Upfronts 2016: Scheduling Steps Out of Spotlight as Viewing Habits Transform

CBS Upfront Hamilton James Cordon
Courtesy of CBS

The NBCUniversal upfront last week opened with Jimmy Fallon dressed as a character from the Broadway hit “Hamilton,” rapping lines such as: “Ten new shows appear this fall; the word ‘Chicago’ appears in them all.”

It was not the last upfront appearance “Hamilton” made last week — the musical inspired gags at the CBS and ABC presentations as well. It was also not the NBCUniversal show’s oddest moment. That came a few minutes later, when ad-sales chairman Linda Yaccarino said that the presentation would not include time spent walking attendees through NBC’s 2016-17 schedule.

“We know you’re very interested in the primetime schedule, so make sure you check the front of your seat after the show,” Yaccarino told those assembled.

The presentation of the fall primetime schedule to advertisers is the traditional core function of the broadcast upfront. By abandoning the practice, NBC did more than emphasize synergy with its cable cousins, who also presented at the event. It acknowledged that TV is now consumed in a way that is dramatically different than the way it was when the upfronts were born. That difference is reflected in the networks’ programming decisions, and it was reflected at each of the broadcast upfronts last week.

Though NBC was the only network to forego a discussion of its schedule entirely, it was not the only one to play up its shows while downplaying when they would air. At most of the presentations, schedules were an afterthought. Job one was hyping the content itself — an array of new series, most of them owned by the studio divisions of the networks that will broadcast them.

When pushing his new comedy “Man With a Plan” at CBS, Matt LeBlanc referenced “Friends,” which was produced by Warner Bros. before Leslie Moonves left that studio to head CBS. “Les Moonves gave me a job on a multicam comedy back in 1994, and we had a pretty good run,” LeBlanc told the audience. “So I’m looking forward to working with him again on the new show.”

The difference between then and now is that while “Friends” was produced by Warner Bros., it aired on NBC. The show premiered the year before the FCC abolished its fin-syn rules, which restricted networks’ abilities to own the shows they aired in primetime.

Last week’s upfronts made clear that in the current TV landscape, owning a program and being able to generate revenue from it across multiple windows — international, streaming, syndication — trumps scheduling. Of the 42 new broadcast series ordered for the 2016-17 season, only eight were not produced or co-produced by the studio division of the network on which they will air.

“Every network is looking for their studio to provide much of their programming, if not all of their programming,” says Howard Kurtzman, business affairs president of
20th Century Fox Television. He points to “The Exorcist” as “not the easiest show to schedule,” but says Fox Broadcasting found a place for it: Friday nights at 9 p.m. next fall — a sign that it expects much of the audience to come from on-demand and delayed viewing. “I think the networks are all looking for high-quality great programs, and they’ll find a place to schedule them,” Kurtzman says.

“I think the networks are all looking for high-quality great programs, and they’ll find a place to schedule them.”
howard kurtzman

Again and again last week, broadcasters lined up to take shots at digital viewing, devoting large chunks of their presentations to broad defenses of television as a platform for advertisers. (Their efforts just happen to come as traditional TV ad spending has been falling and digital has been rising, with several analysts predicting that digital will overtake traditional television within the next two years.)

Fox also went on the offensive. After ad-sales president Toby Byrne labeled digital video “subprime video,” Fox Television Group CEOs Gary Newman and Dana Walden extolled the virtues of video on-demand, bragging that 28% of Fox’s audience for entertainment programming comes from VOD, which delivers unskippable ads — and thus, they argued, more engagement for advertisers. That separates VOD from even same-day DVR viewing, which allows audiences to fast-forward through commercials.

“We reached our biggest audience in three years, as our on-demand viewing hit all-time highs,” Walden said.

Such spin serves Fox well, since the network lagged behind CBS and NBC in live-plus-same day Nielsen ratings this season. But it was striking to see two network chiefs on stage crowing so effusively about viewing that isn’t same-day.

The linear schedule is not, however, irrelevant. It’s just no longer the centerpiece it once was. And it’s far more fluid than it used to be.

“I think the schedule has been evolving in some ways,” says Universal Television president Bela Bajaria. She points to the shift toward year-round programming, with many original series now playing during summer or having their seasons divided up to run in various parts of the year. “There’s just been much more creativity and flexibility in some of these shows,” she says. “I think there have been a lot of very longstanding, stable, 22-episode shows, but then you see the flexibility in the schedule a little bit more in other places.”

One of those shows is “The Good Place,” a Universal-produced comedy that NBC ordered straight to series for just 13 episodes — and the network currently has no plans to expand beyond that. NBC placed the show in a highly competitive timeslot, at 8:30 p.m. on Thursdays, where it will face off at the beginning of the season against “Thursday Night Football” on CBS and “Grey’s Anatomy” on ABC. NBC is likely hoping that the series, with high-profile stars Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, and a creative pedigree from executive producer Mike Schur, will get its own big chunk of viewers in on-demand and other delayed platforms.

But if that is indeed the strategy, the network just didn’t feel compelled to share it with advertisers last week.