Upfronts Show Cracks in the Facade of Networks

Broadcast networks find it hard to stay on top as cable, new tech chip away at their foundations


Forgive the major broadcast networks for feeling a bit like the evil “Queen in Snow White” and the Seven Dwarfs these days. When asking their Magic Mirror for positive reinforcement, the answer is seldom completely satisfying.

Still the fairest of them all? Not in terms of prestige and awards. The biggest? Yes, but this season programs like “The Walking Dead,” “The Bible,” “Downton Abbey” and (from the sublime to the ridiculous) “Duck Dynasty” have all drawn ratings that level the playing field — and undercut traditional claims to commercial broadcasters representing a unique audience-delivery vehicle.

For the broadcast networks, the challenge encapsulated if seldom articulated during their upfront-week presentations thus boiled down to a simple question: In today’s fragmented world, what attributes still make them special?

And so, the networks’ pitch to media buyers — a ritual NBC’s Ted Harbert suggested has lost much of its luster due to dozens of smaller-network spiels dribbling through spring — at times settled for less-glamorous points of differentiation, including volume. Unlike cable networks that churn out an original program here or there, programmers argued, we’re open every night in primetime.

In sales terms, it’s the equivalent of a corner diner — one serving comfort food, as opposed to gourmet fare. Plus, with a new emphasis on limited series during the coming season, there’s the promise of fewer reruns — solving a frequent complaint, as networks have traditionally sought to stretch 22-episode orders of popular shows over a 35-week span from September through May.

Of course, as they touted their new programs, scheduling strategies and digital schemes, there was relatively little time for a full-throated argument on behalf of broadcasting. That chore as usual fell to CBS, not only the most-watched network (by a wide margin in total viewership, it happily pointed out) but the most combative when people try to write network TV’s epitaph. Indeed, CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves even deviated temporarily from trumpeting his network’s specific competitive advantages to magnanimously note in regard to attracting a mass audience, “Every single network has its own success,” adding that broadcast TV “reaches people like no other medium on Earth.”

Elsewhere, the networks employed various approaches to address the elephant in the room — namely, the fact collective ratings fell sharply during the current season, triggering a flurry of oft-overheated media stories about broadcasting’s woes.

In a one-two punch, the Los Angeles Times and New York Times highlighted the networks’ struggles in simultaneous front-page stories to kick off upfront week, in both cases using the dreaded term “tipping point” and wondering whether the decline has passed some sort of arbitrary threshold.

The big-box store rejoinder was perhaps best put by Fox entertainment chief Kevin Reilly, who risked sounding a trifle defensive by dismissing the significance of cable’s perceived inroads during his pitch to advertisers. “Some cable channels have a legitimate hit or two,” he said. “(But) if we’re talking scale and consistency, the numbers say it all.”

To buttress the point, Fox opened its presentation with a taped package discussing network TV’s power and influence, with producer James L. Brooks — who gave the network “The Simpsons” back in the first Bush administration — saying the major broadcasters are “still the water-cooler place.”

Other than Moonves, the network presentations largely sidestepped the doom-and-gloom forecasts. ABC Entertainment czar Paul Lee was relentlessly upbeat, stressing “the best comedies in the world are on broadcast television” — which is clearly true when considering the combination of ratings and prestige for programs like “Modern Family” and “The Big Bang Theory.” If only the medium weren’t increasingly defined, qualitatively speaking, by drama, where a broadcast net hasn’t won the best series Emmy since 2006, with Fox’s “24” (a skein somewhat improbably slated to return for a reduced run next year).

For his part, NBC’s Bob Greenblatt alluded to the larger landscape by joking rather dryly about developing shows based on zombies and the Bible.

Whatever the merits of this year’s crop of new series, viewing the networks through a wider lens does find fewer clear demarcations that separate them from the pack. Star power is a tough claim to make when Michael J. Fox, Greg Kinnear and Robin Williams are among the biggest names in the new series crop, while HBO this month is promoting the heck out of Matt Damon and Michael Douglas in the juicy Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra.”

Truth be told, TV is usually best when it makes its own stars, which is why there’s anticipation for the first sitcom toplined by “Saturday Night Live” alum Andy Samberg (Fox’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”), and the return of “Lost” hunk Josh Holloway (CBS’ “Intelligence”).

Even the point about putting on more original programming each week warrants a bit of context, since the networks have gone to great lengths to reduce their footprints, primarily for economic reasons. As a consequence, every broadcast net has essentially thrown in the towel on Saturday, filling the night with a mix of reruns and sports.

Reality competition series, meanwhile, regularly gobble up two and three hours per week, reducing the number of scripted programs. “Come September,” 40% of Fox’s primetime will consist of sports or “The X Factor,” just as “The Voice” and “Sunday Night Football” — a tandem that managed to obscure many of NBC’s deficiencies through the fall — account for a third of its programming payload.

Viewed that way, the gap between major broadcasters and more aggressive ad-supported cable alternatives — USA, FX, AMC, TNT — isn’t quite as cavernous. Nor can English-language broadcasters ignore the popularity of Univision, which has capitalized on the broadcast nets’ aging viewer profile and the younger skew of the Spanish-language audience to occasionally top them — including the milestone of beating NBC during the February sweeps.

Network claims to possessing the unique capacity to offer the kind of mass-appeal events that assemble millions also have been somewhat undercut as signature sports properties migrate to cable, from ESPN’s Bowl Championship Series telecasts to TBS now horning in on college basketball’s Final Four.

Finally, the distinction of network TV being “free” or “over the air” has become untidy, inasmuch as broadcasters have avidly sought and gained retransmission fees from distributors, adding one more line item to the monthly bill roughly 90% of U.S. homes — even with cord-cutting — currently pay for the privilege of watching television.

In a strange way, for all the griping networks do about journalists bad-mouthing them, one of the strongest bellwethers for their importance remains the media. That’s because news outlets still look to broadcasters as a signpost in analyzing the elusive American zeitgeist — a touchstone for what primetime TV says about the culture. This seemed particularly true in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, where the collective choices of network execs were seized upon in an attempt to discern the national mood — such as whether there was a heightened thirst for escapism, or laughter, as a balm against harsh realities and a scary world.

From that perspective, while those dueling upfront pieces in the Times on both coasts provoked groans from network officials, the sheer timing sends a message that broadcast’s portion of the ad-sales ritual still occupies a unique place in the cultural firmament.

In a pre-upfront briefing for reporters, Moonves was more pointed and forceful about the networks’ durability, citing his company’s record profits and buoyant stock price, despite the perception cable and digital options are whittling away broadcasters’ one-time dominance and threatening their future.

Moonves also reiterated how the original content churned out by broadcasters remains the primary driver through the TV industry’s food chain, from online viewing to the popularity of “Big Bang Theory” reruns. “We are the center of the universe,” Moonves said. “This is where the shows start.”

There would have probably been much more discussion of how TV series are driving the streaming-content biz that is so sexy on Wall Street these days for Netflix, Amazon, Hulu et al. Except that the upfronts are all about setting the table for the Big Four and CW — which had a bit more company this year in pushing its multiplatform, choose-your-preferred-screen strategy — to sell an estimated $9 billion-plus boatload of advertising commitments for the coming season. And where Madison Avenue is concerned, nothing makes more money than an old-fashioned 30-second spot watched live as the TV gods originally intended — as opposed to DVR playback, VOD or Web streaming. (Surprisingly, few arrows were slung at Nielsen from the upfront stages, given how frustrated CEOs are at the measurement titan’s sluggishness in adapting a system to capture all of that additional viewing.)

Notably, this year’s upfronts also coincided with the 15-year anniversary of the “Seinfeld” finale, a juncture at which the media also wondered aloud whether the network-TV party was coming to an end. At the time, then-NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer contended it would be “a terrible thing for our culture” not to have programs vast numbers of people share, adding, “As a society, if we wake up one morning and everyone has watched their own channel, the water cooler is going to be a much more boring place.” Yet even in the social-media, 500-channel age, there is still such a thing as a massive Thursday-night sitcom hit: It just happened to migrate from NBC over to CBS, under the name “The Big Bang Theory.”

For years, the viewing habits of children have been used as evidence of the major networks’ inevitable fate. Specifically, kids harbor no particular allegiance toward or special feeling for channels in the 2 through 13 positions vs. those in the 100s or 400s. And as those kids become older each year, that crack in the Magic Mirror presumably grows a little bigger, and its picture fuzzier.

So what’s left for the networks in a niche-oriented environment, where they face being drowned out by a cacophony of media voices? For now, they can still cling to snatches of daylight between themselves and the rest of the world. With apologies to Snow White’s pals, the question is when that’s going to translate to simply being the tallest dwarf in the room.