Upfronts: Networks Embrace Changes in Scheduling Patterns
The Big Four hear the footsteps of cable and have responded with an especially aggressive programming strategy for next season.
They’re trying to capture the buzz that pay-TV has generated with high-concept dramas and shorter-order series by investing in event television of their own. And they have loaded up on the one genre that cable has been unable to master: comedy.
The two-pronged approach was evident as each network — even traditional CBS — laid out its fall lineup last week.
ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox will air a whopping 13 new comedies in the fall, the most of any year in at least a decade. Of course, a big reason why is that only two of the 10 laffers to bow last fall are coming back — and neither Fox’s “The Mindy Project” nor ABC’s “The Neighbors” is what you’d call a hit.
But with new projects starring Michael J. Fox, Robin Williams and Rebel Wilson, there’s a sense that the nets are getting more serious about comedy.
The Big Four are also being bolder in their sitcom scheduling, with ABC (“The Goldbergs” on Tuesday), CBS (“The Crazy Ones” on Thursday) and NBC (“Sean Saves the World” on Thursday) all plopping new comedies in the 9 o’clock half-hour with no established show airing behind them — something that’s happened on any network only once in the previous eight years (ABC’s “Modern Family” in 2009).
And the taboo of airing back-to-back new comedies? That’s a thing of the past now that, in addition to ABC, NBC and Fox once again this fall, CBS has done it for the first time.
Another trend in half-hours is the pairing of multi-camera and single-camera comedies back-to-back. CBS on Thursday features a new single-cam surrounding a trio of multi-cams, opposite the reverse on NBC: a multi-cam surrounded by three single-cams.
The networks have done a better job of counterprogramming each other this time around. Last year, there were five hours where they went head-to-head in comedy — including Tuesday at 9 where three went at it. This year, though, it’s just three hours — and in the two where it happens on Thursday, each half-hour on CBS and NBC pits a single-cam vs. a multi-cam. But to achieve this, the nets have also produced another rarity, with both ABC on Tuesday and Fox on Friday slotting dramas leading into comedies.
We’re also seeing the demolition of nights that are clearly struggling. ABC starts from scratch on Tuesday, and NBC is returning only one half-hour (“Parks and Recreation”) to Thursday and just one hour (“Law & Order: SVU”) to Wednesday.
As for event television, the nets hope that limited-run projects can help offset ratings declines for repeats. This will also allow the Big Four to more closely mimic cable in the viewer-friendly way those networks schedule their dramas, with uninterrupted weeks of episodes.
The Alphabet is leaving its hottest shows in place, taking big swings in some of its most troubled timeslots and smartly reducing its reliance on “Dancing With the Stars.”
Four comedies and four dramas join the fall lineup, and while this many shows could be tough to promote, only one returning show shifts nights, which is a plus.
Tuesday, which features half of the net’s new programs in the fall, opens with “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD,” which has male and family appeal, and can be promoted during sister net ESPN’s Monday Night Football. The choice to go with two new family comedies after “SHIELD” is a bit of a head-scratcher, but if the new drama is the hit ABC is hoping, it should funnel a sizable audience into the laffers. There are three open hours on Tuesday because ABC wisely eliminated the Dancing With the Stars results show, which automatically brought an older, heavily female skew to the night.