Farms to families:
USDA food program drops top contractor.
When the Fox broadcast network announced its big new shows for the 2020-2021 television season last week, the list contained a curious name: “L.A.’S Finest.” The police drama had not only been commissioned by a rival company, Spectrum — it had already aired there a year ago.
The weeks before Memorial Day are usually a time of hype and expectation for broadcast television, as networks trot out their planned fall shows for advertisers at New York theaters in a period known as the upfronts.
Yet like so much else during the coronavirus pandemic, the past two weeks have instead been filled with unknowns, uncertainty and heavy scrambling. As a result, the fall television season will look unlike anything in recent memory.
With productions potentially sidelined for months, a calendar normally filled with shiny new scripted series and returning favorites will instead contain shows like “L.A.’S Finest” — made for and sometimes already aired on other services. The networks are even considering news and other kinds of programs that rarely grace prime time.
“It’s horrible what’s going on around the world but also in this industry,” said Preston Beckman, a longtime network television executive whose résumé includes Fox and NBC, alluding to the 900,000 entertainment workers sidelined by the shutdown. But, he added, “it will be an opportunity to redefine a lot of television.”
Broadcast TV is a highly interdependent organism. Networks order pilots, a few of which become series that then are scheduled for the fall. There, with the help of highly rated National Football League games and Major League Baseball postseason contests, the shows launch to potentially tens of millions of viewers, whose interest attracts advertisers. In flush times, it all works hummingly.
But this year, nearly every part of that cycle has been disrupted.
Sports leagues remain a question mark amid health concerns and revenue-sharing issues. With the economic uncertainty, brands have less money to spend on advertising, and consumers are more reluctant to buy the products advertised.
And, most important, networks may not have the shows that could drive all of this.
While the coronavirus crisis has worn on, networks have been able to air scripted series and summer competition shows that were produced before the epidemic worsened. That reprieve is now ending.
“The fall is going to be tricky for any network that relies on original programming,” said Robert Greenblatt, chairman of WarnerMedia Entertainment and a former chairman of NBC Entertainment. Warnermedia’s CW already has said it will push the start of the next prime-time television season to early 2021.
Network television is sometimes considered a fading business, with little heat and few viewers. But its hits continue to collect an audience that most streaming shows could only dream of. Even with declines in recent years, nearly a dozen broadcast shows averaged 8 million viewers or more this season, with four of them — “The Masked Singer,” “The Voice,” “NCIS” and “FBI” — routinely topping 9 million.
But those numbers could take a tumble in the fall.
Most of the roughly 50 pilots ordered this year were never shot. (Shooting usually takes place in the spring — right as stay-athome orders began.) To do so now would be close to impossible. To make a September debut, series need to begin shooting by July or early August at the latest. Yet production is nowhere near restarting. Producers and the guilds that cover most Hollywood workers have all said they are not yet comfortable reopening sets, where hundreds of cast and crew members work in close quarters for long hours.
There are also political obstacles, particularly as the two biggest U.S. production hubs, Los Angeles and New York, remain in broader shutdown. Moving to another location with fewer restrictions, such as Georgia, isn’t an alternative, producers say. Stage space and crew availability elsewhere are already tight, and most productions could not be accommodated.
Some in the creative community have acknowledged that a return to normal production routines in the fall is unlikely given the health and liability concerns.
“The actor is going to be the least-protected person on set,” Jon Huertas, a star of NBC’S “This Is Us,” said at a roundtable that California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) held with top Hollywood figures this week. “We can’t film with PPE on.” He said that he and the show’s creators discussed the matter and agreed that it’s plausible that production would not restart until 2021.
That would be of concern not only to fans but to NBC — “This Is Us” garnered more viewers in the 18-to-49 demographic than any other drama last season.
What the fall television scene will instead look like is anyone’s guess.
News programming could be added, especially in advance of the presidential election.
Late-night shows, which have continued to be shot from hosts’ homes, could be moved from 11:30 to a prime-time slot of 10 p.m.
Reruns are a possibility, though those tend to get extremely low viewership numbers in prime time.
Programming from Canada, Britain and other English-speaking territories that has never aired in the United States could also be snapped up by broadcast networks, giving prime time a curiously exotic feel.
Meanwhile, individual networks can pursue tailor-made solutions. CBS could air series that have already been made for and shown on its All Access streaming service — such as “The Good
Fight” and “Star Trek: Picard,” which have drawn fan bases but reach only a small fraction of the audience that a prime-time network schedule does.
This would, experts say, allow the network to sell advertising at a traditionally high rate while offering in essence a commercial for its own streaming service, though such a move could be risky — it could prompt some All Access customers to drop the service.
Nor is CBS the only place All Access might be seen. The CW said it would broadcast the modern fairy-tale series “Tell Me a Story,” which aired for two seasons on All Access — part of the rush to buy up existing shows from other services. The company has also said it will air “Swamp Thing,” a show that ran for one season on its DC Universe service.
ABC said Thursday in its quasiupfront announcement that it would bring back 2019-2020 shows such as “Stumptown” and “Black-ish” and move forward with a new series from the titanic TV creator David E. Kelley. But since there’s no telling when the shows will be able to shoot, the network didn’t give any hints about what days of the week they would air or what month they would debut.
Whatever shows end up on the airwaves, it will make for a strange dynamic. Broadcast television has long been the place where programs originate before migrating downstream to cable platforms, digital services and TV stations in other countries. Now,
U.S. network television could find itself at the other end of the flow.
And it won’t be just consumers and programmers who will feel the consequences; the advertising sector will, too.
Networks in May usually sell ads at upfront rates — comparatively lower prices so that the biggest brands, which know they want in on a fall season, can buy in bulk (as opposed to the more expensive “scatter” markets at a later date).
That gives advertisers a good deal and broadcasters peace of mind that they will have a steady stream of revenue once their shows start rolling out. As much as 80 percent of network advertising is typically sold at upfronts. Not this year.
“There’s no one buying anything right now because there’s nothing for them to buy — the networks can’t say what they’re airing,” said Anthony Crupi, a longtime ad expert and commentator. “So you’re seeing almost no activity at all. Some meetings, maybe. But no deals.”
But some remained optimistic. Warnermedia’s Greenblatt pointed to a number of television phenomena from the shutdown spring, like concerts broadcast from stars’ homes, that garnered high ratings.
Others also sought to find the silver lining.
“You could see a lot of creativity and innovation in the fall without the regular shows,” Beckman said. “At least, that’s what I’m choosing to believe.”