Twice a year TV critics from around the country descend on Los Angeles for the Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour. For two weeks, all of the major networks present their upcoming slate of programming and discuss the business strategy behind their decisions. While the winter edition is usually a less buzzworthy affair, each of the major broadcast channels still had something big to report to the media.
Fox (a subsidiary of News Corp (NASDAQ:NWS))
The biggest announcement without a doubt went to Fox. Critics and analysts were surprised when network chairman Kevin Reilly announced Fox would no longer abide by the traditional "pilot" season strategy. In other words, the network wouldn't be ordering a dozen or more pilots and then spend a month debating which gives them the best shot at success in the fall. It's admittedly an antiquated system that's akin to throwing a bunch of ideas at a wall and seeing what sticks. Still, it's tradition and change is surprising from a TV executive.
It's a massive change in Fox's business strategy, but the old way hadn't been working. Fox has admitted the pilots from its 2012-13 season underperformed (with a few key exceptions), so the shake-up isn't a total shock. However, the network's 2013-2014 schedule has produced some solid winners in Sleepy Hollow, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Masterchef: Juniors, with Rake set to premiere this week following American Idol.
Yet the network is also embracing "event series," which are limited-run miniseries designed to make viewers feel like they HAVE to watch live. Wayward Pines, Broadchurch remake Gracepoint, and the return of 24 will use that model this summer. Seth MacFarlane and Neil deGrasse Tyson will also bring a new version of Carl Sagan's Cosmos to the small screen starting in March. While the two may be unusual bedfellows, the project has serious buzz and could be a surprise success.
With all those projects in the pipeline, it's not a bad time for Fox to try this new experiment. The network has the tools to back it up in case it takes time to work out the kinks. Should these new "event" programs work, it will not only help to validate the network's new "no pilot" strategy, but also continue to bolster the argument that when people have to watch live, they will. More importantly these programs could hook viewers well into the summer, which is quickly becoming a new battleground.
NBC (a subsidiary of Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA)
NBC's press day was a little more subdued. The network is enjoying strong ratings, thanks in large part to Sunday Night Football, The Blacklist, and The Voice. Of course that didn't stop critics from reminding the network that it sat in this same spot last year with the same level of success (just subbing Revolution for The Blacklist) and then the wheels promptly came off.
NBC learned its lesson (for the time being) and didn't let rookie sensation The Blacklist fall into the same trap Revolution did during its freshman run. Namely, NBC didn't foolishly pull the freshman hit for four months and assume audiences would blindly welcome it back.
The Olympics will also play a key role in the network's winter/spring business strategy and NBC revealed that it would look to sneak-preview several shows during the games in hopes of luring audiences. Granted, that strategy backfired last time as audiences were enraged the network cut away early from events like the closing ceremonies to air other programming; and it's worth nothing that all three shows the network previewed during the 2010 Olympic Games were cancelled after one season.
The network also revealed plans for another live musical event in December, following the huge success of 2013's The Sound Of Music. NBC topper Robert Greenblatt disclosed to the critics the network has selected Peter Pan, which drew a fairly positive reaction. On one hand, while it's a very "safe" choice, it also has a long history with NBC and was first staged by the network on live TV back in 1955. Greenblatt and company look to be relying on the nostalgia factor with the selection… but then again it worked for Music.
As with Fox, NBC has realized the value of "live TV." The Sound Of Music was a major success, and paired with the network's NFL Sunday Night Football package, shows audiences aren't opposed to tuning in when something is of interest. That's a large part of why NBC values the Olympics Games so much!
Yet NBC is also trying to win back trust with critics and audiences. The Revolution debacle was reminiscent of what CBS did with Jericho in 2006, except this time it was actually worse. You can't launch a show, get viewers invested, and then announce it's going a long hiatus. NBC's treatment of The Blacklist shows the network understands what it did wrong last year and listened to its audience. As a result they'll be more likely to check out the network's mid-season slate, which has a few promising prospects (such as About a Boy and Believe) that could help stabilize the network's ratings.
ABC (a subsidiary of Disney (NYSE:DIS))
ABC didn't actually plan the biggest news coming out of its press day. New Bachelor star Juan Pablo Galavis made some unwanted headlines when he was asked about his feelings toward a possible edition of the series fronted by a gay bachelor. ABC acted fast and condemned the controversial remarks, which Galavis later apologized for and attributed to a language miscommunication.
ABC head Paul Lee also made his own apology to the media for a few of his network's programming decisions and used the dangerous word "rebuilding" in his remarks. Lee's biggest misstep was his choice not to use Once Upon a Time spin-off Once Upon a Time in Wonderland as a bridge series as originally intended. Lee thought he could fill the network's Thursday 8 p.m. black hole with the series, but instead it became just another victim of it!
This was not a good season so far for ABC, so this was going to be a tough TCA for Lee regardless. Still, it's worth remembering Lee's actually a sharp executive who isn't afraid to take chances on series others may have passed on. This is just a ratings rough patch, but using the term "rebuilding" scared a lot of people. It also could be an indicator of what the network thinks internally of its midseason slate of shows.
The networks had a rough start to the winter season with both of its new limited-run dramas pulling in low numbers and one already being axed. The bottom line is that ABC needs a shiny new hit to help sell to advertisers during its upfront presentation in May.
While Resurrection looks strong and may be a sleeper breakout hit, it's still going to have to have fight against a tough Sunday night lineup of competition. And while critics love Kyle Killen (Lone Star, Awake), he may be in for another rough ratings performance with his new creation, Mind Games.
Status quo was the operative word for CBS as the network is number one overall and has been for some time. As a result, it doesn't need to change a lot. It continues to support the pilot process because it's worked really well for them.
The biggest thing on CBS' agenda was its summer schedule, something it had largely ignored until last year (save for Big Brother). The success of last year's hit Under the Dome paved the way for CBS to add new sci-fi drama Extant to the lineup this summer with Oscar winner Halle Berry in the lead role. Now that CBS has a foothold in the season, it's not going to let go anytime soon.
Meanwhile network sibling CW kept things simple as well, with a few new reality show pickups to go along with the success of the low-risk, high-reward Whose Line Is it Anyway? The CW has been looking to expand beyond its traditional dramas and now seems poised to add to its arsenal.
If last summer is any indication, CBS is poised to once again be a force this summer with the return of Dome, the debut of Extant, and another round of Big Brother. The network made sure everyone knew at TCA that the summer is its new playground.
For now though, the biggest thing CBS has to worry about is coming out from under the Hostages mess. The network's "mini-series/limited event/we'll figure it out as we go along" experiment hurt the network on Monday nights as audiences did not come back after and tune in for Intelligence as hoped.
CBS' rare misstep gave NBC and The Blacklist an opening and they seized it! One mistake doesn't signal the beginning of the end of CBS' reign, but it will force the network to regroup going into the fall. Until CBS (consistently) proves otherwise, it wouldn't be wise to bet against them.
So Fox is killing its pilot season. NBC is all about Olympics, Olympics, and Peter Pan. ABC is rebuilding. And CBS is maintaining the status quo. Now they have four months to deliver on those talking points before the all-important TV upfront season rolls around, and six months before they find themselves back at TCA for the summer edition.
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Fool contributor Brett Gold owns shares of CBS. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.