Every upfront ushers in a new slate of TV programs, but this year's offered something additional: a new philosophy when it comes to broadcast-network scheduling.
Broadcasters are taking a page from cable, with several networks introducing limited series and staggering scripted programs throughout the year.
It's the latest area in which the difference between broadcast and cable is disappearing. Already cable has managed to snag broadcast-level audiences, produce broadcast-quality shows and, in some cases, command broadcast-style ad rates.
Last summer, broadcast got $9.2 billion in commitments heading into the 2012 fall season, up 1% from the 2011 upfront, and cable got $9.7 billion, up 4.3%, for a total of $18.9 billion, according to Morgan Stanley analyst Benjamin Swinburne.
"This is the year you can say broadcast and cable, there's no difference," according to a media buyer in the midst of negotiations who wished to remain anonymous. "They are adopting the same model with episode orders and approaching scheduling in a similar way. Strategically, this is a strong move."
The goal is to air more originals and fewer repeats, including in the summer, when broadcasters traditionally show reruns and reality fare while cable rolls out new programs.
The networks will likely use shorter seasons to find some buzzworthy hits that can compete with the likes of AMC's "The Walking Dead" and History's "The Bible." ABC has found success in this model with "Scandal," which aired for just seven episodes its first season, and Fox tried it with "The Following," which had a 15-episode order this season.
Fox is the biggest proponent of shaking up the traditional fall schedule. It will air the first half of season five of "Glee" in the fall before putting the show on a lengthy hiatus to make room for a new drama, "Rake," which will air in limited capacity. "Glee" will return in the spring and run through the summer.
Broadcast networks have typically programmed full seasons of 22-plus episodes, while cable networks air just a dozen or so episodes a season. But Fox will have at least four series that run for 15 episodes or fewer next season, including "Wayward Pines" and a reboot of "24." It's also developing event series like "Blood Brothers," a "Shogun" remake and "The People v. O.J. Simpson," as well as a modern version of "Cosmos," a 13-part series that aired on PBS in the 1980s.
Similarly, ABC will release 12-episode batches in the fall, taking breaks that will be filled with limited series like "Betrayal," and bring fall series back for conclusions in the spring.
Even CBS, the most vocal proponent of remaining true to its broadcast roots, will do this on Monday nights. It will split the 10 p.m. slot between two new dramas: "Hostages," which will air for 15 episodes, and "Intelligence," which will run in the back half of the season for 13 episodes.
But the Eye network stopped short of delving into event series. "We have series of shows people love, they don't want shows taken off the air unless it's for one of our big events," said Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, during a press breakfast. "We don't need place fillers."