2015-16 Network Television Upfronts

Programming note: The blog is going into vacation mode for the next two weeks. I’ll be back on June 8 to share tales and photos (okay, probably mostly photos) from my trip to China.

It’s that time again folks. The middle of May. Colleges are done. Weather’s getting warm (and already humid in DC). And the multimedia conglomerates which own the Big 4 television broadcast networks are trotting out their new shows for the 2015-16 season for advertisers to buy their air time.

I used to write a lot about quality vs. quantity of viewers when it came to broadcast television shows, but I’m pretty much through with that. This isn’t because I don’t think broadcast television has quality shows (I do), it’s just the business model of broadcast television is hopelessly out of whack.

Though quality is always strived for, the Big 4 nets essentially require 10M plus viewers per week per show in order for the viewers to make their numbers. In the days before cable, this made sense – 121 million people tuned in to see the series finale of Mash in 1983, for example.

But today’s world is much more fractionalized. Those of us who still have cable have 500+ channels. Other have constant access to the shows of their choice 24 hours a day via streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Hulu, Crackle and dozens more.

To put this in perspective, a show widely acknowledged to be one of the best in the history of television ended last night in Mad Men. Though I wrote this before ratings were available, the sixth season finale drew 2.7 million viewers. Mad Men would need triple that audience to have a hope of surviving on broadcast television.

The only programs that truly work on broadcast television any more are the following: episodic procedurals (usually crime or medical dramas), laugh-track comedies and reality television. The former two do well in syndication – in other words re-broadcast on other channels as re-runs five and more years later.

Shows like Mad Men don’t do well in television syndication. Know why? You can’t just tune into one episode and enjoy an open and closed story. Are you a fan of Mad Men? The Walking Dead? 24? Would you tune into see one episode in the middle of a random season five years from now when you’re out of the storyline? Then think about an episode of Law and Order or Two and a Half Men – both huge hits in syndication. Watch one, and you can keep up. See how this works?

The reality television programs are easier to figure out. They’re often on early in the evening (start time of 8pm on the east coast) and focused towards the whole family. The Biggest Loser, American Idol, The Voice – they draw huge numbers because people watch them together. If Mom and Dad watch a show, that’s one thing. But if Mom and Dad watch the show with Timmy and Tammy – that doubles your audience.

Unfortunately, I’m not particularly drawn to any of the above – at least nothing that’s on right now (I freely admit that there’s good stories everywhere, and one cast in particular that would be fun to write for is Person of Interest). I like my shows with continuing story-lines (like a chapter each night from a good novel or really long movie), and deep dives into their characters. My favorite shows include Shameless, Homeland, Mad Men, The Chair and Last Week Tonight – all cable programming.

All this is a long way of saying that I don’t really feel qualified to do a real deep dive into each network’s decisions this year – I watch a total of five programs on two broadcast networks, and three I specifically record for something to have on in the background while I’m writing (like right now!). Plus, I’m going to China next week, moving this week so I’m kind of tired. So I’ve condensed my usual four posts into one quick roundup for you.

Though currently slotted at #3 among the Big 4 networks, ABC is the only net to gain in viewers over the last year. This is mostly due to two factors: Shonda Rhimes and comedy diversity. Rhymes is now the single-handed force to be reckoned with on Thursday nights. Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder pretty much run the world for drama on Thursdays, and the only true competition is CBS’ comedy block. Most of the rest of the network’s drama programming keys off the soapy feel of Rhimes’ offerings. The rest of the dramas are pretty much from Marvel Studios, and barring bad ratings of an epic-scale, those will be back year after year. On the comedy side, Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat were big successes, further establishing the network as the home for diverse, family, laugh-track free comedies.

Forever (running joke: I guess Forever only lasts one season)
Manhattan Love Story
Members Only
The Taste

Remember a few minutes ago when you read (hopefully) about the three types f shows with work on broadcast television? If not, go back up to the sixth paragraph from the top. I’ll wait. Okay – procedurals, laugh-track comedies and event reality shows. That’s all CBS does for the most part. Of 18 prime-time hours (Sunday – Friday), CBS devoted a whopping 11 hours to crime procedurals like CSI, 3 to laugh-track comedies like The Big Bang Theory and 2 to reality. That’s 16 of 18 hours – and people wonder why CBS is #1 when you don’t count the NFL. Credit the network, then, for attempting to break out of that pattern a little with 2015 additions like Supergirl and movie-to-television adaptations Limitless and Rush Hour (though the latter does feel a lot like Santa Monica Cop – the show within a show during Season 7 of Californication). Don’t worry though – The Eye also added a new Criminal Minds spinoff and another doctor show.

Battle Creek
The McCarthys
The Mentalist
The Millers
Two and a Half Men
Unforgettable (running joke: People forgot to watch)

Of all the television networks, Fox is in the most trouble right now (if nothing else, look at the cancellation list – larger than ABC and CBS with only 2/3 the prime-time hours). NBC may be having trouble with its scripted fare, but at least it can lean on the NFL and The Voice. Fox has neither of these luxuries, having lost the X-Factor this year and with American Idol following it into oblivion in 2016. Its huge hit, The Following, fell off a cliff ratings-wise and was cancelled, along with Glee, another cultural phenomenon. It also bungled the American version of Broadchurch with poor casting and boring cinematography. But Empire (somewhat surprisingly) become a pop culture phenomenon this winter, giving the net hope for next year. Fox is doubling down on its “weird shit” programming by pairing a TV reboot of the 2002 Stephen Spielberg/Tom Cruise film Minority Report with the Batman prequel Gotham on Mondays. Sleepy Hollow, another show suffering the sophomore slump, got moved to Thursdays at 9pm – up against The Big Bang Theory (CBS), Scandal (ABC) and The Blacklist (NBC). Soon….good luck with that. The biggest change? No event reality shows during the Fall (I don’t really count Masterchef Jr. on Friday nights). I guess Utopia (the show with the naked people) left Fox execs with a bad taste in their mouth.

The Following
Gang Related
Kitchen Nightmares
The Mindy Project
Red Band Society
Weird Loners
The X Factor

NBC is the #1 network on television right now because of The Voice and the NFL’s Sunday Night Football. But its programming is a mess. The television network which brought us some of the best comedies in history on its historic Thursday night, like Cheers, Seinfeld and Friends, only has a total of TWO comedies on its Fall 2015 slate, and they’re both on Friday. Only one comedy returns from the 2014 group. As a whole, NBC’s programming is rudderless, without any sort of brand identity or cohesiveness. It also cancelled Parenthood, so I’m kind of bitter. But that won’t stop me from checking out the continuation of Coach – I loved that show when it was on in the 90’s.

Cancelled Shows
About a Boy
A to Z
Bad Judge
Marry Me
One Big Happy
Parks and Recreation
State of Affairs
Taxi Brooklyn