Network TV Schedulers Talk New Challenges, Priorities in Digital Era

Lethal Weapon
Richard Foreman/FOX

Once upon a time, a network’s scheduling team had to counterprogram its broadcast peers to ensure that the two key measures of success in the broadcast television business — revenue and ratings — outpaced the competition.

These days, with the emergence of digital platforms, streaming services, and on-demand viewing patterns, scheduling decisions are far less myopic. The focus is on the larger, longer-term picture — both from a creative and a business perspective — and the upcoming season will have more returning shows on each network than any recent fall in memory. But the fundamentals of scheduling remain intact.

Kelly Kahl, senior exec VP, CBS Primetime, has overseen the schedule since 1996. “You put a schedule together with hopes that everything will work,” he says. “In the back of your head, you know that everything probably won’t work. You make changes midseason, and hope that the good outweighs the bad.” Ultimately, the whole must be greater than the sum of its parts, Kahl says. “Of course we still want nights to work, but we want to make every night work.”

The job of a scheduler has become far less narrow than it once was. The increase in viewing platforms means shows are amortized on a balance sheet over longer periods of time, and nets exercise more patience with an eye on long-term success.

Kahl says the changing landscape has advantages, but also poses very real challenges: “We know that people have nearly infinite choices in terms of series and video content that’s available to them, so we have to deliver shows that people want to see.”

Dan Harrison, Fox’s exec VP, program planning and scheduling, says his focus is providing opportunities for shows to thrive throughout the full 52-week season. “Non-linear platforms means that there is great content available 24/7 — and lots of it from many different sources,” Harrison says. “It’s our job to make original content available as much as possible and ultimately build library value for our company.”

Wednesday is a “core priority” for Fox this year, with franchise title “Lethal Weapon” joining established hit “Empire.” Harrison is also high on the net’s new Thursday with a relocated “Rosewood” and buzzy frosh series “Pitch” and the addition of live action/animation hybrid “Son of Zorn” to Sunday.

Andy Kubitz, exec VP, program planning and scheduling at ABC Entertainment, points out that “the amount of data nowadays is so immense. It was household numbers, then People Meters came along and allowed for demographic numbers. Now it’s 10 times that — with C3, L7, and you are able to analyze different demos, different layers of growth, and different platforms.”

C3, launched in 2007, refers to the ratings for average commercial minutes in live programming plus total playback by DVR up to three days after air. L7 measures all viewers within a seven-day window of air. All of this has made traditional overnight numbers less relevant in day-to-day decision making.

“The numbers we get each morning are certainly not as important as they once were,” says Steve Kern, senior VP of program planning and scheduling at NBC Entertainment. “Ultimately, based on the ratings the next morning, you’re going to get a feeling of how the show is doing. But we don’t react as quickly as we have in the past. There are instances where seven-day ratings go up over 100% — that factors into a decision about keeping a show on, about renewing a show, and overall creative mindsets.”

Kern notes that in his three years with the company, this fall season has the least number of new titles. NBC will devote three hours to Dick Wolf’s “Chicago” franchise in the fall, and reality competition “The Voice” (which airs three hours a week) remains arguably the net’s most significant launching pad — having helped introduce both “Blindspot” and “Little Big Shots.” This season it will serve as lead-in for two dramas with high hopes: “Timeless” and “This Is Us.”

“Marketing is a big part of the equation, but a new show will get more than 50% of their audience from the lead-in,” Kern says.

And yet Kern acknowledges scheduling isn’t simply a linear concept anymore. “You have to look at the impact [the schedule] has to NBC.com, the NBC app or the SVOD services that will acquire our programming. Shows certainly stay on longer on average, because the backend of selling into the SVOD space means that the business result will net a larger margin by being patient and seeing things in the longer term.”

As overnight ratings become less important, network branding and identity is paramount. “You don’t want to go into the teeth of a hit show on another broadcast network,” Kubitz says. “But it’s no longer the days where you tried to counterprogram every half-hour. Now, you know you’re going against ‘Big Bang’ repeats at either CBS or TBS at any time. It’s more about leaning into our strengths. We’re ABC — we’re strong with females, with zeitgeist programming, so that’s what we do.”

Kubitz says ABC’s durable line-ups on Wednesday (family comedies) and Thursday Shondaland drama nights are programmed from a “sociological perspective,” with the idea that viewers are looking for a mid-week break with comedies and to prep for the weekend with escapist drama.

“The lead-in is still the best marketing tool,” Kubitz adds. “Millions of viewers [are] in one place at one time — convincing them to stick around to sample the next show is still the most vital facet of this job. The basics still matter even in this on-demand world.”

Perhaps no broadcast network has benefited more from the streaming revolution than the CW. “It allows us to be more patient,” says Kevin Levy, The CW’s senior VP, program planning and scheduling. “Audiences now have a multitude of ways to discover and watch our shows, so the life cycle of these programs has been expanded.”

He’s excited to welcome “Supergirl” to the network, and use existing hits “The Flash” and “Arrow” to launch hourlongs “No Tomorrow” and “Frequency.”

While execs love to talk about their own schedules, they also keep tabs on their peers. “Everyone wonders: ‘Why [doesn’t Fox] move ‘Empire’ to 8 o’clock so that they can help launch a new show?’” Kern says. “I know the answer — everyone knows the answer — it’s for the affiliates — but certainly that’s something on our minds. And The CW, I’m really impressed with their 8 o’clock strategy with the superhero shows.”

“I think ‘Lethal Weapon’ will be a big player for [Fox],” Kubitz says assessing his rivals. “I’ll be interested to see how some of the male-lead comedies on CBS do. They have a fantastic launching platform in both [Kevin James starrer] ‘Kevin Can Wait’ and [Matt LeBlanc vehicle] ‘Man With a Plan,’ but I’m wondering, ‘Can you go back to your roots in this time and day with so much programming out there. Is that loud enough?’”