A look at programming trends for the 2011-2012 upfront


Media analysts Steve Sternberg and Shari Anne Brill have teamed this year on the next cycle of Baseline Research’s Primetime TV Insight Reports. The first report, the 2011 Upfront Edition, details everything from network erosion and mid-season repeats, to programming trends to a network-by-network analysis. Today we look at programming trends. From the report:

Most network programming trends revolve around three basic genres – comedy (families, relationships, friends, workplace), drama (procedural, police/detective, CIA/FBI/military/elite crime-fighting units, legal, medical, sci-fi/supernatural/fantasy), and reality (competition, makeover, relationship, non-fiction). Here is some historical perspective on each.

The Comedy Revival Must Focus on Families
At one time, before the influx of reality shows and the prominence of procedural dramas, comedies were the cornerstone of any successful network schedule. Until around 2000, you only had to see which network had the most sitcoms in the top 20 to know which network was in first place. There have been a number of periods when comedies were on the wane, only to surge back stronger than ever after a year or two (or three).

From 1994-1997, Cheers, Roseanne, Seinfeld, and Home Improvement ended their long, successful runs in consecutive seasons. From 2005-2006, Friends, Frasier, Will & Grace, and Everybody Loves Raymond ended their broadcast runs.

Many of the best comedies that have left the broadcast arena are still thriving in syndication and on cable (with full seasons available on DVD and online). People are still watching Seinfeld, Friends, and Everybody Loves Raymond in fairly large numbers. It makes developing new comedy hits all the more difficult because people are still comparing them to those classics.

During the 1994/95 season, there were 215 hours per week of comedies on ad-supported television (broadcast, cable, and syndication combined). Five years later, during the 1999/00 season, this had grown to 360 hours. Over the next five seasons, it grew to 510 hours (in 2004/05). Last season, it stood at more than 800 hours. This season it stands at an all-time high 870 hours. In short, the number of comedies on ad-supported television more than doubled over the past decade, and in the past 15 years, it increased fourfold.

Today’s highest rated comedy, CBS’s Two and a Half Men, may come to a premature end because of the well-publicized situation with Charlie Sheen. The network’s other major comedy hit, The Big Bang Theory, along with ABC’s Modern Family (in its second season), are trying to lead a resurgence of the genre on broadcast TV. We’ll have to see if a third or fourth major comedy success can join them in the next year or two. NBC’s The Office, which has been one of the network’s few bright spots, is losing its star, Steve Carell, and will likely decline next season.

We have one suggestion, and we hope all the networks and studios are paying attention. The next comedy success will not be a relationship comedy, or an ensemble of twenty-something friends. It will focus on some sort of nuclear or extended family.

One of the biggest false assumptions on the part of programmers and networks is that families don’t watch television together anymore (and don’t really want to). This idea is probably driven by the fact that the average home now receives well over 100 channels, and has three television sets, with many having more than that. It’s also partially driven by the fact that cable, in aggregate, has siphoned off many viewers from the broadcast networks.

Households have multiple television sets primarily for convenience, not so everyone in the home can scurry off into different rooms to watch TV alone. During primetime, on average, more than three-quarters of all homes have only one television set turned on. Families are searching for programs they can watch together—something too often overlooked by the networks, studios, and the press. Kids and teens may have broken away from the pack, to a degree, as the broadcast networks essentially stopped targeting them, but adults of all ages still watch TV together.

Dramas – Different Themes by Network
In fall 2006, there were an unprecedented 52 dramas (55% of all program hours) on the broadcast networks. A record 25 of them were about crime or terrorist fighting – focusing on police, detectives, CIA, FBI, or military units. Only five were in the action/adventure/sci-fi category. Since then, the crime fighting dramas started to decline a bit, and there was a corresponding increase in action/adventure, sci-fi (i.e., more escapist) fare. Now, we seem to be reverting back.

Two years ago there were 46 dramas on the broadcast networks (there would have been more than 50 had Jay Leno not been occupying five 10-11pm hours on NBC). This past fall there were 51 broadcast network dramas, one short of the record. The high number is primarily because there were fewer reality series and no game shows starting the season. Each network has a substantially different drama strategy, although not all of them are as cohesive and relentless as CBS.

At the start of this season, CBS had the most dramas (14), and continues to be a procedural drama machine. CBS is the only network ever to have three spin-off franchises airing at the same time. CSI has spawned CSI: Miami and CSI: NY. All three series have slipped since their heyday, but all are expected to return in the fall (if any doesn’t, it will be CSI: NY). NCIS and Criminal Minds are still going strong, as are their respective spin-offs, NCIS: LA (in its second season) and Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior (in its debut season). These three franchises account for fully one-third of CBS’s primetime schedule.

In addition, The Mentalist, Blue Bloods, Hawaii Five-0, and The Good Wife should all return for another season (the latter two are not strictly procedurals). That makes 11 dramas sure to return, and there probably will be at least two, maybe three hours of new drama.

Of ABC’s 10 dramas that started the current season, four returning shows were of the serialized, female-oriented variety—Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Desperate Housewives, and Brothers & Sisters (which may not be back).

Castle’s success led to other dramas that went after more of a dual audience, two dealing with crime – Detroit 1-8-7 and The Whole Truth – and two, No Ordinary Family and My Generation, going after a younger dual audience. None of them worked. Sci-fi thriller V is iffy to return in the fall, while the mid-season drama, Off the Map couldn’t draw an audience. A new mid-season procedural drama, Body of Proof (starring Dana Delany), premiered the last week in March, and does have a good shot at being renewed (it currently leads its hour).

Given the problems ABC has had of late trying to go after a more dual audience, we expect the network to go back to courting women. With the Jay Leno experiment over, NBC again placed original series in the Monday-Friday 10-11pm hour. But neither those nor most of the network’s earlier dramas are working.

As the network’s Law & Order franchise started to fade, and the original went off the air, NBC stubbornly clung to whatever cachet the name still held, by scheduling Law & Order: LA, and pairing it with Law & Order: SVU. Aside from L&O, NBC’s strategy for scheduling dramas seemed muddled, but largely focused on escapist fare. The poor performing Chuck was retained, and we were subjected to The Event, Chase, Outlaw, and Undercovers (the latter two already canceled, as was the mid-season sci-fi drama, The Cape). The excellent Parenthood, with no compatible programming for a lead-in, was thrown on Tuesday following the reality show The Biggest Loser.

Of NBC’s new dramas, only the mid-season series, Harry’s Law, has a good chance to be renewed. And even that show is only performing modestly. We think NBC is making a big potential misstep by focusing so much on reality this mid-season. The network needed to be testing out potential new dramas now. If there is a football strike, NBC could have big problems. NBC could have as many as six or seven open hours this fall. We hope that most are not filled with reality.

FOX had the most varied mix of drama this fall. The returning House, Glee, Bones, and Fringe will be back this fall, while Lie to Me, The Good Guys and Lonestar will not. Human Target is probably on the wrong side of the bubble, while The Chicago Code has a chance to make the fall cut.

CW has just 10 hours of primetime programming, nine of them filled by dramas. Of those, five returning shows were targeted to young women— Gossip Girl, 90210, One Tree Hill, Life Unexpected (canceled), and Vampire Diaries. Two of them, Smallville (in its final season) and Supernatural, the only holdovers from WB, continued to go after both young women and men. The network’s two new dramas, Hellcats and Nikita, were also geared to both young women and men. While neither are hits, either or both could be renewed for fall.

Reality – Competitions, Relationships, and Makeovers
The biggest programming trend this decade, of course, has been the influx of reality shows. It’s not really accurate to even call this a single genre. American Idol, Survivor, The Bachelor, Amazing Race, The Apprentice, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, The Biggest Loser, Dancing With the Stars, The Marriage Ref, and Undercover Boss for example, have virtually nothing in common. 

Still most prevalent during the summer—as a less expensive way of scheduling original series year-round, as well as being a testing ground for potential regular-season series—reality/game shows are now mainstays of the broadcast networks’ regular-season schedules.

This season, ABC again had two telecasts of Dancing With the Stars, as well as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. They were joined by the relocated Secret Millionaire (which had a previous run on FOX). Of course, The Bachelor again gave Dancing a breather in the 1st Quarter.

Supernanny, a reality staple for the network, recently ended its run. In spring 2011 Wife Swap is waiting in the wings to be used as necessary. CBS, always the least reliant on reality series, ordinarily starts the season with its two regular reality hours—Survivor and Amazing Race. This fall, they were be joined by the network’s latest hit, Undercover Boss. CBS tried a January launch of former Idol judge, Paula Abdul’s new competition show, Live to Dance. It started out well due to the curiosity factor, but ratings quickly declined. It is not likely to live for another season.

NBC brought back its two-hour edition of The Biggest Loser, as well as the mid-season modest performer, Who Do You Think You Are? The new School Pride was a dismal performer in the 4th Quarter, and won’t be back.

A rare bright spot for NBC was the solid performance of its December run of the new singing competition show, The Sing Off, which aired for two hours on Monday and Wednesday.

After football season, Celebrity Apprentice came back to Sunday, and was joined by a new series, America’s Next Great Restaurant. Last year’s mid-season entry, Minute to Win it, also came back for another run.

FOX returned perennials, Cops, Cops 2, and America’s Most Wanted to Saturday night. And of course, American Idol was back on two nights starting in late January. The new Million Dollar Money Drop aired in December and January to modest ratings and may not be back next year. FOX also aired a special episode of the Howie Mandel hosted series, Mobbed, inspired by the “flash mob” craze. Based on its performance following American Idol, FOX ordered eight additional episodes.

CW began the season with America’s Next Top Model, but did not air repeats of the show as it has in the past. It was joined in mid-season by Shedding for the Wedding.

There are sure to be additional reality/game shows hitting the broadcast schedules throughout the season.

The 11th cycle of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, which aired during fall 2010, generated a renewed interest in the series, largely due to the controversial casting of Bristol Palin. The showdown between Bristol Palin and Jennifer Grey (which culminated in Grey taking home the mirror-ball trophy), was the highest performing episode since 2007.

January 2011 marked the launch of season 10 of American Idol, the first one without Simon Cowell at the judges table. The latest installment of the singing competition series also features two new judges, Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez who sit alongside Randy Jackson. In addition, contestants now get mentored by record producers, instead of recording artists.

The show has also switched nights airing on Wednesdays and Thursdays (instead of Tuesday/Wednesday). While there has been some audience erosion versus the previous cycles, both editions of American Idol remain the highest rated series season-to-date.

In late April 2011, NBC will debut a new singing competition show called The Voice on Tuesdays at 8pm. Announced celebrity judges are Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, and Adam Levine (Maroon 5). Carson Daly has been named as host. NBC’s accelerated plans to get this new show on the air is intended to blunt the interest in the final rounds of American Idol. Accordingly, FOX has announced that it will be moving Idol back to its original Tuesday and Wednesday schedule during May.

Summer 2011 will feature many of the usual suspects as well as some new additions. ABC will be returning another season of The Bachelorette, Wipeout, and Bachelor Pad (season two). New series include: Extreme Makeover: Weight-loss Edition, Take the Money and Run, Expedition Impossible, 101 Ways to Leave a Game Show and America’s Karaoke Challenge.

CBS will be back with the 13th season of Big Brother (on multiple nights). FOX will be back with the 8th season of So You Think You Can Dance, the second season of Master Chef and another season of Hell’s Kitchen. NBC will be returning another cycle of America’s Got Talent, along with the second season of The Marriage Ref. In addition three new shows will join the summer slate: It’s Worth What?, hosted by Cedric the Entertainer,
Still Standing, and Love in the Wild.

From 2003 to 2004, the number of reality/game shows starting the season doubled, going from just 10 to an unprecedented 20. It then declined but gradually grew back to 20 hours in fall 2007. In fall 2008, there were a record 21 reality and game shows starting the season.

There were no game shows in fall 2009 (for the first time since 2005), but there were 15 reality shows. There were 14 reality series on the broadcast networks in fall 2010.

Recycling With the Stars
Keifer Sutherland, Donald Sutherland, Cybill Shepherd, Christine Lahti, Jimmy Smits, Sarah Michelle Geller, Eric Roberts, Christina Applegate, Cherry Jones, Debra Messing, Minnie Driver, Maria Bello, Aidan Quinn, Terry O’Quinn, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Annie Potts, Jesse L. Martin, Christina Ricci, Tim Allen, Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Chiklis, Don Johnson, Ken Howard. Whether these are stars or simply well-known TV personalities is open to debate. But all are featured in pilots being developed for next season. Most will not be successful. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again, shows make stars, stars don’t make shows.

See details on network erosion and mid-season repeats here

Brill can be reached at [email protected]. She tells RBR-TVBR the entire report series can be ordered here