All week during the upfronts, those splashy events the broadcast television networks hold each year in the hope of convincing advertisers to spend copious amounts of money supporting their new shows, we couldn’t help thinking of the classic '80s movie Back to the Future. This year’s presentations unfolded like the plot to that film, with the big five networks—ABC, CBS, CW, Fox, and NBC—collectively playing the role of Michael J. Fox, desperately trying to make viewers and advertisers (think: Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson) fall in love with broadcast television so that it can once again exist in its former glory.
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Delivering a standup routine at the ABC upfront, late-night host Jimmy Kimmel was both hilarious and accurate when he joked that broadcast television “wasn’t losing ground to cable, but gaining ground on newspapers.” Over the last few years, the big five have indeed been going in reverse, losing viewers, critical acclaim, and, as a result, advertising dollars to their cable rivals.
Well, to borrow a line from Twisted Sister, they’re not going to take it anymore.
Judging from this week’s presentations, which were staged in places around Manhattan as staid as a ballroom in the Hilton Hotel on Sixth Avenue to the glamorous Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center and the New Beacon Theater on the Upper West Side, 2010 marks the year the broadcast networks kick off the crutches of cheap reality television, reopen their wallets to big-name talent, and start taking creative risks again.
This year, risk has returned to broadcast television—now will it actually beget innovation?
“We’re programming Fox like a hungry challenger,” says Kevin Reilly, president of entertainment for Fox, even though his network has ranked first among the coveted 18-to-49 demographic for the last few years.
One marked difference from years past is the dearth of new reality shows ordered up by the broadcast networks. Of the 37 new shows debuting across the big five broadcast networks next television season, only four— School Pride on NBC, ABC’s Secret Millionaire, and Plain Jane and Shedding for the Wedding on the CW—are unscripted.
There are even scripted shows using reality-TV-like setups, The Paul Reiser Show on NBC and My Generation on ABC. That’s quite a reversal from the last few years, when the writers’ strike and an advertising recession forced broadcast networks to cut costs and order up drivel like a prime-time version of American Gladiators.
NBC’s new Television Entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin essentially spoke for all the broadcast networks when he voiced a commitment to “quality, scripted programming.”
Though Gaspin’s message sounds obvious, it actually needed to be said, particularly by the head of NBC at his first upfront. Because other than a few notable exceptions like 30 Rock, Lost and House, cable television has in recent years been the master of the quality scripted programming domain. Shows such as The Closer, Sons of Anarchy, Burn Notice, Men of a Certain Age, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and a host of others have stolen the zeitgeist (and the Emmys) away from broadcast television. Part of the reason for that stems from the fact that, in trying to appeal to everyone, broadcast television played it too safe. Programming executives lost their stomach for risk, and, as a result, audiences lost their lunches on regurgitated versions of Knight Rider, banal comedies like Gary Unmarried, and butter-knife dull dramas such as Eastwick.
This year, however, risk has returned to broadcast television—now will it actually beget innovation? CBS and ABC are aggressively programming dramas in the 10 p.m. hour—as is NBC, after canceling The Jay Leno Show opened up all of those timeslots. (Nine new shows are set to debut in that hour this fall.) The big five are also adding new shows to the Friday schedule in attempt to revive a once lucrative, now nearly abandoned evening on television.
“They’re not giving in or ceding the buzz to cable,” says Horizon Media’s head of research, Brad Adgate. “They’re drawing a line in the sand and going right back at them. They’re even taking ideas from cable and using them for themselves.”
Never is that more evident that in the pilots Fox ordered. One of its new shows, Ride-Along, a gritty crime drama set in Chicago, was created by Shawn Ryan, whose previous work includes The Shield, the immensely successful police drama that aired on cable network FX from 2002-2008. And while Fox is positioning Lonestar, its much-buzzed-about serialized drama set against the backdrop of big Texas oil, as an updated version of Dallas, it’s really more akin to AMC’s Mad Men, with its immoral, yet endearing (anti)hero. Terra Nova, from Steven Spielberg and Peter Chernin, represents perhaps the biggest programming risk a broadcast network has ever taken. This epic drama about a futuristic family traveling back to prehistoric Earth to help save mankind could be end up being the most expensive show ever put on television.
“It’s a very big bet,” Fox’s Reilly says simply.
Part of the reason broadcast networks can make big bets like Terra Nova is because they are starting to open up a second revenue stream in the form of retransmission fees—payments from cable companies like Comcast—to distribute their broadcast signals, which they have historically done for free. Remember when ABC pulled the Oscars off of Cablevision for 15 minutes in March? Or when Fox threatened to pull its signal from Time Warner Cable at the end of last year, potentially forcing that company’s customers to miss out on college football’s Bowl Championship Series? Well, the reason they did that was to get paid for their programming.
While cable networks like Bravo or ESPN, for instance, collect revenue from both advertising and subscriptions, broadcast networks have been at a disadvantage because they are solely reliant on advertising. But with retransmission fees, the playing field is slowly evening out—while the effort is still in its infancy and meeting tremendous resistance from cable distributors, CBS, for instance, says it will generate upward of $250 million in retransmission fees in the next two years.
These fees could help turn the vicious cycle broadcast networks are caught up in into a virtuous one. Here’s the best-case scenario for the networks: Much the same way a cable network uses its subscription revenue, a broadcast network can use retransmission fees to invest in original programming, making better shows that will generate larger (or, at least, stabilized) ratings which, in turn, will command higher advertising rates, and, when their contracts with cable distributors come up for renegotiation, an increase in retransmission fees themselves.
More than anything, this year’s upfronts showed the beginnings of that process start to take shape. Now all the broadcast networks have to worry about is going so far back into the future that they forget about the realities of the present. As Kimmel says, broadcast television is still “completely fluxxed.”
Peter Lauria is senior correspondent covering business, media, and entertainment for The Daily Beast. He previously covered music, movies, television, cable, radio, and corporate media as a business reporter for The New York Post. His work has also appeared in Avenue, Blender, Black Men, and Media Magazine, and he's appeared on CNBC, Bloomberg, BBC Radio, and Reuters TV.