TV’s Fall Season: Why It Endures Despite Streaming’s Surge and the Content Explosion

This is the first installment in a five-part series examining the transformation of television as the industry prepares to celebrate the Primetime Emmy Awards on Sept. 19.

Traditional television ratings are on the wane, shrinking like a leaking balloon. Thousands of on-demand titles are available at the fingertips of TV fans across a smorgasbord of streaming services — which are pumping a continuously flowing river of brand-new content that’s hitting year-round.

Does the “fall TV season” even matter anymore with the flood of new programming dropping left and right all over the calendar? Netflix, for one, has said it will premiere a new original film every week in 2021, and the likes of Disney Plus and HBO Max have been rolling out new series on a regular basis.

Industry execs say the traditional TV season still provides a powerful tool for a variety of reasons. “The fall season remains the clear kickoff of the TV calendar year, with all of the power and excitement that accompanies it,” says Jane Gould, exec VP of content research, insights and scheduling at Disney General Entertainment. “But just like everything else in the media landscape, it is evolving.”

Programming executives are finding that developing premiere strategies across broadcast, cable and streaming has become an increasingly complex puzzle as they try to get the optimal slot to break through the clutter.

“It’s much more complicated today,” says Jeff Bader, NBCUniversal Television and Streaming’s president of entertainment program planning strategy. “Scheduling used to be a game of checkers — your competitors make moves, you make moves. Then it became like 3D chess. Now it’s multidimensional, because people watch across different times and days.”

For networks, the fall TV lineup is a recommendation engine and a curation tool, says Dan Harrison, Fox Entertainment’s exec VP of program planning and content strategy.

“We’re in the urgency business,” Harrison says. “Our schedule allows us to focus on a more limited number of shows relative to the streamers. These are the shows we think are going to pierce popular culture — and we want you to watch it… Broadcast is still the biggest storefront.”

Television in Transition

TV viewing patterns still follow a seasonal cycle, with audiences trained to expect new and returning shows coming back after Labor Day. Broadcast and cable networks also have carved out a midseason point at the beginning of the calendar year, with summer representing another discrete time period to intro new programming.

“We have far fewer repeats than ever,” says Harrison. “They don’t work as well… We have to meet this demand for original content.” Adds NBCU’s Bader, “We are more and more going toward year-round premieres.”

Noriko Kelley, CBS’s exec VP program scheduling and planning, calls the fall TV season the “content engine” for advertising and streaming revenue, and international distribution. “The schedule has always been the first stop for viewers,” she says.

The long-established programming grid also gives linear TV networks a competitive advantage over streamers, because it lets CBS and others promote new shows in programming blocks, Kelley notes. For example, on Tuesdays, CBS is stacking a night of Dick Wolf’s “FBI” shows together starting Sept. 21 in a special crossover event: Season 4 of original flagship “FBI” airs at 8 p.m. followed by Season 3 of “FBI: Most Wanted” at 9 p.m. and the series debut of “FBI: International” at 10 p.m.

“Lead-ins still matter,” says Kelley.

Furthermore, the build-up and promotion for new seasons of TV is specifically aimed at providing a 10 p.m. (or 9 p.m.) lead-in to local affiliate stations’ late newscasts, as well as networks’ late-night shows. “We have 240 affiliates, and linear scheduling plays a big role in their business,” NBCU’s Bader says. NBC is premiering a dozen new series this fall TV season, including two nights of Dick Wolf shows.

According to Bader, the launch of a new TV season is just the start of the lifecycle of monetizing original programming. “We are finding more and more that shows suddenly take off on digital,” he says. After Netflix released past seasons of “Good Girls,” “The Good Place” and “Manifest,” that did drove a “huge influx” of viewers back to NBC on both TV and digital platforms.

Of course, some in the biz scratch their heads over the extensive time and energy that broadcast nets invest in hyping the new fall schedule.

“From my seat, the ‘fall TV season’ has always been a little counterintuitive,” says Rob Sharenow, president of programming for A+E Networks. “There’s always something strange about everybody launching their new shows all at once. When everyone is firing their guns off at the same time, how do you get heard? There’s so much out there competing for eyeballs.”

That said, the idea of having seasons and establishing regularity for programming with a regular cadence is important, Sharenow says. “It’s good to offer that to the audience, so they do build up a muscle memory of when their favorite shows are on.” Plus, for A+E, certain seasonality remains very important; Sharenow cited Lifetime’s holiday movie franchise.

For streamers, it’s more important to put out a regular drumbeat of stuff – to ensure that they can convince subscribers to keep paying the monthly fee.

“We think about when a series will have the best chance of penetrating the zeitgeist and galvanizing the cultural conversation,” says Meredith Gertler, exec VP, content strategy and planning for HBO and HBO Max at WarnerMedia.

For HBO, the traditional “fall TV season” has never historically been the central release focus for HBO in the same way that it has been for broadcast and basic cable, Gertler adds. “As a monthly subscription service, our programming model has always been geared toward a year-round proposition. It’s important to keep our subscribers consistently engaged throughout the year.”

Disney Plus does see some lift from the the fall TV season in terms of past shows that are returning to linear, says Gabe Lewis, senior VP, programming and content curation for Disney Plus. But one of the benefits of streaming is that “we can program year-round without some of the considerations that dictate how linear programming operates,” he adds.

Additionally, the content in Disney Plus is curated globally in more than 60 countries, so premieres and program scheduling decisions “also need to make sense beyond the U.S.,” says Lewis. “This includes markets with our Star general entertainment brand, which directly benefit from the great content our linear teams are creating and programming that eventually comes to those services.”

Streamers are still experimenting with release timing and whether to release binge-able full seasons all at once (as Netflix typically does). Disney Plus, for example, has moved more of its episodic unscripted programming to an all-at-once release strategy based on viewing data. The service also recently began premiering all scripted original series on Wednesdays vs. Fridays starting with “Loki” and “so far have been very pleased with the results,” says Lewis.

At the end of the day, in a world of ubiquitous on-demand access, “We know that not every viewer is waiting until Tuesday at 8 o’clock,” Fox Entertainment’s Harrison says. “But people are still coming to us to see what’s new.”