If viewers are losing interest in broadcast TV, what can lure them back? Executives hope they have an answer: stars.
Lifting the curtain on their 2013-14 schedules at the "upfronts" in New York this week, the networks behaved like smartphone-toting fans crashing a red carpet. Stars they craved, and stars they got:
There was James Spader, the former
Williams, a reminder of the networks' glory days, joked to ad buyers about how much things have changed: "It's been a long time since I've been on TV, 30 years, when there were much simpler upfronts — and a mound of coke," he said.
Of course, there isn't any boldface name powerful enough to resurrect that era, and TV executives know it. Not a single hit emerged this season, and the audience trends are dismal, with viewers defecting to cable,
Executives are so panicked about the future that they devoted large portions of their presentations in New York barraging ad buyers with pitches about their digital strategies, including
The looming threats have sparked defensiveness in some quarters, as the industry struggles to maintain its primacy in a world crammed with new media.
"Broadcast is not an old medium being left behind by new ones — far from it," CBS chief
At the very least, there would be a lot less to watch. The four major broadcasters will unleash 13 new comedies and nine freshman dramas this fall, with more to come in midseason. "Repeats" has become a dirty word — the audiences for them are shrinking to hash-mark ratings territory — so executives are focused on keeping the pipeline filled with as many fresh episodes as possible.
The fixation on stars may be a way of marking time until the dust settles in the industry. The new series seem for the most part to promise familiar faces in familiar settings and shun the prickly antiheroes and high-concept plotlines increasingly found on cable.
Inspired by ABC's smash
Fox, the former star of
ABC, trying to rebrand Tuesdays as a comedy night, will hunt for living-room jokes in "The Goldbergs" and "Trophy Wife." And CBS has "The Millers," which stars
With the exception of "The Michael J. Fox Show" — featuring a star who has witnessed little audience rejection — media buyers greeted the new comedies with polite applause during the formal presentations this week.
The reaction was not much more enthusiastic on the drama side, although a couple of breakouts grabbed attention. Writer-producer Joss Whedon, a deity among fanboys since his "
"Given the success of the Marvel film franchises and
NBC is giving "Blacklist" — with Spader as a master con who mysteriously turns himself in to help the authorities solve other crimes — the plum spot after
"The singing competition show has reached saturation," noted Brad Adgate, an analyst for ad firm Horizon Media. Nor do the networks seem eager to trot out new unscripted concepts. Reality "was glossed over" at the presentations, Adgate added.
Given online replays and the use of DVRs in roughly half of U.S. TV homes, prime-time schedules play a somewhat diminished role in determining the fate of series. But there are still key battlegrounds. One is 10 p.m. Mondays, where ABC's durable crime drama
Thursdays will be a comedy slugfest between CBS and NBC, with Williams' "Crazy Ones" battling Hayes' "Sean Saves the World" at 9 p.m. In an unusual twist, both shows will also have untested freshman comedies as lead-ins, making it even harder to predict a winner. But CBS has a strong advantage because its overall lineup draws many more viewers.
But for the new TV season, "winner" might prove a relative concept. The industry is on the verge of a precipice, and major changes are on the way. Executives will have to respond — in future seasons. For now, however, they are content to gaze upon the stars.