It’s a question the broadcast TV industry asks itself around this time every year: How long can we keep this going?
The occasion is TV’s upfront season, when all the big programmers announce their plans for the next season in glitzy presentations for big advertisers in New York, selling commercial space in the new schedules early.
These days, the moneymaking heart of the TV business — broadcast television — is fighting harder than ever to stay competitive with the innovation at streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon.
Broadcasters have to please two masters: the advertisers who buy commercials and the viewers who watch shows with ads in them. And as viewership dips each year for network TV shows, upfronts are when the broadcast establishment argues that it still reaches important audiences and isn’t just sitting around waiting for online streaming companies to put them out of business.
At CBS’ upfront event Wednesday in Carnegie Hall, for instance, executives touted their broadcast network as the strongest arm of a media company that includes three streaming platforms and reaches a bigger audience in total than the company did in the year 2000.
It’s a point many networks would make during the upfronts.
For the second year in a row, all the new fall shows on CBS broadcast network star male characters. In fact, following the recent cancellation of the show 2 Broke Girls, CBS has just two series with female characters as primary stars: Tea Leoni in Madam Secretary and Anna Faris and Allison Janney in Mom.
(Other CBS series, such as Elementary and Code Black, do feature women as co-leads or members of an ensemble. And the two original scripted series on its streaming service All Access, The Good Fight and Star Trek: Discovery, both star women.)
During a press breakfast Wednesday, I asked CBS CEO Les Moonves if this seemed a little old fashioned and backwards-looking, given that TV outlets like FX have tried hard to build gender parity behind the camera in directors’ jobs. And some of this year’s most innovative shows — Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, HBO’s Big Little Lies and FX’s Feud — star female characters.
“More women watch CBS percentage-wise than any other network,” Moonves replied. “Our shows have a lot of female appeal … When I look at the totality of who CBS is, I look at news, I look at daytime, I look at sports, I look at Showtime, I look at the CW. They’re all part of our family. When you look at the totality of that, I think we’re fine.”
Perhaps. But given the prestige and visibility of primetime network television, this exclusion seems odd and a bit contradictory.
And CBS isn’t alone. Here’s a look at a few other oddly contradictory trends to emerge from the upfronts.
At a time when media is often about the next new thing, nostalgia emerges big. Everything old is new again at the broadcast networks. ABC is reviving American Idol and Roseanne, CBS has a new version of S.W.A.T., Fox will air 10 new episodes of The X-Files and NBC is bringing back sitcom Will & Grace and the Must-See TV marketing slogan that was used to promote it, along with shows like Seinfeld and Friends in the 1990’s.
Simple as it is to believe that Hollywood has run out of ideas, what’s really happening is more complex. Advertisers want to put their money into what they see as sure bets. And, in the case of shows like S.W.A.T. and The X-Files, networks want to wring a little more profit out of programs they own—programs produced by their studios.
But it’s an odd strategy, given what often produces big hits in TV. It’s summed up in an old saying I think is often true in TV: “stars don’t make TV, TV makes stars.” People like Ted Danson and Jerry Seinfeld didn’t become household names until America got to know them through their hit TV shows. One of this TV season’s most successful new shows, NBC’s This Is Us, featured actors who weren’t big celebrities before the show took off. So I’m skeptical of these reboots or revivals, beyond their appeal to advertisers and headline writers now.
Surprise cancellations reveal where the money in network TV really is. When ABC cancelled the Tim Allen comedy Last Man Standing, some conservatives tried to organize a boycott of the network. They wondered if the conservative politics of the show’s star or his character Mike Baxter might have inspired ABC to dump the series, which was drawing a solid viewership of about 8 million viewers each week. Allen himself said he was “stunned and blindsided” by the cancellation on Twitter. But the likely truth is that Allen’s show was a victim of how the TV business works these days.
Again, some network TV shows aren’t owned by the broadcaster which airs them. For example, This Is Us airs on NBC, but’ it’s owned by Fox’s TV production studio. Networks make money by selling ads, but outside of that, large portions of a TV show’s profits go to the show’s owner. The same with revenue from syndicated reruns in America and overseas. CBS’ Moonves told reporters Wednesday that less than 50 percent of their revenue now comes from advertising, with more coming from these “back end” profits.
So networks have a greater incentive to support shows owned by TV studios inside their corporate family. ABC moved from comedy to dramas on Fridays, scheduling two shows which ABC/Disney owns, Once Upon a Time and Marvel’s Inhumans. There wasn’t room for shows they didn’t fully own, like Last Man Standing.
Sometimes, fans can make a difference. NBC had also decided to cancel a TV show it didn’t fully own, the time travel adventure drama series Timeless. But fans erupted online and helped convince the bigwigs at the Peacock Network to reconsider and uncancel the show days later.
Sometimes, in the fragmented media universe, the average viewer can have an impact after all.