'Tis the new TV season to be jolly.
Networks are playing it safe with promotable franchises and high concept escapist fare; these franchises could have syndication payoffs rather than immediate ratings (especially if networks produce their shows). On the drama front, the networks looked over 51 pilots, while comedies, as usual, made up the lion's share with 64 pilots. Reality shows covered five pilots, "dramedies" covered 2 pilots and three were from yet unnamed genres like NBC's Rerun.
Despite their staggering failure rate last season, comedy is still king for the U.S. broadcast networks, with ABC having 16 sitcom pilots in production. After seeing its Friday night numbers plummet, ABC is considering resurrecting its kid-friendly TGIF-branded sitcom lineup in the hopes of stopping the Nielsen blood-letting. Susan Lyne, ABC Entertainment's new president, said, "Family-oriented comedies were a staple for ABC and a big part of its success. There really is an opening for us there, and an opportunity to refocus our brand and re-identify us to our audience."
NBC, with eight sitcoms currently on its schedule, is looking to add two more for the next season, while Fox, which already has 10 comedies, also wants to add a couple more. The exception to the comedy rule is CBS, which commissioned 11 drama pilots.
The reason for the emphasis on comedy is largely financial: networks are under considerable pressure to develop hit comedies because of sitcoms' lucrative back-end syndication revenues. In other words, one hit sitcom pays for a whole lot of failures. Despite viewers' obvious appetite for dramas, broadcasters continue to devote more development time and money to launching new sitcoms because the networks that have planted the most hit sitcom blocks in the 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. hours have typically won the season, or have finished second, with adults 18 to 49.
But establishing new hit comedies is harder than ever, with the networks caught in a programming Catch-22: there are fewer successful comedies on the air, and thus there are fewer protected time-slots to launch new comedies. In fact, more than half of the lead-out sitcoms on the broadcast networks are failing to retain an acceptable percentage of their lead-in audience.
According to some industry sources, the trouble started with a uniformly weak midseason slate of shows. Roy Rothstein, vp and director of national broadcast research for Zenith, a New York-based media buying company, wrote in his midseason report, "Midseason is traditionally known as a period in which new shows are launched on the back of established hits in hopes of filling holes in the network schedules." But this year in particular, Rothstein noted, "the midseason has been extremely disappointing. More than half of the series that joined the schedule since January have been canceled, many without fulfilling their total midseason commitments." But, as a newspaper headline once bannered: "In TV, It Can Always Be Worse."
Carolyn Finger, vp of TV tracker.com, an Internet-based research company, noted, "it just gets down to brass tacks, where so much is being expended on pilots and there being so few time slot opportunities for success -- there is much less tolerance for failures off the bat."
Network strategy, though, could make a new show a sleeper in the sense that a possible hit could be held off of the upfront, to keep the advertising inventory. So, if the economy does indeed pick up mid season, the networks will be ready to rake in more ad revenue by hiking prices.
Although the reality craze has settled down from the hysteria of a few seasons ago, reality programming will still make its presence felt. These kinds of programs help networks hold down costs and can be quite profitable.
Repurposing will once again be a big part of the U.S. television landscape, although industry experts caution that broadcasters have to use the strategy judiciously. CBS learned that lesson when it re-aired its reality show The Amazing Race, in March, on sister station UPN, only to generate dismal ratings. Similarly, The March to Madness, a one-hour special promoting the NCAA basketball tournament, also tanked. But despite those miscues, repurposing will remain important to the networks' bottom line. "The economics of the industry don't justify the expensive programming we're making right now, unless you have additional windows to exploit it," said Jamie Kellner, chairman and CEO of Turner Broadcasting.
Similarly, producers are looking at "windows of opportunity" in order to mitigate as much risk as possible, which means selling a new show to a terrestrial network and a cable network at the same time, especially since cable TV executives are more flexible. For non-U.S. broadcasters this means that shows remain alive even if one network pulls out and international sales become the back-end.
Only two networks, NBC and CBS, will make money this year: NBC $500 million and CBS up to $250 million. Fox, which went from 10.6 million viewers in 1999 to 9.4 million in the current season, has losses projected at about $150 million, and ABC could lose $250 million. To help counter the losses and falling ad revenue, fewer new shows are being cast with stars. In addition, some networks, such as ABC and NBC, won't buy any new shows from the studios before seeing both a pilot or sample episode, and the script for a second episode.