TV Networks Unveil Fall Seasons At 2017 Upfronts

May 17, 2017
Originally published on May 17, 2017 8:31 pm

It's a question the broadcast TV industry asks itself around this time every year: How long can we keep this going?

The occasion is TV's upfront season, when all the big programmers announce their plans for the next season in glitzy presentations for big advertisers in New York, selling commercial space in the new schedules early.

These days, the moneymaking heart of the TV business — broadcast television — is fighting harder than ever to stay competitive with the innovation at streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon.

Broadcasters have to please two masters: the advertisers who buy commercials and the viewers who watch shows with ads in them. And as viewership dips each year for network TV shows, upfronts are when the broadcast establishment argues that it still reaches important audiences and isn't just sitting around waiting for online streaming companies to put them out of business.

At CBS' upfront event Wednesday in Carnegie Hall, for instance, executives touted their broadcast network as the strongest arm of a media company that includes three streaming platforms and reaches a bigger audience in total than the company did in the year 2000.

It's a point many networks would make during the upfronts.

For the second year in a row, all the new fall shows on CBS broadcast network star male characters. In fact, following the recent cancellation of the show 2 Broke Girls, CBS has just two series with female characters as primary stars: Tea Leoni in Madam Secretary and Anna Faris and Allison Janney in Mom.

(Other CBS series, such as Elementary and Code Black, do feature women as co-leads or members of an ensemble. And the two original scripted series on its streaming service All Access, The Good Fight and Star Trek: Discovery, both star women.)

During a press breakfast Wednesday, I asked CBS CEO Les Moonves if this seemed a little old fashioned and backwards-looking, given that TV outlets like FX have tried hard to build gender parity behind the camera in directors' jobs. And some of this year's most innovative shows — Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, HBO's Big Little Lies and FX's Feud — star female characters.

"More women watch CBS percentage-wise than any other network," Moonves replied. "Our shows have a lot of female appeal ... When I look at the totality of who CBS is, I look at news, I look at daytime, I look at sports, I look at Showtime, I look at the CW. They're all part of our family. When you look at the totality of that, I think we're fine."

Perhaps. But given the prestige and visibility of primetime network television, this exclusion seems odd and a bit contradictory.

And CBS isn't alone. Here's a look at a few other oddly contradictory trends to emerge from the upfronts.

At a time when media is often about the next new thing, nostalgia emerges big. Everything old is new again at the broadcast networks. ABC is reviving American Idol and Roseanne, CBS has a new version of S.W.A.T., Fox will air 10 new episodes of The X-Files and NBC is bringing back sitcom Will & Grace and the Must-See TV marketing slogan that was used to promote it, along with shows like Seinfeld and Friends in the 1990's.

Simple as it is to believe that Hollywood has run out of ideas, what's really happening is more complex. Advertisers want to put their money into what they see as sure bets. And, in the case of shows like S.W.A.T. and The X-Files, networks want to wring a little more profit out of programs they own—programs produced by their studios.

But it's an odd strategy, given what often produces big hits in TV. It's summed up in an old saying I think is often true in TV: "stars don't make TV, TV makes stars." People like Ted Danson and Jerry Seinfeld didn't become household names until America got to know them through their hit TV shows. One of this TV season's most successful new shows, NBC's This Is Us, featured actors who weren't big celebrities before the show took off. So I'm skeptical of these reboots or revivals, beyond their appeal to advertisers and headline writers now.

Surprise cancellations reveal where the money in network TV really is. When ABC cancelled the Tim Allen comedy Last Man Standing, some conservatives tried to organize a boycott of the network. They wondered if the conservative politics of the show's star or his character Mike Baxter might have inspired ABC to dump the series, which was drawing a solid viewership of about 8 million viewers each week. Allen himself said he was "stunned and blindsided" by the cancellation on Twitter. But the likely truth is that Allen's show was a victim of how the TV business works these days.

Again, some network TV shows aren't owned by the broadcaster which airs them. For example, This Is Us airs on NBC, but' it's owned by Fox's TV production studio. Networks make money by selling ads, but outside of that, large portions of a TV show's profits go to the show's owner. The same with revenue from syndicated reruns in America and overseas. CBS' Moonves told reporters Wednesday that less than 50 percent of their revenue now comes from advertising, with more coming from these "back end" profits.

So networks have a greater incentive to support shows owned by TV studios inside their corporate family. ABC moved from comedy to dramas on Fridays, scheduling two shows which ABC/Disney owns, Once Upon a Time and Marvel's Inhumans. There wasn't room for shows they didn't fully own, like Last Man Standing.

Sometimes, fans can make a difference. NBC had also decided to cancel a TV show it didn't fully own, the time travel adventure drama series Timeless. But fans erupted online and helped convince the bigwigs at the Peacock Network to reconsider and uncancel the show days later.

Sometimes, in the fragmented media universe, the average viewer can have an impact after all.

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We talk a lot these days about how Internet streaming has rattled the world of network television, snatching up Emmy nominations and capturing attention in the press and on social media. But traditional broadcast TV remains the biggest game around, attracting billions of advertising dollars. And this week in New York City, the networks are rolling out their plans for the next TV season in a series of glitzy presentations for advertisers called the Upfronts.

Here to talk about what we can expect from the biggest players - ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox - is our TV critic Eric Deggans. Hey there, Eric.


CORNISH: So you're in New York. You're hearing the big pitch. How can advertisers actually know which show to back this far in advance?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, advertisers are looking for sure bets, and that's one reason why nostalgia is one of the big trends that we're seeing this season. They want big names, recognizable stars. So ABC is bringing back "American Idol" and "Roseanne." CBS is doing "S.W.A.T.," if you remember that show from the '70s. NBC is bringing back "Will & Grace," and they're even bringing back the whole must-see TV marketing from the mid-1990s when "Will & Grace" was first on the air.

I've always believed that stars don't make TV; TV makes stars. So it's kind of weird to see network TV in this situation where they're going behind recognizable names when really it's the shows that come out of nowhere like "This Is Us" that makes stars. And then people get to know those performers, and they become more famous.

CORNISH: But even something like "This Is Us" - it's not putting up the numbers of those old shows that you mentioned, right? I mean the definition of a hit in this day and age seems a little bit different.

DEGGANS: Yeah, well, you know, these days, a hit show is basically a show that makes money for the network. But that is getting to be more complicated. You're right. Fewer people are watching television, so the benchmark for what makes a hit is going down. But you know, Les Moonves, the CEO of CBS, told us journalists today that less than 50 percent of their revenue comes from advertising, which means that a lot of that money comes from what we call the back end - so the money that you make when they sell the show to Netflix or they sell it into reruns or even when they sell it to companies that air it on airplanes. (Laughter) So more and more, networks have to look at all of that when they decide whether a show's a hit or not.

CORNISH: So how does that affect their decision making about what we see?

DEGGANS: Well, one controversial cancellation, the Tim Allen show "Last Man Standing" - now, conservatives were really worried because Tim Allen is a conservative, and that character on that show is politically conservative, and they thought it was some kind of liberal plot. Basically that show was getting solid ratings, but ABC didn't own it. So when they scheduled for the fall, they put in two dramas that they do own, "Once Upon A Time" and a new show called Marvel's "Inhumans" so they could get more of that back end we've been talking about.

CORNISH: How else are the networks spending their money?

DEGGANS: Well, the big unscripted show of course is "American Idol," and ABC spent a little time telling us why they bought it, and all the other networks told us why they didn't. Outside of the nostalgia stuff, what I liked was ABC has a show called "The Mayor" about this rapper who decides as a goof to run for mayor in a town, and then he winds up winning.

Fox has a show called "The Gifted." That's an extension of the "X-Men" franchise where these parents find out that their kids all have superpowers; they're all mutants. And CBS has a show called "Young Sheldon" that's a spinoff of "The Big Bang Theory" where that central character Sheldon is 9 years old, but he's going to high school. And I think these are those kind of shows that may come out of nowhere and make stars out of people that we don't know yet.

CORNISH: So those are all the new shows, the new bets, right? What about cancellations? What's going away?

DEGGANS: Well, ABC announced, for example, that the Shonda Rhimes show "Scandal" is going away, and CBS canceled a long-running comedy called "Two Broke Girls." And I thought that was troubling because for the second year in a row, all of CBS' new shows in the fall will feature males, which is a troubling trend I think. I asked CEO Les Moonves about this, and he replied to my question by saying that more women watch CBS percentage wise. But I wonder if they wouldn't struggle so much to get younger viewers if they had shows that had more diversity in gender among their lead characters.

CORNISH: That's NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans in New York for the network Upfronts. Thanks so much, Eric.

DEGGANS: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.