Advertisers seem willing to accept a fall TV schedule filled with familiar faces and even some mediocre stuff from last year that might not normally have been picked up for another season. But by running with what they've got, the networks -- still reeling from strike-related development delays -- will get more time to devise and launch new shows in the fourth and first quarters. There's nothing wrong, after all, with new episodes of "Grey's Anatomy" or "CSI," and NBC aims to get a jump on the competition April 2 by unveiling a 52-week programming schedule.
At the same time, concern is percolating that the relative paucity of new fare doesn't bode well for network TV ratings. "Even before the writers strike, the season was not shaping up that well. There were very few breakout hits, and ratings were down. Therefore, if you're coming back to the market with the same shows, the chances of a breakout logically don't look very good," said Michael Nathanson, a media analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein. "In the past couple of years, we've gotten increasingly more bearish on broadcasting trends, and the strike probably helps [the networks] in the short term on cost savings in the first quarter, but it's not going to help the picture in the new season."
The writers strike helped accelerate ratings declines. Research from Bernstein's Mr. Nathanson sees live ratings among viewers 18 to 49 down 16% this TV season through March 16, excluding sports programs. Fox's ratings in that category are down 5.7%, while ABC's have tumbled 17.6%, NBC's 17.2% and CBS's 24.2%.
New fall programming is the main attraction during the upfront market, which traditionally launches in May and brings in more than $9 billion in commitments to run ads during prime time. Will advertisers put as much faith in the medium -- along with the $22.4 billion they plunked down for network TV in 2007, according to TNS Media Intelligence -- if they have to wait until November, December or 2009 to see brand-new shows?
To be sure, the programming grids won't be all been there, done that. CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler has visited with media buyers and advertisers, according to executives familiar with the situation, and told them CBS will have new scripted fare on the air in the fall. One of these executives said CBS -- which has renewed the "CSI" dramas, "Criminal Minds," "Without a Trace" and "Ghost Whisperer" -- wants to run as "normal" a fall season as possible, and an NBC spokeswoman said, "New shows will be on in September."
At ABC, "The next fall schedule is going to look a lot like this fall schedule," said Mike Shaw, president-ad sales, in a recent interview. ABC has already announced it is picking up nine programs, including "Grey's Anatomy," "Lost," "Ugly Betty," "Private Practice," "Pushing Daisies" and "Samantha Who?" for the 2008-2009 season. Developing and new programs might be "layered in" as the season progresses, he said.
Fox has long placed more emphasis on programming the second half of the TV season -- partly because it airs the World Series and other Major League Baseball games in the fall -- and believes it can afford to move pragmatically. CW will likely have new product on the air in the fourth quarter and possibly the third, a network executive said.
Media buyers say they are content to wait for new programs, so long as there is some original fare come autumn. "A more measured approach to rolling out new programming -- including winnowing out the ones in the process that seem rushed or off strategy -- could be a benefit for the networks," said Jason Maltby, president-co-executive director of broadcast at WPP Group's MindShare. "Everybody always complains about 15 new shows debuting in the course of two weeks, and how do you really get people to sample and build loyalty?"
Development has been crimped by the strike and networks' eagerness to cut costs in the wake of ongoing audience erosion. Broadcast networks had about 115 projects in development around this time in 2007, said David Scardino, an entertainment specialist at independent agency RPA. This year, he estimated, the networks have about 83, representing a 28% drop. "There is definitely not as much going on as there was last year," he said.
If September's broadcast hype is diminished, other media venues will have a chance to show off. Time Warner's TNT will launch "Raising the Bar," a new drama series from famed producer Steven Bochco and popular TV actors Jane Kaczmarek, Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Gloria Reuben, in early September. News Corp.'s FX is set to air a new season of "The Shield" in the fall, owing largely to complications from the writers strike, a spokesman said.