MAGNA Global’s Steve Sternberg has put together a Primetime Update for the broadcast networks, heading into the upfront: “Broadcast Networks: A Look to Next Season.”
With the upfront approaching, Sternberg says they thought this was a good time to look at some relevant trends, see where each broadcast network stands, and what each needs to do in order to succeed next season: “We recently attended meetings with executives at the various broadcast networks, to hear what they had to say about what direction they will be taking next season, general programming strategies, and some potential new series. It is always difficult, at this early stage of the development process, to make predictions for the fall. Many pilots have not even begun production, many casting decisions have not yet been made, and often little more than overall strategy and written program descriptions of potential series (or some dailies) are available to us.”
While overall television viewing remains remarkably stable, the broadcast networks’ share of the pie continues to shrink. Depending on the demo, all broadcast viewing for the week among adult age groups is down between 5 and 10 percent from last season (the declines tend to diminish as the demos age). The broadcasters have experienced greater declines among kids and teens. Ad-supported cable has picked up virtually all of the defecting broadcast viewers, which is why overall television usage remains stable.
A Tale of Two (or Three) Seasons
For the past few years, it’s really been a tale of two or three seasons. As high-rated seasonal series come and go, network standings by demo tend to shift by quarter. The network races are so close, that it’s often mid-season entries that decide the full-season rankings. The only constants? CBS maintains its adult 35+ strength and FOX maintains its edge among viewers under 35. The mid-range key demos of 18-49 and 25-54 are up for grabs.
ABC has two hours a week of the hit, Dancing With the Stars, and several high-rated serialized dramas, which have provided the network with a strong 4th Quarter, particularly among women (which helps make the network competitive among adults). Then Dancing goes on hiatus, and the serialized dramas decline during January and March repeats.
NBC has Sunday Night Football in the fall, which gives it a strong boost among men in the 4th Quarter (which helps make the network competitive among adults as well). But the network hasn’t yet been able to effectively replace football in the 1st Quarter, when its ratings generally start to decline.
FOX, of course, is just the opposite. The network has struggled for years during the 4th Quarter, finishing third or fourth, before American Idol returns in January to boost the network for the rest of the season.
CBS, on the other hand, is the only network that doesn’t rely on a single franchise to provide seasonal bursts. This has stood the network in good stead, generally keeping CBS competitive throughout the season. But it also makes it more important for CBS’s regular scripted series to continue performing well. Network Situation Analysis The five broadcast networks have distinctly different scripted programming philosophies, and are going after different groups of viewers.
ABC – For the past few years, ABC has clearly been going after women, and quite successfully. Its major hits, Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty, and Brothers & Sisters, are heavily skewed toward women. And their success was not driven by a narrow female audience. They appeal to women of all ages. The network has added the drama Private Practice (a Grey’s Anatomy spin-off), which seems to have found a home following Grey’s on Thursday. When the network added a new comedy, it was the female-oriented Samantha Who? Recent ABC dramas (and comedies) that tried for a more dual audience—Pushing Daisies, Dirty Sexy Money, Eli Stone, Life on Mars—could not find enough viewers to stay on the schedule. The jury is still out on ABC’s latest Monday 10pm entry, Castle. It started out doing OK, and has showed some early strength among women. The new comedy, Better off Ted, does not seem long for the schedule. ABC’s returning series have shown virtually universal decline among its female target audience, hurting its relative standing. With only two new entries this past fall (one of which has been canceled), there hasn’t been any way to make up that ground.
The bulk of ABC’s successful scripted series came in just two seasons—2004/05 (Lost, Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy) and 2006/07 (Ugly Betty, Brothers & Sisters). Only 22 percent of the scripted series ABC premiered during the past five years were still on the schedule at the start of this season. That figure may well be below 15 percent next season.
On the reality front, ABC’s Dancing With the Stars remains a solid hit (and airs twice a week). But it also contributes to the network’s median age inching closer to 50, and has helped mask the fact the network’s scripted series success has been choppy. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition still performs OK, and The Bachelor seems to have gained new life this season. Wife Swap and Supernanny still provide decent filler when needed, but none of the newer reality series ABC has tried this season have taken hold.
Acquiring Scrubs, which never performed well on NBC, and continually renewing According to Jim, is a clear sign of weak program development—at least on the comedy front.
Given its lack of new series success, ABC could be in big trouble if its key female dramas, Grey’s Anatomy, Lost, and Desperate Housewives, continue to slip. Ugly Betty has already weakened considerably, and may be on the bubble. ABC also needs to come up with series that can effectively replace two hours of Dancing With the Stars when it goes off in the 1st Quarter.
ABC continues to lead among women 18-49, but it’s a razor-thin edge over CBS and FOX. It has lost its lead among women 25-54 to CBS this season. The network is virtually tied with FOX among women 18-34, but will lose that lead in another week or two. FOX is way ahead on all these female demos since American Idol returned in January. Next season, for the first time in several years, ABC may not lead among any key female demos. CBS – Ever since CSI became a surprise hit several years ago, CBS has been a procedural drama machine. The network has skillfully managed not to make them all seem alike. They accomplished this through continually finding new spins on the genre, and making strong casting decisions. In addition to the CSI franchise (original based in Vegas, then Miami and New York), CBS has NCIS, Without a Trace, Criminal Minds, Numb3rs, and Cold Case (and two hours of procedural drama repeats on Saturday). This season, The Mentalist and Eleventh Hour joined the mix, with the former becoming an instant success (following NCIS, and generally getting even stronger ratings), and the latter doing pretty well on its own. CBS has been the most stable network on a year-to-year basis. The network has taken its usual lead among total viewers and adults 25-54, and has even pulled ahead of ABC among women 25-54. Only FOX’s American Idol prevents CBS from claiming the adult 18-49 crown as well (it is challenging ABC for the lead among women 18-49).
CBS’s procedural dramas go after both men and women (primarily 35 and older) and account for roughly half of CBS’s schedule. CBS is also known for its Monday comedies. These comedies go after a slightly younger audience than the network’s dramas, and are also geared to both women and men. CBS has tried to develop a Wednesday comedy block, with little success.
CBS has managed to develop at least one new success in each of the past five seasons, and more than one-third of all the scripted series the network debuted over that time was on the air to start this season (a significantly higher retention rate than any other network). Next season’s tally should be just as high.
Several years of ratings stability brings its own set of potential problems, however. Gradual audience declines can lead to a number of series that can be considered borderline. Stability often leads to conservatism, and the network may start to leave shows on the air too long, when a new show might do better. CBS seems to understand this, as two excellent series with limited growth potential, Shark and Moonlight, did not return this season, and two more, Without a Trace and Cold Case, may be on the bubble for next season (although these are more for financial considerations).
As a result of its scripted series success, CBS has not had to rely as much on regular-season reality. Survivor and Amazing Race have served the network well. Survivor has slipped over the past few seasons, but remains competitive.
This season saw the widest margin ever in the number of scripted series hours aired by one network versus the others. CBS had 18 of its 22 hour schedule (82%) as scripted entertainment series compared to 13½ hours for NBC (61%) and 10½ hours for ABC (48%). FOX had 8 of its 15 hours as scripted series (53%), while CW had 10 of its 13 hours (77%) scripted entertainment series.
CBS seems to be in the best shape with its returning series heading into the upfront. Its 10-11pm series might benefit most from NBC removing its 10pm Monday-Friday dramas in favor of Jay Leno. NBC – Going back to NBC’s heyday of the 1990’s, the network’s success was always based on the variety of its programming successes. Older when they needed to be (with the Law & Order franchise) Upscale and high-quality dramas like West Wing, younger broad appeal dramas (E.R.), and strong, upscale comedies (Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier, Will & Grace). One constant was that most nights had a logical and cohesive audience flow. In recent years, the network has struggled as its Law & Order franchise and E.R. have declined, and its high-rated upscale comedies have been replaced by lower-rated upscale comedies. At the same time, the network has suffered from a lack of direction, with new series placed on the schedule in a seemingly scattershot approach, hoping that something would stick.
NBC continues to suffer from a lack of new hits, but because several of its returning series held up well from last season its ratings declines this season have not been as severe as ABC or FOX’s. But programs like Heroes and the aging Law & Order: SVU have dipped since last year, and the network has become increasingly reliant on reality shows. It is in urgent need of a solid new drama.
With NBC obtaining Sunday Night Football, it made the logical decision to try appealing more to men (football is one of the few sports that actually can effectively promote a primetime lineup). At the same time, the network is trying to go for more escapist action fare. Heroes, Chuck, My Own Worst Enemy, Knight Rider, Crusoe, Merlin, and Kings all fit these molds. However, Heroes has declined (why it continues to air opposite FOX’s 24 is a good question), Chuck is weak, and the others have either been canceled or are hanging on by a thread (the heavily hyped but low-rated Kings).
New shows, My Own Worst Enemy, Kath & Kim, and Crusoe, were heavily promoted to no avail during the Summer Olympics. But that has seldom determined the success of a new series (the most heavily promoted series during the previous Summer Olympics was Father of the Pride).
NBC is also known for its Thursday comedies, which, while not nearly as strong as their predecessors, still appeal to very desirable young, upscale viewers. My Name is Earl is reportedly on the bubble due to slipping ratings and high production costs. The new Kath & Kim failed to catch on. The network has high hopes for the April comedy, Parks & Recreation, starring Amy Poehler (which does look quite funny).
During this past 4th Quarter, NBC was competitive among adult demos, with only minimal declines from last season. But it was largely due to its football-driven strength among men. Because of football’s strong performance, however, NBC is really just one or two moderate successes away from moving up in the standings during the 4th Quarter. But the network needs more than that to continue being competitive through the rest of the season.
It seems fitting that just as E.R. is ending its run as NBC’s most successful drama, the network is replacing all Monday-Friday 10pm dramas with Jay Leno. Much of NBC’s reputation as a quality network in its heyday was built on its dramas. But Jay Leno taking over the 10-11pm hour could actually benefit everyone (except program suppliers). It will enable NBC to concentrate on programming fewer hours of scripted entertainment series (FOX has been quite successful with an 8-10pm lineup). It will certainly be a big money saver for NBC. It could help CBS and ABC dramas in the hour. And it could provide advertisers with new and innovative opportunities. As long as ratings are somewhere between what the 10-11pm dramas are currently doing in the hour, and what Leno is generating in late night, NBC will consider it a success. And with twice as many weeks of originals as other programs, it could do fairly well when the other networks are in repeat mode.
FOX has been very good at finding what it does best, and keeping at it, whether it’s in the area of drama, or animation (live comedy has not worked well recently for the network). The main theme for scripted series seems to be, go after young men (and slightly older men) with shows that young women will also watch. While FOX can boast one of the only new successes this season in Fringe, declines among its returning programs and a World Series plagued by rain delays, stunted the 4th Quarter improvement long sought by the network. Hit particularly hard was flagship drama House, which has lost nearly half of its audience among some demos. But American Idol, as usual, saved the day, and FOX is enjoying its typical second half resurgence.
Some other things to consider:
* 24, while not a blockbuster, still performs well, and has broad appeal, both to younger and older viewers. Another new excellent drama, Lie to Me, joined FOX’s lineup in mid-season. It’s performing well, but following Idol, it should have done better. On the other hand, it held most of its audience when moved up an hour to lead off Wednesday, so it might be able to stand on its own.
* Sci-Fi drama, once a hallmark of the FOX network, has had rough going, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles has declined sharply this season, and the new Dollhouse has not caught on.
* Since Married…With Children, FOX has not had much success with live-action comedies, and has become known for its animated fare. The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Family Guy, and American Dad will be joined next season by Family Guy spin-off, The Cleveland Show.
* Despite some high-profile successes, FOX has not developed many scripted hits over the past five years. Just 15 percent (6 out of 41) of FOX’s new scripted series during the past five years were on the network’s schedule to start this season.
* Of course, having only two-thirds as many hours to program as ABC, CBS, or NBC, and having American Idol providing an annual rating surge in mid-season, means that it didn’t need as many scripted successes. But Idol won’t last forever, and FOX could use another scripted success next season.
Since WB and UPN came together as the CW network, it has struggled to find its own identity. Now, for the most part, the network has decided to laser focus on young women, with a schedule highlighted by Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill, the new 90210, as well as its reality success, America’s Next Top Model—although Smallville and Supernatural are still on the schedule for the token male audience. CW should remember that WB’s success was driven by shows that appealed to more than just 18-24 year-old women. Shows like Dawson’s Creek and Gilmore Girls got younger and mid-aged women, Buffy and Smallville got adults under 35. It’s difficult to maintain a weekly schedule going after only this niche audience. With the other networks continuing to be substantially older, and even FOX having a median age over 40, it seems to us that CW is missing an opportunity to own the broader young demo, women and men, as it once did. CW seems like the classic case of perception becoming reality. Much talk has centered around how some of its new signature shows (Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill) have improved versus a year ago. Going from a 1.5 rating among women 18-49 in 4th Quarter 2007 to a 1.8 rating in 4th Quarter 2008 is a nice percentage boost. But it’s still a 1.8 rating. And because of a heavy post-4th Quarter repeat load, that dropped to just a 1.0 rating in the 1st Quarter 2009. Even among its core women 18-34 audience, CW’s ratings are half or less that of the other broadcast networks (although its concentration of young women viewers is substantially higher).
Some other things to consider:
* While both WB and UPN had their share of hits, the two or three years leading up to their coming together as CW produced very little in the way of successful scripted programming. In the past five seasons the combined entity debuted 33 new series, only 5 of which were on its schedule when this season began (15%).
* While Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill are up from last season, both declined by more than 40 percent among women 18-49 from 4th to 1st Quarter (as repeats become the norm). The new updated version of 90210, while talked about in the press as though it’s a hit, barely breaks a 1.0 rating among women 18-49. America’s Next Top Model, although down from a few years ago, still performs well, and remains CW’s highest rated series.
* Smallville and Supernatural are still two of CW’s best performers (and will return next season). This should give the network an idea that perhaps young men should again be a part of the network’s programming strategy.
* The networks’ new series barely registered on the radar this season. Next season, if the network wants its actual viewership to come close to its buzz, growth by 90210 and at least one new success (a new Melrose Place?) is essential.