TV faces political obstacles this fall

Preemptions for campaign coverage could hurt new series looking to gain momentum

As if the broadcasters don’t have enough competition this fall, they’ll also have to contend with election debates that will occupy five nights of primetime during the opening months of the 2012-13 season.

As the Big Four attempt to get viewers into the rhythm of watching dozens of new and returning series each week, their lineups will be preempted by three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate in October, not to mention the blackout of an entire evening on Election Day, Nov. 6.

As TV networks know all too well, even series that get big ratings out of the gate can see those numbers tumble quickly if viewers get distracted, particularly for serialized fare. Although the season doesn’t officially begin, per Nielsen, until Sept. 24, the cap gun goes off Monday night with the return of “The Voice” on NBC.

“You don’t want to interrupt momentum if you can help it,” said Kelly Kahl, senior exec VP and head of skedding for CBS. “The biggest impact is when you’re trying to launch something and then go off for a week.”

The debates will be dispersed across four different weeknights. The exception is Friday, which happens to be the night least conducive to launching shows given HUT levels are significantly lower than during the rest of the week.

Tuesday will take two hits, between the third debate on Oct. 16 and Election Night. The debates run from 9-10:30 p.m. ET, which will give the broadcasters time to get one hour of original programming on the air at 8 p.m. before setting aside the following two hours for political coverage. ABC, CBS and NBC will fill the remaining 10:30 p.m. half-hour with news analysis.

Still, that will mean breaks in the action for some key comedy launches on Tuesday at NBC and Fox during the 9 p.m. hour. NBC will look to get the new duo of “Go On” and “The New Normal” a head start this week, with “Normal” getting a last-minute premiere shift to Monday following “The Voice” before teeing up a second the following night in its regular timeslot.

Sophomore sensation “New Girl” and rookie comedy “The Mindy Project” don’t start until Sept. 25, as does the new CBS drama “Vegas.” The hope is that three episodes aired before the respite will be enough to make them appointment viewing.

The first preemption occurs Oct. 3, the second Wednesday of the season, followed by Thursday, Oct. 11, and Monday, Oct. 22. The Big Four seem to have planned accordingly given the 9-11 p.m. block is filled with either returning stalwarts like ABC’s “Modern Family” and CBS’ “CSI” or new entries that are being held over to later in the month, like ABC’s “Nashville” and NBC’s “Chicago Fire.”

Fox has an additional challenge given that it will be making preemptions on at least seven nights in October to make room for post-season Major League Baseball.

With “New Girl” last season, the network found out the hard way what preemptions can do to a new show trying to get traction with viewers. After racking up solid ratings over its first three episodes, the comedy was benched for most of October to make room for baseball. The series dropped 1.2 million viewers upon returning in November vs. the prior episode, and the erosion continued as the season progressed.

The show that may be hit hardest this year is Fox’s “Glee,” which has the added challenge of getting viewers to its new timeslot, Thursday at 9 p.m., from its previous Tuesday berth. After a four-week run, the series will sit out three consecutive weeks due to the Oct. 11 debate and post-season baseball the following Wednesdays.

Dan Harrison, exec VP of strategic program planning at Fox, said the network anticipated the challenge the debates would pose for “Glee” as early as May, when execs first huddled with the series’ producers to plan accordingly. “They structured those episodes knowing there was going to be a gap there,” he said. “But they’ll have a nice run before the break that should keep them in good shape.”

“X Factor” won’t get away entirely unscathed. Fox will have to condense its Oct. 3 episode to one hour and then sit out the night entirely on Oct. 24. The previous Wednesday will also have baseball but, thankfully for Simon Cowell, it is a day game.

Fox contemplated holding back the launch of “Glee” until November but ultimately nixed the idea because the network wouldn’t know until the last night in October whether a seventh game of the World Series would keep the series from launching the first week of that month. Launching any later than that risks scheduling the bulk of firstrun episodes in the latter weeks of the year, when HUT levels plummet.

The broadcasters varied in their approach to the timing of their series rollouts. NBC and Fox are getting many of the series out the gate earlier than usual, while CBS and ABC are taking more traditional approaches, with rollouts largely concentrated in the fall premiere week of Sept. 24.

The CW will take something of a counterprogramming tack by holding all of its series launches until October in the thick of the presidential race in the hope that its younger-skewing auds will seek an alternative to newsy fare.

Fox will have to preempt the final debate on Oct. 22 in the event that there’s a Game 7 in the National League Championship Series, which would be played the same night.

But there is a silver lining to the dark cloud the presidential race casts over primetime: The early interruptions mean more new episodes of network series in the latter half of the season, notes Kahl. “The early preempts you make for a week or two can make your schedule a little more solid later in the year, meaning less repeats in January or March,” Kahl said.