Which Networks Are Winning and Losing Ahead of Upfronts

Heading into upfronts, it’s harder than ever to differentiate TV’s winners from its losers. By the old metric of success — Nielsen live-plus-same-day ratings — the most watched Big Four broadcaster and the least are separated by less than half a ratings point. Even the delayed-viewing and multiplatform metrics against which advertising is now sold fail to tell a full story. The studios that produce television make significant money from subscription-video services that stream series after their broadcast window, as well as from the international rights to those shows. Thus ownership now plays an enormous role in programming decisions — and makes the story of a show’s success or failure more complex than anything a linear viewing measurement alone could tell. But the choices made before the unveiling of fall schedules next week remain consequential. The fates of networks — and of the executives who run them — will rise and fall on their outcomes. Variety looks at the strengths and weaknesses that each network must address during the week that may be the most important of the broadcast calendar year.

With only two weeks left in the 2016-17 season, ratings winners and losers are all but set.
Source: Nielsen most-current ratings, Sept. 9, 2016-April 30, 2017

ABC

With live ratings ever diminishing, broadcasters are under growing pressure to deliver strong lead-ins to their affiliates’ 11 p.m. newscasts. CBS and NBC have in recent years done better at this than ABC. Last season, new entertainment president Channing Dungey identified improving the network’s performance on Tuesday night as a top priority. This season, the Alphabet will focus much of its energy on 10 p.m.

On Thursday night, that hour is well accounted for. ABC’s “TGIT” block of Shonda Rhimes-produced female-friendly dramas does more than just deliver an effective counterprogramming punch at “Thursday Night Football”; it also provides a higher percentage of live viewing than most other ABC programs. An outsize number of viewers tune in at 8 p.m. for “Grey’s Anatomy,” stick around for “Scandal” at 9 p.m., then stay tuned for “How to Get Away With Murder” at 10 p.m. That makes “Murder” less vulnerable to the DVR problem that many 10 p.m. dramas face: competing not just against other 10 p.m. programming but against delayed viewing of shows that aired earlier that evening.

So don’t expect TGIT to be broken up anytime soon. But do look for ABC to try for a procedural in the 10 p.m. hour on a different night of the week — something that will play well with the 25-54 demographic leading into late local newscasts.

Elsewhere on the schedule, ABC will seek gender-balanced shows more akin to freshman “Designated Survivor.” Marvel’s “Inhumans,” which has been picked up, promises to skew more male than most other ABC hours. Rhimes has an untitled legal drama from “Scandal” writer Paul William Davies in contention.

In comedy, ABC wants to branch out from the success it has found with family half hours such as “Modern Family,” “The Middle,” “The Goldbergs” and “Speechless.” Developing a workplace laugher is a top priority for the Alphabet this season; “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris’ “Libby and Malcolm,” starring Felicity Huffman and Courtney B. Vance, stands a good chance of filling that role. But with “American Idol” returning to TV on ABC next season, there may not be room on the network’s schedule for much in the way of new development.

THE CW

Despite renewing the bulk of its 2016-17 lineup, the CW is high on all six of its pilots and could pick up as many as five of them. With “Reign” and “The Vampire Diaries” ended and “Frequency” and “No Tomorrow” unlikely to return, a fifth freshman pickup could mean cancellation for “The Originals.”

Near locks to go to series are Greg Berlanti’s “Black Lightning” and a reboot of “Dynasty” from the creators of “Gossip Girl.” “Black Lightning” would expand to five the number of DC Entertainment superhero series on the CW. “Dynasty” represents a return of sorts to the female-skewing soap operas that were the network’s stock in trade but long ago gave way to romantic dramedies such as “Jane the Virgin” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” In that vein, “Life Sentence,” starring Lucy Hale of “Pretty Little Liars,” is also a strong contender to join the lineup.

CBS

For CBS, the watchword is consistency. The network will end its ninth consecutive season as the leader in total viewers. There’s not a night of the week that stands out as a particular problem.

But the Eye also boasts fewer standouts than in seasons past. “The Big Bang Theory” is still television’s top-rated comedy by a wide margin. But with the series’ stars having extended their deals this year for what are expected to be its final two seasons, the clock is ticking to develop a successor. The network ordered four new comedies last season and has renewed three — “Man With a Plan,” “Kevin Can Wait” and “Superior Donuts.” But none was a breakout hit of the kind CBS needs.

The most likely candidate for a baton pass from “Big Bang” is spinoff “Sheldon,” which received a straight-to-series order and is a near lock to air in the coveted time slot following its parent show. And with CBS under continued criticism for its poor on-screen diversity record, “Brothered Up,” a cop comedy starring D.L. Hughley and Adhir Kalyan that performed well in test screenings, could fill a need beyond ratings concerns.

In dramas, the network is searching for a buzz-generating hit that would redefine a well-worn genre the way series such as “CSI” and “The Good Wife” did for criminal and legal procedurals. “Bull” was last season’s most watched drama among total viewers. But NBC’s “This Is Us” was the buzzier show, earning three Golden Globe nominations. It was also the better performer in the advertiser-friendly 18-49 demo, where CBS is poised for a third-place finish behind NBC and Fox.

FOX

The good news for Fox is that it’s in position to finish 2016-17 as the No. 2 network in the 18-49 demo — up from third place last season and fourth place the season prior. The bad news is that the network’s success is due almost entirely to Super Bowl LI and a World Series-winning run by the Chicago Cubs that drew historic viewership. When sports aren’t included, Fox’s average 18-49 rating falls 44% in live plus same day and 30% in live plus seven — making it the fourth-place network by both measures.

Last season’s program development had little positive impact. “Lethal Weapon,” “Star” and “The Mick” have all been renewed, but none was a standout. Fox passed on the biggest breakout of the season, Dan Fogelman’s “This Is Us” — which hails from its own studio — selling the acclaimed family drama to NBC and instead opting to pick up Fogelman’s baseball soap “Pitch.” That series languished on Thursday night at 9 p.m., where it faced intense competition from “Thursday Night Football,” “Scandal” and CBS’ comedy block and was stuck behind underwhelming lead-in “Rosewood.” “Pitch” was canceled last week.

Finding an effective formula for Thursday night will be a top priority for Fox. The network’s drama pilots will compete for limited available space: Seth MacFarlane’s “Orville” has been given a straight-to-series order, Matt Nix’s Marvel pilot looks like a near lock and another “X-Files” limited series has been ordered. Fox is also exploring potential new installments of “Prison Break” and “24: Legacy.” On the comedy side, the network has several strong pilots in contention, including “Ghosted,” “Linda From HR,” “LA>Vegas” and “Type A.”

NBC

NBC goes into upfronts better positioned than any other broadcaster, having bested all others in the 18-49 demo, and developed the season’s biggest new hit, “This Is Us.” For the Peacock, the job is not filling holes but finding space for new programming without messing up what’s working.

Scheduling is further complicated by a problem that NBC’s competitors would be thrilled to have — the most primetime football of any network. With a complete season of “Sunday Night Football” and a “Thursday Night Football” package split with CBS, NBC’s schedule has little real estate and lots of expensive moving parts. Add to the football games two high-profile limited series slated for next season: “Will & Grace” and “Law & Order: True Crime — The Menendez Murder.”

With all this in mind, the network has ordered roughly half the number of pilots it did last season. Insiders expect to see three to four dramas and only one or two comedies picked up to series.

One area where NBC fell short last season was retaining the sizable audience coming out of Monday episodes of “The Voice.” Freshman sci-fi drama “Timeless,” which looks unlikely to return for a second season, averaged a 1.2 Nielsen live-plus-same-day 18-49 rating over its first 11 episodes, shedding 50% of its lead-in from the singing competition’s fall cycle. “Rise,” a performing arts high school drama starring Josh Radnor and executive produced by Jason Katims, could prove to be a better fit.

Among half hours, the network has a number of quality single-camera comedy pilots to choose from, building off the recent success of “The Good Place” and “Superstore.” But should NBC hold on to “Will & Grace” until midseason, it could look to go off-cycle to develop a multicamera comedy to pair with it.

Elizabeth Wagmeister contributed to this report.

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