The networks aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel this fall.
Last year, the Big Four made a lot of noise by defying genres with “Glee,” accelerating comedy’s recovery with “Modern Family” and proclaiming a new economic paradigm with “The Jay Leno Show.”
But as another season lifts off next week, the hyperbole has been dialed back.
Peacock, tail feathers still tucked between its legs, is still recovering from the “Jay Leno Show” debacle. ABC, with a new entertainment president in place, must contend with life post- “Lost” and the erosion of its signature femme-centric dramas. Fox has probably already secured another ratings crown, as even a weakened, Simon Cowell-free “American Idol,” coupled with the Super Bowl, will likely be enough for another demo victory.
CBS is making the biggest move of the year in shifting “The Big Bang Theory” to Thursdays, but even that’s not an overly risky gambit.
Nonetheless, webheads are still gearing up for a spirited battle next week — and hope to steal back some of cable’s summer thunder.
“When everybody’s in the pool, the water in the pool rises,” said Preston Beckman, Fox’s exec veep of strategic program planning and research. “It’s going to be a fun week.”
Here are a few burning questions network execs will be asking in the coming weeks:
How will “Big Bang” alter the balance of power on Thursday night?
“CBS did make a very bold move in putting ‘Big Bang’ there, I have to readily acknowledge,” said NBC exec VP Mitch Metcalf, whose critically acclaimed but low-rated “Community” is now in the crosshairs. “It’s going to do well.”
Metcalf believes that NBC’s laffers are ferent enough that they can co-exist — and there’s also the possibility of network viewership rising in the hour (which also includes Fox’s solid “Bones” and the CW’s strong “The Vampire Diaries”).
“I’m not sure we’re doing anything revolutionary here,” said CBS senior exec VP Kelly Kahl. “We’re putting a couple of comedies at 8 but replacing a show (‘Survivor’) that did very well there. I think there’s room for two or even three strong shows there.”
Among other major battlegrounds, Monday at 9 p.m. will boast a race between ratings powerhouses “Dancing With the Stars” and “Two and a Half Men” opposite newcomers “The Event” and “Lone Star,” both of which have the potential of developing loyal followings.
The Tuesday at 8 p.m. slot will also keep everyone guessing, as hit “NCIS,” reality staple “The Biggest Loser,” surging sophomore “Glee” and promising newcomer “No Ordinary Family” duke it out.
“That’s a time period where you have shows for everybody — male, female, young and old,” said ABC exec VP Jeff Bader.
How much growth will NBC exhibit vs. last year’s Jay Leno-fueled primetime slump? And what’s the outlook for 10 p.m. drama in general?
It’s an apples vs. oranges comparison, as the Peacock is virtually guaranteed to be up compared to last fall, when Leno was posting ratings as low as a 1.0 in the demo.
“Think of the comps from last year,” one exec said. “Do they have growth from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.? Maybe, maybe not. But throw 10 p.m. in and it’s hard not to have a growth story. If they don’t, then something is very wrong.”
Metcalf said he expected to see up arrows on some nights, and to be flat on others.
“But the real (question will be), is our competitive stature improving on a night or across the week?” Metcalf said. “We’re coming off a spring and summer performance that I’m pleased with, and we want to continue with that direction.”
With NBC back in the scripted game at 10 p.m., that slot has grown more competitive — and over half of the weeknight shows there are brand new. It may be a three-network race, but those nets are also facing heavy DVR usage in the hour and increased cable competition.
“It’s a harder place than it used to be to break out a true out-of-the-box hit,” Kahl said. “But with NBC back at 10 p.m., every 10 p.m. slot is interesting now. Even Fridays at 10 p.m. is interesting.”
What will Paul Lee’s first major programming move be at ABC?
All eyes will be on Lee as he puts his first mark on the Alphabet sked. Having inherited this lineup, Lee may have less reason to hold on to shows that aren’t working — which may be why all of ABC’s rivals expect that network to make the first cancellation of the season. (On the flip side, he may follow the cable practice of keeping shows on longer.)
But beyond just the fact that Lee isn’t as professionally invested in these shows, ABC also boasts a crowded bench — including Matthew Perry’s “Mr. Sunshine.” That makes it easier to quickly shuffle the deck.
“Paul Lee is in more of a position to move quickly,” one exec said. “He’ll look smart to make some pragmatic moves.”
There’s no agreement on which series ABC might jettison first. “My Generation,” which has not received many high marks from crix (and faces tough competish), is one possibility, rivals believe.
” ‘My Generation’ sticks out like a sore thumb to me,” one competitor said.
But execs from the other nets also pointed to comedy “Better With You” — which could hurt “Modern Family” if it bows poorly — or procedural “Detroit 1-8-7,” which will have to hold on to a decent chunk of its large “Dancing With the Stars” results show lead-in.
But rivals weren’t just sour on some of ABC’s new series; two of the Alphabet’s competitors predicted that the Friday night Dana Delany entry “Body of Proof” could turn into one of this year’s sleeper hits.
“She’s a TV star,” said one exec, “and people like procedurals on Friday nights.”
Beyond ABC, other leading contenders for early cancellation, according to the net execs, were one or both of Fox’s Tuesday night comedies — which could benefit from their “Glee” lead-in, or meet their demise if those “Glee” fans tune out en masse.
How will the launch of Conan O’Brien’s TBS talker impact the late night competition?
Lucky for Jay and Dave, Conan’s 11 p.m. time slot means he’ll already be in the second half of his show — usually when viewers start to tune out — when they come on. But even if the self-titled “Conan” doesn’t directly steal viewers from “Tonight Show” or “Late Show,” it still promises to make an already crowded and competitive daypart even more unpredictable.
“It’s going to make things a little tougher,” one exec said. “It’s another entry at 11 p.m., and that makes it more difficult for local news. And he’ll be giving Jon Stewart a little run for his money.”
As for O’Brien’s opening performance, execs said they’re expecting him to do decently — particularly given the interest surrounding his NBC exit this winter.
“He’ll have some numbers that he’ll be proud of because he’s not going into a time period or a network with a huge track record that’s formidable,” another exec said. “It will be a positive story for him.”
What’s the barometer for success this fall, and will that lead to more or less patience?
As DVR usage continues to grow and networks grapple with Nielsen on how to measure multi-screen viewing, it’s getting harder to know what’s working — particularly among so-so performers.
“It used to be pretty simple, you’d get your initial reading at 5 a.m., better numbers at 8 and a pretty good idea by 1 p.m.,” Metcalf said. “Now that’s just the beginning. It’s maddening in a way, we all want the instant gratification of having a number.”
Kahl said the networks can’t just give lip service to preaching patience but actually stand back and give a show time.
Beckman said he believed the nets would show more patience — but added that the networks still get a pretty good sense early on whether a show is a miss.
“And there are certain time periods where you can’t be as patient,” he said. “We have the benefit in that we have the best replacement for failure in the world come January, in ‘American Idol.'”
The fate of a tweaked “Idol,” of course, leads the list of network burning questions come January.