Upfronts: To Keep Auds, TV Nets Try Going Off Their Grids

Analysis: Specials seem to be getting almost as much emphasis as regular series for next season

During a week when the TV networks are rolling out their schedules, they are also taking pains to talk about how they are getting off the grid.

Every TV net boasts special programming – once-a-year fare that runs the gamut from The Super Bowl to a showing of “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” – but the next TV season looks to be filled with specials that are a little more so, as well as short-run series that have a “watch-now-or-miss-them-forever” kind of quality.

Fox will unveil a limited-run revival of its venerable “24” spy serial, and Kevin Reilly, Fox’s entertainment chairman, suggested ealier this week that more editions of the series in its new format were not a foregone conclusion. And don’t forget about its science-exploring “Cosmos” limited series featuring “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane as host. ABC will broadcast a new special based on the “Toy Story” movie franchise from its Disney-owned sister, Pixar – complete with the original characters and the actors (including Tom Hanks) who gave them voice. NBC is rolling out a live three-hour broadcast of “The Sound of Music.”

Even CBS, perhaps the most vocal proponent of good ol’ fashioned broadcast television is getting into the game by devoting Monday nights in the fall to two limited-run series. “Hostage” will run from the fall into early January and “Intelligence” will take over the slot in 2014.

“The main goals I ahave are to not have fallow times of the year and to change the format of the summer,” when the broadcast networks typically run reruns and less-exciting programs, said Reilly earlier this week.

During a time when TV viewers have an ever-increasing amount of video entertainment they can watch – whether it be from cable rivals or newer competitors like Netflix, Amazon, AOL or YouTube – the broadcast outlets can’t afford to show something that even looks the slightest bit well-worn. That means trotting original stuff as often as possible.

Broadcasters are also conscious of viewers’ new habits. As ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee put it during that network’s presentation Tuesday, fans love storytelling, but aren’t particularly concerned about when and how the show that presents their favorite tale is scheduled. By having more stories to tell – and getting fans to follow those stories from TV screens to digital ones – the networks can generate a broader audience for their programs.

Not everyone is jumping into the river. CBS seems ready to just dip a toe in the water. At a meeting with reporters Wednesday morning, Eye executives suggested too many one-offs and short series disrupted viewing patterns that may not be able to be revived. “We don’t need place fillers,” said CBS Entertainment prexy Nina Tassler. “We have hit shows, and that’s our business.”

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