Networks Mostly Playing It Safe With Fall Lineups (Analysis)

The networks are open to new dramas on Friday, making comedy a bigger priority and holding back more ammo for midseason. These — and an overall streak of conservatism — are among the big takeaways from the network schedule announcements from this week.

Is comedy ready for a comeback? While drama gets most of the attention during the era of Peak TV, some of the broadcasters’ top young-adult ratings continue to be generated by half-hour comedies, which also repeat better.

Comedy leaders CBS and ABC both came to the realization that laughter is the best medicine for their early-week schedule needs, opting for four-comedy lineups on Monday and Tuesday, respectively. NBC, meanwhile, took another step closer to coming out of its comedy cocoon by shifting its lone hour of fall comedy from Friday to the higher-profile Thursday.

Overall there are 24 half-hours slots devoted to comedy on the five most-watched nights of the week (Sunday through Thursday) — including one 8-10 p.m. comedy block on each night — up from 18 a year ago. One result of this is more variety among the network offerings, and fewer instances of heavy dramas butting heads with each other.

Fridays, meanwhile, will feature two rather high-profile scripted newbies with familiar titles: Fox’s “Exorcist,” an update on the classic horror film from the ’70s, and CBS’ “MacGyver,” featuring a younger lead than the ’80s ABC show off which it’s based.  The pool of available young-adult viewers is lower here than most nights, and pre-sold commodities provide a leg up for network marketers.

But Friday is hardly alone in hosting familiar fare. Counting midseason, more than a dozen broadcast projects airing this coming year will be based on established titles, whether remakes, updates or what the networks like to call “reimaginings.”

As the broadcasters look for more ways to break through the clutter and make their shows stand out, they will be rolling out slightly fewer new series this fall — 20 (it had been 19, but Fox moved up “Pitch” on Friday), down from 22 a year ago. Instead, they’ll be holding more shows for strategic midseason launches that can be promoted during event programs like sports and major awards shows.

While the collective conservative approach by the networks is frustrating from a creative standpoint, it’s hardly surprising. Ratings may be declining, but with the exception of a couple of singular cable dramas, broadcast continues to dominate the race for eyeballs. And amid a stronger demand for advertising time (and the promise of an historic presidential election), the networks are expected to collect about $8.7 billion for their offerings this season.

Here are some thoughts on each network’s schedule:

NBC

The Peacock will be airing the Summer Olympics in a few months, but the event’s end date comes nearly four weeks before the start of the TV season, so NBC is not so easily able to take advantage of promotion during the Games. Instead, the network will roll out a new reality series post-Olympics (“Better Late Than Never”) and then launch a fairly conservative fall lineup with just three new series.

“The Voice” has lost a step, but it remains TV’s top reality show in key demos and will again launch new programs on both Monday and Tuesday. “Timeless,” one of several time-travel projects this coming season, is in the vein of the other loud, marketable new dramas to air in the Monday at 10 hour behind the music contest. And rather than stick with “Chicago Med” on Tuesday at 9, the network surprised a bit by going with relationship drama “This Is Us,” which looks to be among the most promising new shows on any network. The show’s trailer has racked up huge viewing totals in just a few days, perhaps an indication that viewers are hungering for a truly unique catch in a sea of mostly familiar-looking fare.

NBC is returning to a comedy hour on Thursday, using last season’s midseason success “Superstore” to lead into Ted Danson-Kristen Bell entry “The Good Place,” from Michael Schur. This is a good move by the Peacock because its comedies will only face CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” originals a few times in the fall due to football airing at different times on both networks.

The net’s revamped Thursday continues at 9 with “Chicago Med,” which could pick up some fans of hospital dramas from ABC’s 8 p.m. vet “Grey’s Anatomy,” and also won’t have to face ABC’s “Scandal.” And capping the night will be “The Blacklist” in a later 10 p.m. timeslot, as the network continues to improve its performance in the hour that serves as a lead-in to late local newscasts.

NBC has a pair of new dramas — “Emerald City” and “Midnight, Texas” — that sound like good companions for Friday creeper “Grimm,” which is back at 9 and bookended as it was this spring by reality show “Caught on Camera with Nick Cannon” and “Dateline.” It wouldn’t be surprising to see one of these new dramas launch in late fall on the night, taking advantage of the network’s new promotional platform courtesy of “Thursday Night Football,” which begins in mid-November.

Elsewhere, the net seems loaded for midseason, with spinoffs “Chicago Justice” and “The Blacklist: Redemption,” new drama “Taken” (based on the film) and a second season of Jennifer Lopez-Ray Liotta cop drama “Shades of Blue.” Also, it has one of the best-looking new comedies of the season in “Making a Murderer” spoof “Trial & Error” with John Lithgow, and of course a new season of “Celebrity Apprentice,” with Arnold Schwarzenegger as host.

Fox

After unveiling a low-key fall lineup with just three new shows and a white-flag Thursday schedule, the net is being a little more aggressive with Friday’s announcement that “Pitch” will air in the fall. The diverse drama about the first female Major League Baseball player will now follow “Rosewood” on Thursday but doesn’t have to face ABC’s “Scandal,” so it could make a strong play for African-American audiences. Especially given that it was originally earmarked for later, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the show get an early November launch following the World Series.

Elsewhere, Fox has set up a smart schedule template for the full season that will result in the net’s airing roughly 90% of first-run programming throughout the season. This includes Tuesdays, which will feature only returning comedies in the fall, but a pair of newcomers in 2017 that will be paired with “New Girl” and “Brooklyn Nine,” which will share a timeslot to eliminate repeats.

The network is going big on Wednesdays, pairing top-rated broadcast drama “Empire” with its good-looking “Lethal Weapon” reboot. The latter seems well-positioned to lead off the night where it can pick up casual tune-in, while the net continues to see the hip-hop soap as a 9 p.m. show, and has no plans to move it out of that timeslot. This combo will be replaced in the winter by the star-studded and buzzworthy new drama “Shots Fired” and “Empire” spinoff “Star”.

And Fridays will feature “Hell’s Kitchen” into “The Exorcist,” replaced at midseason by another Gordon Ramsay/spooky drama tandem in “MasterChef Junior” and “Sleepy Hollow.”

In its first season this century without “American Idol” as a January backstop, the network has made sure that it won’t be lacking come the new year. Revivals of “Prison Break” and “24” and the final season of “Bones” are among the projects being held for 2017.

ABC

The Alphabet is adding the most new shows of any network in the fall (five), yet it doesn’t feel like a big roll of the dice. This is partly due to the fact that the ratings bar had been lowered in recent year for “Castle” and “Nashville,” so their replacements don’t have to be blockbusters to show time period improvement.

ABC’s best move for the fall was expanding to a four-comedy lineup on Tuesday, which builds off the net’s strengths and gives it its best shot at turning around what has been a very weak night. The move of longtime Wednesday leadoff hitter “The Middle” to the night will get Tuesday off to a better start, and that should provide an incremental boost the rest of the way.

The 8:30 p.m. comedy “American Housewife” (terrible title notwithstanding) looks like a great fit behind “The Middle,” while former 8 p.m. comedy combo “Fresh Off the Boat” and “The Real O’Neals” should improve the network’s performance over last season. (ABC should market its “Women of Tuesday Comedy”). And “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” may not be a hit, but it will do decently enough at 10 p.m. and at least means the net won’t have to cycle through multiple new drama duds in the hour.

Wednesday also has a chance to improve, especially if the very funny and heartfelt new comedy “Speechless” can perform decently between “The Goldbergs” in its new 8 p.m. slot and “Modern Family.” But the net’s fortunes on the night figure to hinge on 10 p.m. newcomer “Designated Survivor,” starring Kiefer Sutherland as the unlikely next President of the United Sates.

Thursdays required a change due to the pregnancy of “Scandal” star Kerry Washington that would sideline the show until 2017, and “Notorious” was the best choice among the network’s ordered series to take its place. It’s a risk, though, because a slip here could significantly impact “How to Get Away With Murder” at 10.

In addition to “Scandal,” midseason entries include “Still Star-Crossed” from Shondaland, H.G. Wells time-travel drama “Time After Time,” gay-rights event series “When We Rise” and a third season of critical fave “American Crime.”

CBS

The Eye rolled out a slightly more aggressive schedule than expected, opting for four comedies on Monday, busting up its “NCIS” tandem on Tuesday and going with an all scripted lineup on Friday.

CBS knows the comedy clock is ticking to find an heir apparent to “The Big Bang Theory,” and seems to be in a hurry to find it. It’s launching three new comedies in the fall (none as yet are on tap for midseason), including the return of Kevin James in his old “King of Queens” leadoff spot on Monday. “Kevin Can Wait” will get a short-term lift from “The Big Bang Theory,” before assuming the 8 p.m. timeslot and leading into Matt LeBlanc-led “Man With a Plan” at 8:30.

Neither is revolutionary, but as far as new comedies go, they seem good, safe bets. A “Friends” reunion is also possible, given that the 9 p.m. comedy hour will include Matthew Perry’s “The Odd Couple,” heading into its third season.

Joel McHale’s “The Great Indoors” feels tonally well-suited for Thursday, as the comedic actor goes from getting squashed by “The Big Bang Theory” (as he did when his NBC comedy “Community” faced it a few years ago) to benefiting from its lead-in. A solid showing by “Great Indoors” should only further aid “Mom,” which has solidified into a pretty good anchor at 9. CBS is closing this comedy block with the second season of “Life in Pieces,” which as the net’s only single-cam half-hour makes sense as the 9:30 show.

Among dramas, “Bull” isn’t a true crime procedural, but it has all the elements (as well as “NCIS” star Michael Weatherly front and center) to succeed for CBS behind “NCIS” at 9. And sliding “NCIS: New Orleans” down an hour should make CBS more competitive than recent years at 10.

The return of “Code Black” was a bit of a surprise, but perhaps some additional tweaks (and possibly a big-name cast addition) can make it a bigger ratings hit in season two. Looking like more of a long shot is 10 p.m. Thursday newbie “Pure Genius,” a less traditional medical series and one that will have some tough drama competition.

Friday may not seem at first blush the best timeslot for “MacGyver,” but it’s fairly low-risk, and the show is something that kids and teens could watch with their parents. The net also probably likes having something fresh that it can promote during “Thursday Night Football.”

Similarly on Sundays, “NCIS: Los Angeles” on its new night and time should work well at 8 and provide a good lead-in for “Madam Secretary” as it shifts to the tougher 9 o’clock hour.

For midseason, a new take on “Training Day” feels like something that could get the post-AFC Championship slot in January, while other scripted series on the bench include new drama “Doubt” with Katherine Heigl and season two of “Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders.” The net also has a lot of reality on the bench, with “The Amazing Race,” “Undercover Boss” and newcomer “Hunted.”

CW

The most surprising schedule of the week came last, as the network held the anticipated “Riverdale” for midseason and gave its best lead-in to the comedic hour, “No Tomorrow.”

The net this fall is using its superhero series — which number four now that “Supergirl” has flied over from CBS — as 8 p.m. anchor shows. This is smart because they’re not only its top-rated programs, but their balanced gender makeup make them ideal to use as lead-ins. “Supergirl,” for example, may not be the best-suited lead-in for “Jane the Virgin,” but the latter will certainly welcome any new eyeballs after following the low-rated “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” for most of its second season.

Some of the 9 p.m. programs are more female-focused, including “No Tomorrow,” which will air behind top-rated “The Flash” on Tuesdays. It’s unclear the motivation for this pairing, but it could simply be that the net feels the series about a young man and woman on a quest to fulfill their bucket lists is its best newcomer and thus deserving of its biggest lead-in.

The move of lightly-watched but critically-cheered “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” to Friday makes sense because it’s about the only place the network could have put it that wouldn’t have cost it too much in the ratings. Airing it in the fall also will help the show’s award-season profile.

CW is joining other networks in having plenty of programming for midseason. In addition to “Riverdale,” it also has a full seasons of “The Originals,” “iZombie” and “Reign” as well as an updated take on former Fox late-night series “Mad TV.”

More TV

  • HBO Documentary President Sheila Nevins Stepping

    HBO Documentary President Sheila Nevins Stepping Down

    The networks are open to new dramas on Friday, making comedy a bigger priority and holding back more ammo for midseason. These — and an overall streak of conservatism — are among the big takeaways from the network schedule announcements from this week. Is comedy ready for a comeback? While drama gets most of the […]

  • Disney-Fox Deal Sets Up Scramble for

    Disney-Fox Deal Unleashes Flood of Free-Agent Executives, Talent

    The networks are open to new dramas on Friday, making comedy a bigger priority and holding back more ammo for midseason. These — and an overall streak of conservatism — are among the big takeaways from the network schedule announcements from this week. Is comedy ready for a comeback? While drama gets most of the […]

  • Morgan Spurlock Sexual Misconduct

    Morgan Spurlock's TNT Series 'Who Rules the World' Halts Production

    The networks are open to new dramas on Friday, making comedy a bigger priority and holding back more ammo for midseason. These — and an overall streak of conservatism — are among the big takeaways from the network schedule announcements from this week. Is comedy ready for a comeback? While drama gets most of the […]

  • George Clooney Matt Charman

    Watergate Series in the Works at Netflix From George Clooney, Matt Charman

    The networks are open to new dramas on Friday, making comedy a bigger priority and holding back more ammo for midseason. These — and an overall streak of conservatism — are among the big takeaways from the network schedule announcements from this week. Is comedy ready for a comeback? While drama gets most of the […]

  • The Chi

    TV News Roundup: Showtime Offers Early Look at Series Premiere of 'The Chi'

    The networks are open to new dramas on Friday, making comedy a bigger priority and holding back more ammo for midseason. These — and an overall streak of conservatism — are among the big takeaways from the network schedule announcements from this week. Is comedy ready for a comeback? While drama gets most of the […]

  • Sam Esmail Remote Controlled Podcast

    Remote Controlled: 'Mr. Robot' Creator Reflects on Season 3, Previews Season 4

    The networks are open to new dramas on Friday, making comedy a bigger priority and holding back more ammo for midseason. These — and an overall streak of conservatism — are among the big takeaways from the network schedule announcements from this week. Is comedy ready for a comeback? While drama gets most of the […]

  • Thomas Ferguson

    Endemol Shine Names Thomas Ferguson VP of Licensing, Partnerships

    The networks are open to new dramas on Friday, making comedy a bigger priority and holding back more ammo for midseason. These — and an overall streak of conservatism — are among the big takeaways from the network schedule announcements from this week. Is comedy ready for a comeback? While drama gets most of the […]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content