One thing was clear from the recent Television Critics Association (TCA) Press Tour: the U.S. networks are constantly trying to come up with innovative strategies to capture eyeballs, and TCA has become a crystal ball for the U.S. TV networks’ new season bets.
Networks’ pilot orders start in December, and the TCA Press Tours are in January. By this time, top network executives have a good idea of the direction they’d like to go in and are ready to share their views with TV critics (who organize through their ad-hoc association the twice-yearly TCA tours, the second of which takes place in July), as well as TV trade journalists.
Pitches for the new shows are heard in late July through October. If moved into scripts, first drafts are delivered in November with final drafts going in before Christmas. Networks pick up pilots in January to be produced in March with series pick-ups announced in May. Last year, out of 82 pilots commissioned by the big broadcast TV networks, 48 were picked up and turned into series.
With their strategically positioned winter and summer tour dates, TCA manages in about a two-week period to have a parade of TV executives, producers and talent from all the major TV networks (broadcast, cable and streaming outlets) who spill the beans on their new series in several stages of development, and talk future trends.
Interestingly, TV network programmers don’t seem to be concerned from which studios the pilots come. Indeed, looking at the past season, six of the top-10 TV broadcast series were from competing studios.
The press tours are also good meeting grounds to compare notes and seemingly similarly-themed sitcoms, like Powerless from NBC and ABC’s Damage Control, both based on comics.
“It’s an exciting time to be a programmer,” acknowledged Glenn Geller, the new CBS Entertainment president. “Seems like every day, we are learning new ways for our audiences to engage with our shows. But the challenges are clear. Viewers are increasingly watching on their own schedule and on the platform of their choice. And here’s the important thing: They are watching. Now, when you factor in all forms of playback, more people are watching CBS shows than they did 15 years ago. And in today’s content‑monetization world, every viewer counts.”
Geller said the network is on its way to becoming America’s most-watched network for the 13th time in 14 years. “We have the only two entertainment shows on TV that are watched by more than 20 million viewers: The Big Bang Theory [produced and distributed by WB] and NCIS [produced and distributed by CBS]. And we have 17 series that are watched by 10 million viewers or more. This includes three sophomore series and all four of our new fall shows.”
“On the advertising side, we saw the marketplace turn around in the third quarter of 2015. It gained strength in the fourth quarter, and it’s currently very strong in the first quarter of 2016. And historically a series of strong quarters and scatter leads to a robust Upfront in May. Great news as we get ready for this year’s presentation at Carnegie Hall.”
Still, there is no question that it’s far more competitive out there today than ever before. “[Cable TV network] FX, recently illustrated this point with an announcement that there were 409 scripted shows across broadcast TV, cable, and streaming services in 2015,” Geller noted. “409. Now that is, without a doubt, a daunting number. But I’d like to add some other facts, and they clearly demonstrate how CBS stands out in this mega-crowded content world. CBS has the number one and number two most-watched series among those 409. Now, I wasn’t a math major, but CBS is leading the Top-50 shows, and that leaves 359 somewhere way over there.”
With American Idol (a FreemantleMedia production) in its last season, Fox TV Group Chiefs
Dana Walden and Gary Newman are focusing on primetime development, spending some 30 percent more on new series for next season, which is why Fox is rebooting 24: Legacy and Prison Break, which was last on the air in 2009. While Scream Queens has been renewed for a second season, it remains an ongoing challenge to reach the millennial audience. All three series are produced by 20th Television.
“This young and upscale audience is watching the show on their own terms,” Newman said. Fox data shows that 30 percent of viewers watch live, 26 percent via DVR and the remaining 44 percent on VoD as well as ad-supported streaming platforms such as Hulu and Fox Now. Roughly 62 percent of viewing occurs outside the same-day period.
Asked how advertisers are responding to delayed viewing, Newman said discussions with them “are improving quite a bit. … There’s general movement and recognition that delayed viewing is part of the contemporary experience.”
But he added, “Monetizing non-Nielsen rated viewing remains a challenge. Advertisers, understandably, want a reliable currency and we’re working on that.” One solution, he noted, is to selectively look for ways to co-brand shows so as to guarantee brand visibility.
At NBC’s portion of the press tour, Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment, talked about how social media plays an increasingly important role. “Social media is one of the new measures of popularity that we look at, and digital video consumption of our content increased over 50 percent in 2015, to six billion views.
“NBC was the number one tweeted broadcast network overall and the number one tweeted network in late night. The Voice (an Endemol Talpa production), not any of the hot cable shows, was the number one most tweeted series last year,” he concluded.
(By Susan L. Hornik in Los Angeles and staff writers in New York)