How Coronavirus Has Broadcast TV Networks Stretching Their Horizons for Fall Schedules

Swamp Thing CW Network
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Television

With the forced production shutdown creeping into summer, the fall broadcast television schedule is being significantly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

For the major broadcast networks, one coping mechanism thus far has been snatching up shows that have already run elsewhere — on streaming services or in other countries — in a bid to plump up their offerings. Networks acquiring past seasons of shows is nothing new, but the practice is now coming to fall primetime in the 21st century. 

Fox was the first broadcast network to announce it would air an acquired series in primetime this fall, with the network picking up the broadcast rights to both seasons of the Spectrum original “L.A.’s Finest,” starring Jessica Alba and Gabrielle Union. Not long after that, The CW announced it had acquired four series from DC Universe, CBS All Access and international markets: “Swamp Thing,” “Tell Me a Story,” “Coroner” and “Dead Pixels.”

“There is a fair amount of product out there,” CW chairman and CEO Mark Pedowitz told reporters last week. “But you have to be careful what you acquire, so that you believe that it fits what your brand is. That’s what we specifically did.”

Dan Harrison, Fox Entertainment’s executive vice president of program planning and content strategy, tells Variety that the network began looking for ways to protect its fall schedule as soon as production began shutting down. 

“It’s a procedural with a diverse cast, and we’ve got access to 26 episodes that are in the can,” he says of “LA’s Finest.” “So that made it appealing to us. It checks a lot of boxes.”

NBC, meanwhile, has acquired the freshman Canadian medical drama “Transplant,” which premiered on CTV on Feb. 26. According to a network insider, however, whether or not the series will air in the fall has not yet been decided. 

CBS, which unveiled its fall slate May 19, is planning to bring back the vast majority of its scripted lineup for the fall despite the ongoing production shutdown. In addition to 23 returning series, CBS aims to debut new offerings “B Positive” from Chuck Lorre and “The Equalizer” reboot starring Queen Latifah.

“We’re going to have to deal with local officials wherever these shows are shooting and be mindful of local regulations,” CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl tells Variety. “When we get the greenlight, the intention is our shows will be ready.” 

However, Kahl does not rule out the possibility that the network could shift the schedule should it be unable to resume production as planned. He says that CBS is “getting pitches everyday” for unscripted specials as well as series acquisitions. “Another benefit to this merger with Viacom is we have access to a lot more material should we need it,” he says. 

ABC’s fall schedule is also murky at this point, but it has the benefit of tapping into parent company Disney’s vast web of programming and platforms.

“All the options are on the table right now from internal corporate partners,” says a source familiar with ABC’s thinking. The network may mine scripted projects from ESPN and Hulu to fill in any gaps on the schedule, if needed.

Almost all of the major broadcasters, save Fox, are aligned with parent media conglomerates equipped with vast libraries. CBS restarted its Sunday movie night in May, airing films from the Paramount library. Both companies are under the ViacomCBS umbrella.  

The empty pockets in the schedule translate to opportunities for shows that once had a tough time cracking into broadcast’s coveted primetime slots. NBC had passed on “L.A.’s Finest” two years ago, and the show seemed destined to settle into a nook at Spectrum, where it reaches far fewer cable subscribers. But that was before the pandemic shut down all television and film production in March. Sony is also shopping Spectrum’s “Mad About You” revival to other platforms. As for the lauded-but-canceled DC Universe original “Swamp Thing,” the CW’s Pedowitz does not definitively close the door on reviving the series, but notes, “At the moment, it’s just one season.” 

Live events and unscripted shows have also been a big part of broadcast programming during the pandemic, with series like “American Idol” and “The Voice” resorting to virtual episodes shot at contestants’ homes.

WWE’s “SmackDown Live,” which started airing on Fox last October, has been doing shows without an audience in the company’s performance center in Orlando. Meanwhile, Harrison says that Fox remains hopeful it will resume shooting on the hit series “The Masked Singer” this summer with an eye to getting it on the air come fall. 

“You can’t fill a schedule with live events every day, but we pivoted to a healthy amount of scripted and the No. 1 show on television that happens to be unscripted,” he says. “So we have an unscripted night in the fall; we have an animated night; we have a hybrid night. We have a mix of content that I think viewers want.”