TV Targets Middle America With Little Risky Business

More than ever, the razzle-dazzle served up at the annual upfront events in New York provides an opportunity for top brass to stand on a big stage and plead their case for the power of broadcast television.

There’s no disputing that the Big Four networks remain the tallest trees in what has become an overgrown forest of channels serving up original programming. But there is also no denying that the upfronts underscore how much the broadcast nets have had to trim their sails in recent years.

There was a palpable sense of caution in this year’s crop of new series. There’s no big-budget swing for the fences, few concepts that veer far from tried and true. The Big Four in the past few years have faced unusual struggles in recruiting top creative talent, primarily because so many are otherwise engaged in the Peak TV era.

Ambitions have been tempered this year by a host of worrisome trends. There’s uncertainty about the short-term and long-term health of the advertising market, as demonstrated in first-quarter corporate earnings reports. There are growing jitters that the steady march of cord-cutting will chip away at the retransmission consent fees that are vital to each network’s O&O and affiliate stations.

On top of this, there’s a new layer of nervousness about what it takes to field broad-based entertainment programs that will resonate in a nation that seems on the edge of a political and cultural civil war. “This Is Us” took a big victory lap at NBCUniversal’s May 15 upfront, for proving that it’s still possible to make a respectable slice of America come together for a good cry once a week.

The increase in the number of dramas with flag-waving military settings (NBC’s “The Brave,” the CW’s “Valor,” CBS’ “SEAL Team”) and stirring portrayals of public service (ABC’s “For the People,” CBS’ “SWAT,” Fox’s “The Resident” and “9-1-1”) seems an effort to reach deeper into the red counties that embraced President Trump’s “America First” message. It’s a contrast to the unsuccessful efforts to chase the antihero chic that wins awards for cable and streaming.

The “This Is Us” factor inspired a few attempts to tap into that show’s feel-good formula, from NBC’s “Rise” to ABC’s “The Gospel of Kevin” to Fox’s “The Gifted.” (That doesn’t mean prime time’s murder-thriller spree is over: “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders” and ABC’s “Ten Days in the Valley” promise to be intense.)

Reboots coming this season include “Will & Grace” (NBC), “Dynasty” (the CW) and “Roseanne” (ABC).
Courtesy of ABC

“What the mood of the country has told us is that television is a little bit of an escape,” ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey told reporters. Viewers are seeking “comedy and fun and games — we’re looking to provide more of that. People want to use television to connect and to experience and to feel. That did frame a lot of our development thinking this season.”

The tonal shift has coincided with a period of belt tightening as networks take a hard look at marketplace realities.

The volume of new series orders was down this year compared with 2016 (39 vs. 42), while the anxiety level connected with negotiating series deals was up — way up. Ownership is the biggest haggle factor, because owning their content is crucial to the profitability of networks. That’s a sea change from the days when networks made their money by selling ads in first-run and repeat airings of shows, while studios made money in success through syndication and international sales. Now, the network and studio are more often than not part of the same corporate family. When they’re not, there’s a tug-of-war over splitting the profits from back-end sales to international outlets, SVOD players and local TV stations.

The humbling fact of network TV in an era of declining live viewership is that most scripted shows no longer turn a profit for networks on their own air. “On television now, more than 50% of the revenue in network TV comes from the shows [being licensed] in other places,” said CBS Corp. chairman-CEO Leslie Moonves. “The back end is now worth more than the front end.… The world is changing and how we monetize our shows is changing.”

The ownership push is clearly seen in the auspices of the new series orders. All six of Fox’s new shows came from its sibling studio. CBS Television Studios is a producer or co-producer of all eight CBS pickups. ABC Studios has a piece of all but three of its 11 new shows. NBC owns all seven of its frosh crop.

From the network perspective, a show that launches on its air should pay dividends beyond advertising, and the only way to ensure that is to own at least some of the property. From the studio perspective, the pinch in license fees and the squeeze for a greater share of back end only makes it that much harder to generate the kind of profits that fuel a sizable TV studio operation.

Concerns about the level of demand in the upfront advertising selling frenzy that follows the programming presentations also drove the Big Four in varying degrees to hammer their studio partners on license fees. NBC, by many accounts, was particularly aggressive in seeking fee trims and ownership or profit participation interest as a condition of series renewals and pickups.

Advertising rates will probably inch up when the buying and selling starts, but if ratings are down, they won’t be enough to make up the gap. “If prices are up high-singles, but quantity is down high-singles, you have flat revenue,” Bernstein Research media analyst Todd Juenger wrote in a post-upfronts analysis.

The concern in the creative community about networks becoming siloed is that the marketplace of ideas will contract. Network brass, to an executive, insist that “the best show wins.” NBC’s “This Is Us,” produced by 20th Century Fox TV, is a good example.

NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt buttressed his assertion that execs put “blinders” on with one of the most candid statements in a long week of bluster. “What idiots we would be to pass on a great show from an outside supplier,” he said.

At the same time, Fox Television Group co-chairman-CEO Gary Newman, like his peers, made no apologies for turning inward this year. “The economics are very challenging for networks,” Newman said during his May 16 conference call with reporters. “Having the revenue streams that a studio can provide are important for making sense out of [expenditures on] these shows.”

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