being much more aggressive this fall,” Bader says. “Because we are launching more shows, we have had a lot more discussion about how to launch.”

Focusing on premiere week lets the network amplify its promotional efforts by getting its shows into newspapers, magazines and websites’ fall TV coverage and stretching its marketing budget. “The decision was we’d get more value out of our marketing dollars by massing our premieres,” Bader says.

This year, CBS is unveiling all its new shows in premiere week, while NBC is playing the season’s wild card with its new primetime Jay Leno talkshow. On the scripted side, NBC has three new shows and is tweaking the traditional premiere-week approach by spacing them out so one debuts just before premiere week, one during and one after.

That way, Metcalf says, NBC avoids some of the logjam, but still could use marketing that helps the shows build on and lead into each other.

“Maximizing that (marketing) spend across a few shows is really the best way to go about it,” Metcalf says.

Beckman says Fox has in recent years returned to a more condensed premiere strategy after several years of debuting shows early or late to accommodate its postseason baseball broadcasts. (“Neither of those strategies benefited us,” he says. )

After saturating its airwaves with playoff coverage in the past, the network is in its third year of covering only two playoff series: the American League Championship Series and the World Series – anywhere from eight to 14 games spread between Oct. 16 and Nov. 5. At worst, Fox’s Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday schedules will be preempted for two weeks.

The most obvious criticism of the fall premiere logjam is that good shows can get lost in the noise when so many are rolling out at once. But the execs say that from their perspective that hypothesis generally doesn’t hold up.

“Somehow viewers are wise enough and experienced enough that they can work through the noise to find the shows that are going to work for them,” Metcalf says.

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