Networks approach ufronts with less gridlock

Old publicity shots of network chief Brandon Tartikoff invariably show him in front of an oversized checkerboard grid of the primetime lineup. Yet as the major broadcasters prepare for this month’s upfront sales presentations, the brinkmanship of scheduling has lost some of its luster.

NBC — where the late Tartikoff once famously obsessed over moving around those program squares — dispensed with announcing any specific time-period assignments at its recent “in-front” announcement. Then again, NBC Entertainment Co-Chair Ben Silverman stated last year that the network is “managing for profits and not for ratings” — essentially treating each program as a distinct product, as opposed to part of a larger primetime organism.

Driven by TiVo, downloads and other “have it your way” technology, appreciation for the art (or alchemy) of scheduling has seemingly receded. In an age that emphasizes a la carte viewing, discussing “lead-in” and timeslot “hammocks” suddenly sounds, well, so last century.

Granted, NBC’s “in front” is a conscious departure from tradition. Yet other than CBS, networks have largely dropped night-by-night recitations of programming strategy during their annual dog-and-pony shows. ABC in particular emphasizes the series, seeking to entertain media buyers with elaborate dance numbers and musical acts before presenting what goes where virtually as an afterthought, minus a detailed blueprint as to how those pieces fit together.

Insiders say this is merely the latest phase in an ongoing tension among development, marketing and scheduling execs. The first contingent focuses on the shows, the second obsesses over how to sell them, and the third worries about where they’re put.

For their part, scheduling executives note that even in a fast-changing TV world, when and where a program airs — and yes, its lead-in — remains one of the best selling-tools a network has to launch series.

“There’s no more efficient way to get people to a new show than to put it behind a show that people are already watching,” says Kelly Kahl, CBS’ senior exec VP of primetime.

Despite the streamlined upfront showcases, the networks clearly recognize this — although new realities have altered the process. A reality show like “Dancing With the Stars” can expand to 90 minutes leading directly into a sitcom. And popular programs now regularly spill over their allotted hour, trying to drag viewers into the next program.

Similarly, Fox has consistently sought to leverage “American Idol” as a springboard for dramatic fare — including a lone telecast of “Glee” to capitalize on this month’s penultimate “Idol” episode before sidelining the new series for months.

Perhaps not surprisingly, CBS — which has the oldest audience profile among the major networks — has been most successful converting lead-ins into program sampling, using “NCIS” to intro “The Mentalist,” this season’s biggest hit.

For all the talk about the network model being broken, the impact of the DVR revolution — while undoubtedly influencing the way that programs are consumed — remains disproportionately concentrated in major urban centers.

“Over 85% of people who watch television still watch the old-fashioned way,” says Fox exec VP of strategic program planning Preston Beckman. “And most of the ones who don’t, still watch (recorded programs) the same day.”

Another reason scheduling appears less important than it used to be involves the way cable approaches the game. Unlike the networks, cable channels throw their weight behind individual programs — such as “Mad Men” — or a broadly defined brand (ESPN = sports; Nickelodeon = kids), as opposed to marketing an entire lineup.

Cable’s freedom to mine narrow demographic niches has rewritten other long-accepted broadcasting tenets, like the assumption that Saturday — a night with low overall TV-viewing levels — is a black hole. Although networks have turned the night into rerun theater, the older-skewing Hallmark Channel, Lifetime and BBC America — along with the kid-oriented Disney Channel — all premiere series and movies there.

Admittedly, networks can’t readily rely on hit sitcoms at 8 and 9 p.m. to prop up dogs the way they once did. Yet they ignore lead-ins and program compatibility at their peril. And while even CBS explained away its decision to dump the low-rated serial “Harper’s Island” onto Saturdays by citing “DVR and online streaming data,” industry sources say the network cost structure simply can’t sustain shows on those terms.

In the final analysis, then, scheduling certainly can’t cure all of modern TV’s ailments. But to quote an old joke about Jewish mothers, “It couldn’t hurt.”

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