This story first appeared in the May 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Madison Avenue buyers schlepped in and out of more than a dozen upfront presentations during the week of May 13, all part of the annual ritual that produces more than $9 billion worth of ads on broadcast networks alone. There was little mention of broadcast's declining ratings -- save for Fox's endearingly candid Kevin Reilly, who couldn't help but acknowledge his network's 22 percent ratings slide -- as the chiefs pointed to new and creative metrics: The No. 1 brand! A social media hit!
But to hear those ad buyers tell it, the dog-and-pony show is as anachronistic as it is critical. "The fact that they're having this big, drunken presentation with rock music and stars keeps the network in the back of the buyers' mind," acknowledges Gary Carr, senior vp at TargetCast. "You need more and more to stand out. In some ways, they're antiquated; in other ways, they're more necessary than ever."
As upfront week carried on, the postpresentation conversations were not about the big stars (Michael J. Fox, Robin Williams) or the largely underwhelming clips, but rather about the ramifications of a shifting landscape. In fact, the new reality of DVR-curated schedules, cable's summer high season and streaming-enabled binge viewing might have finally upended the rigid broadcast schedule. At Fox, the entry that drew the most buzz, "event" series 24: Live Another Day, won't even bow until May, once the traditional season is complete. In addition to scattered premieres, ABC's Paul Lee announced plans to break up his more serialized fare into uninterrupted batches, with limited series filling the gap. NBC is investing in shorter seasons, and with the serialized Hostages running 15 episodes this fall, even CBS is capitulating to the trend made popular by cable.
Even as they try to emulate cable, the broadcast chiefs were busy touting their unique power. Some 48 hours after Reilly noted that of the 1,050 original series on TV last year, only four of the top 50 were on cable, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves drove the point home: "Broadcast [TV] is not an old medium being left behind by new ones," he said from the stage at Carnegie Hall. "Far from it. We're at the center of it all … a media landscape that would be barren without us."
Battleground: Monday 10 p.m.
The Blacklist vs. Castle vs. Hostages
NBC’s enviable post-Voice hour, which lifted Revolution, pits buzzy The Blacklist against ABC’s reliable Castle and CBS’ most high-profile drama debut, Hostages. The latter also has the bonus of a limited run, packing originals through January.
Battleground: Tuesday 8 p.m.
Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD vs. NCIS
TV’s most-watched drama, NCIS, faces its biggest challenge yet in the very male-friendly Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. Joss Whedon’s comic book entry for ABC joins Fox’s new male-skewing comedies in the hour.
Battleground: Tuesday 10 p.m.
Chicago Fire vs. Lucky 7 vs. Person of Interest
ABC entry Lucky 7 has the misfortune of launching in uncharted waters when NBC’s Chicago Fire and CBS’ Person of Interest, both hits, move into one of the few slots of entirely new programming.
Battleground: Wednesday 8 p.m.
Revolution vs. Arrow
Thrown from the safety of its post-Voice nest, the 2012-13 season’s freshman ratings winner now has the burden of opening Wednesday. Revolution is gunning for Arrow’s young male demographic.
Battleground: Thursday 9 p.m.
Sean Saves the World vs. The Crazy Ones
CBS’ extended comedy block is one of the safest bets of the fall. Robin Williams’ The Crazy Ones and a shifted Two and a Half Men will prove tough competition for NBC’s Sean Hayes and Michael J. Fox comeback vehicles.
Battleground: Thursday 10 p.m.
Parenthood vs. Scandal vs. Elementary
Failing to launch a hit in the hour since ER, NBC moves quietly consistent Parenthood against ABC juggernaut Scandal and the sophomore run of CBS hit Elementary. The latter two already are proven draws.
Battleground: Friday 9 p.m.
Grimm vs. Shark Tank vs. Hawaii Five-0
The shuffled Hawaii Five-0 now has to contend with Friday scripted champ Grimm and the night’s top performer. ABC’s Shark Tank saw its ratings surge 20 percent this past season.
The New Season By the Numbers
More comedies, big spinoffs and huge schedule shake-ups
52, the number of scripted-series orders, 45 of which went through the traditional pilot process.
26 first-season shows that were canceled, including (surprisingly) Go On starring Matthew Perry.
22 new comedies, up from 17 last year, as the networks look to replenish their barren coffers.
14 scheduling moves made, with NBC in particular turning its schedule inside out.
10 title changes during development season, including one for The Goldbergs, formerly How the Hell Am I Normal.
3 spinoffs (for Once Upon a Time, Chicago Fire and The Vampire Diaries), with NCIS: Red failing to move forward, to the surprise of many.
The presentations were rife with bombastry from execs, but media-buying agency Magna Global keeps ’em honest by fact-checking their talking points below.
➽ CBS IS ‘AMERICA’S MOST WATCHED NETWORK.’
“True, when looking at total viewers 2+, a demographic break that no one actually buys.”
➽ The CW’S VAMPIRE DIARIES IS THE ‘MOST SOCIAl-SCRIPTED SHOW’ ON BROADCAST.
“Not true, according to SocialGuide. The Vampire Diaries is the No. 3 most social-scripted show based on tweets, behind Scandal and Family Guy (not to mention the slew of cable programs and broadcast reality series that also beat it).”
➽ ABC IS THE NO. 1 ‘TV BRAND.’
“We don’t even know what this means because the data source wasn’t cited.”
➽ FOX’S THE FOLLOWING IS THE ‘NO. 1 NEW SHOW’ THIS SEASON.
“Not yet clear. Revolution could still earn that distinction in adults 18-to-49.”
➽ NBC IS TIED WITH FOX FOR SECOND PLACE THIS SEASON AMONG ADULTS 18-to-49.
“Not quite. The most up-to-date C3 numbers show NBC marginally ahead if you include Sunday Night Football. Without it, they are about half a rating point behind.”