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Why the Fall TV Season is Like Your Junk Drawer

By Published on .

Credit: Illustration by Tam Nguyen for Ad Age; Composite Images iStock
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Perhaps it's because the fall TV lineup seems to have been cobbled together from the contents of a junk drawer stuffed with reboots, spinoffs and formulaic mush, but as the networks begin the process of converting upfront holds to orders, media buyers say they're not terribly optimistic about the new shows set to roll out in September and beyond.

Buyers who have made upfront commitments for advertisers in one or more of the 17 new series set to bow this fall expect to see a few modest hits among the incoming class, but nothing along the lines of Fox's 2015 phenomenon "Empire" or NBC's more recent crowd-pleaser, "This Is Us." In keeping with broadcast's ongoing ratings slide, projections for the freshman series are restrained, with the average C3 delivery coming in at a 1.2 in the primary TV demographic, which works out to just 1.55 million adults ages 18 to 49.

Among advertisers, the consensus favorite would appear to be CBS's "Young Sheldon," a prequel/spinoff of broadcast's highest-rated scripted series, "The Big Bang Theory." NBC is also getting favorable notices for Dick Wolf's "Law & Order: True Crime," an eight-part anthology series based on the 1989 Menendez murders.

After that, the pickings get mighty slim.

There's still football

"I mean, there's still football," one buyer jokes, before opining that much of the shows on the fall schedule don't seem nearly compelling enough to help traditional TV steal share back from the digital interlopers that siphon off younger viewers. "I don't want to say there's nothing ... but we're not going back to our clients and saying, 'Oh, here's another "This Is Us."' There's nothing we're actively trying to steer them clear of, but we're not seeing any big breakouts either."

Or as another buyer puts it, "Sometimes a client will express interest in a show they can't advertise in, one of those shows it feels like everyone is always talking about, that's on the cover of every magazine. I wish I could buy the new 'Star Trek,' I wish I could buy 'Stranger Things.' But, you know, oh great—here's three army shows. Here's five remakes I can buy."

(For what it's worth, the two-hour ad-supported premiere of "Star Trek: Discovery" is set to air on CBS on Sunday, Sept. 24, following the network's national NFL window and the opening salvo of the 50th season of "60 Minutes." All subsequent episodes of the new "Star Trek" series will stream behind the CBS All Access paywall.)

If many of the buzziest fall shows are not for sale—though advertisers probably are better served by not having a shot at peddling their wares on HBO's porn-industry series "The Deuce" or "Curb Your Enthusiasm"—two of the most talked-about new broadcast series, "Will & Grace" and "Dynasty," happen to fall in that reboot/revival category. Our cynical buyer aside, the TV marketplace has a soft spot for movie adaptations and series resurrections, as the abiding theory holds that viewers are more likely to flock to shows built around familiar characters and story lines.

Short memories

Unfortunately, the Nielsen data generally doesn't support the thesis. The list of repurposed intellectual property that failed to draw a crowd in recent years includes Fox's "Minority Report," CBS's "Rush Hour" and ABC's "The Muppets," all of which aired during the 2015-16 season. And NBC's list of unsuccessful remakes is a corker; setting aside pre-Comcast era curiosities like "Knight Rider" and "Bionic Woman," the Peacock over the past five seasons has struck out with such nostalgia trips as "Ironside," "Prime Suspect," "Heroes Reborn" and "Emerald City."

"Broadcast guys have short memories, and if something worked last year, you can bet you'll see more of it this year," says a former network exec, who notes that two of last year's more profitable freshman shows were Fox's "Lethal Weapon" and CBS's "MacGyver." "There's an awful lot of blind guesswork and if eventually something hits, you just keep plugging away at the closest coordinates and hope you land another hit. Running a network is essentially an incredibly expensive game of Battleship, only you can't cheat as easily."

a metrics muddle

If it's not easy to discern a runaway hit from this fall's crop of new shows, a few are expected to draw a good deal of sampling in the early going. "The Orville," Seth MacFarlane's homage to and/or send-up of "Star Trek," boasts the season's sturdiest launchpad, leading out of a pair of Fox NFL games on successive weekends (Seahawks-Packers on Sept. 10 and Cowboys-Broncos the following Sunday), while "Young Sheldon" previews Sept. 25 after its progenitor's Season 11 premiere.

Buyers say "Young Sheldon" likely has the best shot at building a following in the post-"Big Bang" slot, which despite its huge reach hasn't proved to be much of an incubator for new comedies. Per Nielsen, it's been seven years since CBS launched a new sitcom immediately after "Big Bang" that managed to retain much more than half of its lead-in audience; the short-lived William Shatner vehicle "$#*! My Dad Says" in 2010 held on to 72% of the demo scared up by Sheldon, Leonard and the rest of the nerd herd.

Tempered expectations

If the cushy time slot, a reengineering of a familiar character and Chuck Lorre's Midas touch position "Young Sheldon" to earn the highest GPA in the class of 2017-18, it would be unwise to suggest that the show will put up "Big Bang"-size ratings. Comedies are a slow burn, and the networks haven't delivered any absolute bust-out sitcom hits since "2 Broke Girls" (CBS) and "New Girl" (Fox) debuted back in 2011. Buyers say they can see Season 1 of "Young Sheldon" averaging about a 2.6 C3 rating in CBS's target demo, which translates to a little north of 3.1 million adults ages 25 to 54. By way of comparison, "Big Bang" last season averaged a 4.6 in C3.

Other newcomers expected to deliver respectable commercial ratings include NBC's "Law & Order: True Crime—The Menendez Murders," the Fox-Marvel TV collaboration "The Gifted" and ABC's nod to the exceptional-yet-highly-unconventional-physician genre, "The Good Doctor." Each series presents a compelling argument for advertisers looking to reach a healthy chunk of youngish consumers: The latest "Law & Order" spinoff features "Sopranos" alum Edie Falco and leads out of "This Is Us"; "The Gifted" is a reminder that the Marvel Comics universe can thrive beyond the bounds of Netflix; and "The Good Doctor" shares enough DNA with "House" that it could draw a crowd in the post-"Dancing With the Stars" slot.

On the whole, expectations for the fall season are tempered by practical considerations, nearly all of which have to do with the radical shift in American viewing habits. In the past five years, the Big Four networks have seen nearly a third (32%, according to Nielsen) of their 18-to-49 audience disappear, and even the most cockeyed optimist doesn't believe these consumers are in any hurry to return to the fold. That mass defection is apparent in the rapidly graying broadcast TV audience; according to Nielsen estimates, the aggregate median age for ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox viewers is now 56 years old, or seven years outside the primary TV demo. With a median age of 61 years, the CBS viewer increasingly falls beyond the bounds of the network's 25-to-54 target, and even the youngest-skewing of the four (Fox) has crossed over into the low 50s.

But metastasizing ad avoidance is what's really keeping autumn expectations down. Not only have the DVR and digital disruptors made an unholy mess of the traditional TV ad model, but the metrics introduced as a means to "win back" some of those lost impressions aren't up to the job.

According to a recent study published in the Journal of Media Economics, nearly 30% of all commercial breaks are interrupted or otherwise avoided, and that's just when live TV consumption is measured. Commercial skipping is even more prevalent during time-shifting, as is evident from even a casual comparison of the steroidal live-plus-three data, which measures live viewing plus DVR viewing up to three days after a show's initial air date, and the C3 ratings. The currency against which ad transactions are priced and guaranteed, C3 (and increasingly C7) provides a rough estimate of the average commercial ratings in a program up to three (or seven, as the case may be) days after the original broadcast.

For example, Season 6 of Fox's "New Girl" last fall premiered to a 1.2 live-same-day rating, which works out to a little over 1.5 million adults ages 18 to 49. When three days of DVR viewing were tossed into the mix, that initial rating was inflated 42% to a 1.7—good for another 642,000 demographically relevant viewers. Trouble is, that episode's final C3 rating turned out to be a 1.2, which effectively nullified those additional time-shifted views. In other words, few, if any, of the "New Girl" enthusiasts who caught up via their DVRs watched the commercials. If you're an advertiser who bought time in that particular installment of "New Girl," those bonus catch-up views were largely irrelevant.

Delayed viewing

That, of course, is just one example of hundreds of similar results recorded over the course of the 2016-17 broadcast season. And while there are outlier shows such as "Empire," "Designated Survivor," "This Is Us" and "How to Get Away With Murder" that see significant bumps upon conversion to C3, the average gain from live-same-day ratings to the three-day currency is a mere two-tenths of a ratings point, or a little over 250,000 adults ages 18 to 49. The extended dance remix that is C7 adds a few more tenths, so in the final analysis, a week's worth of delayed viewing helps scare up only about a half-million demographically desirable viewers who otherwise wouldn't have seen your ad.

This year marked the tenth trip around the sun for C3, an unpopular compromise between buyers who wanted to continue to transact against live ratings and sellers who preferred to negotiate against a week's worth of DVR ratings. At the time the industry adopted the currency, top buyers railed against the new ratings wrinkle, arguing that the baggy average-minute analysis failed to demonstrate how many viewers had watched an individual ad unit. C3 has never really been able to measure what it was intended to measure—ads that are fast-forwarded are often still classified as commercial views—and yet what was meant to be a stopgap measure has been the coin of the realm for an entire decade. Go figure.

Ad sales execs say Nielsen is making headway with its rollout of Total Content Ratings, a metric that includes all linear TV (live and delayed) and digital deliveries, and the Turner-Fox-Viacom effort known as OpenAP is a bold step toward standardizing audience targeting. But the grail of blending all Nielsen media measurement and data-centric advertising models into a single, universally accepted currency remains very much in the future.

While the measurement crisis continues to keep ad sales execs scrambling for the Nexium, three new/newish entertainment presidents (ABC's Channing Dungey, CBS's Kelly Kahl and Fox's Michael Thorn) embark on a new season of virtual Battleship, their guns trained on each other and NBC's Bob Greenblatt, and the hundreds of cable networks on the dial and any number of growing digital disruptors. And they'll all keep blasting away at the coordinates closest to their latest direct hit (CBS's fall comedy "9JKL" almost sounds like an obscure square on an analog naval grid). In doing so there will be the inevitable collateral damage—although as in most years, the word most likely to resonate across the waters is "miss!"

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