Farms to fam­i­lies:

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY STEVEN ZEITCHIK steven.zeitchik@wash­

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.”

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