Sagging legacy networks seek a reversal of fortune

TV Upfronts
Matt Barr, left, and Kevin Costner in “The Hatfields and the McCoys.”
(Chris Large)

NEW YORK — This week, the streets of midtown Manhattan will once again swarm with TV executives trying to woo ad buyers to their upcoming fall lineups with splashy presentations, star-packed cocktail parties and plentiful swag.

But there’s an air of urgency for the suits at the legacy networks — CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox. They’ve been rocked by an ominous first: A basic cable program — AMC’s zombie apocalypse drama “The Walking Dead” — outperformed every scripted show on television this season in the advertiser-coveted 18- to 49-year-old demographic.

And zombies are the least of it. Competition is closing in from every corner and on every device. DVRs are frustrating advertisers by allowing viewers to skip ads. Netflix, Amazon and a host of online Web services are producing original fare. Aereo, mogul Barry Diller’s new service that allows broadcast signals to be watched on hand-held devices, poses another threat that the networks are trying to extinguish with litigation.

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In this environment, TV executives at the annual upfronts starting Monday must pitch their new shows after a season most notable for its failure to produce a single hit. Not surprisingly, most analysts expect tepid advance sales for prime-time commercials, with possibly zero growth over last year’s $9.2 billion. Meanwhile, analysts predict cable’s share of the pie will continue to grow, up as much as 7%, to an estimated $10 billion.

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration at all to say this season was a tipping point,” said Matti Leshem, chief executive of the brand strategy company Protagonist. “If I were a network executive right now, I’d be very nervous, because we have finally reached a point where everyone is questioning the efficacy of television as a medium for reaching audiences, which is really what this is all about.”

What can the networks do? Some expect broadcasters to borrow from basic cable’s playbook next season to help reverse their sagging fortunes.

Like cable, the broadcast networks may experiment more with shortened seasons, down to a number where creative quality is easier to maintain. Also, as with cable, the networks may turn more toward a format that they abandoned years ago — the miniseries, which has brought cable record-setting numbers with productions such as “Hatfields & McCoys” and “The Bible.”


The greater pressure, however, is to generate a breakout prime-time program on the new fall lineups — something the networks were unable to do this season despite dozens of attempts with dramas, comedies and reality shows. In the fall, NBC seemed to have a bona fide sensation going with the freshman post-apocalyptic drama “Revolution,” but after a four-month hiatus, ratings slid more than 40% from the premiere.

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“It’s very simple,” said Brad Adgate, an analyst with the ad firm Horizon Media. “They need to get a hit show and schedule it right.”

The forces seem to be making the networks more conservative in their program development. The days of swinging for the fences are over. Executives seem more content to renew familiar shows, even ones with anemic ratings, rather than take a flier on risky new concepts.

Thus, modestly performing series such as NBC’s “Parenthood,” CBS’ “The Good Wife” and Fox’s “The Mindy Project” have already gotten nods for this fall.

Most of the new program announcements, including new shows, time slots and cancellations, will be made this week at individual presentations to ad buyers by the four legacy networks. But some details began coming out last week.

By Friday, Fox and NBC executives had already announced their selections for more than a dozen shows for next season. With few exceptions, the dramas and comedies were set on familiar territory — cops, lawyers and families. NBC will post the crime drama “The Blacklist” with James Spader at 10 p.m. Mondays, while a remake of the 1970s detective show “Ironside” will run on Wednesdays. NBC’s Thursdays will be oriented around family-themed comedies with sitcom veterans Michael J. Fox and Sean Hayes.

“They don’t have the tolerance for risk,” said Kevin Aratari, managing director of the Los Angeles-based ad firm Mocean. “They can’t put a million dollars or more an episode [on the line] and have a show flop.”


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TV bosses also hope their existing series will last long enough to catch on — much as “The Big Bang Theory” did for CBS. Once the sitcom about Cal Tech nerds found its way to syndicated reruns, the audience for fresh episodes exploded. As home of the hits “The Big Bang Theory” and “NCIS,” CBS looks poised to win this season in both total viewers and adults ages 18 to 49, according to Nielsen.

But even with a victory, CBS’ ratings will probably remain flat among viewers in that all-important demographic. Meanwhile, the other three major networks all saw their audiences shrink among 18- to 49-year-olds.

“This is an incredibly tough environment we’re in right now, and even getting people to sample shows is much harder than even just two or three years ago,” said Joe Earley, chief operating officer at Fox Broadcasting.

Although the broadcast networks may no longer have the benefit of being the first place viewers go to check out new shows, the sheer volume of programming they create compared to cable outlets continues to give them an edge, according to analysts.

“Broadcast networks have a deeper bench. AMC can have big numbers for ‘The Walking Dead,’ but it’s just one show,” Adgate said. “CBS has like 10 shows that do that number.”

To attract viewers who might otherwise flee to FX, HBO or AMC, the networks may need to break some old habits. One way may be to abbreviate seasons for some shows, from as many as 24 episodes, as is customary now, to 13 or fewer, where it’s easier to sustain a compelling narrative. Fox took a step in that direction midseason with 13 episodes of “The Following,” an edgy serial-killer drama starring Kevin Bacon that was a modest hit.

After retiring the model years ago, the networks also seem ready to reembrace the miniseries format. CBS this summer has an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel “Under the Dome.” ABC and Fox have already announced their own miniseries projects, and NBC will soon hire an executive to find and oversee new long-form shows, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid damaging relationships.


Still, even if these new strategies make inroads in the new season, it’s unclear whether that would be enough to restore broadcast’s place as the dominant entertainment platform — instead of merely a dominant one.

That’s the kind of thought that could sober up any upfront party.

“It’s like the Wild West a bit right now,” Aratari said. “And no one has it nailed down.”

Collins reported from Los Angeles and Blake reported from New York.