Upfront Uproar: Fall's 5 most grueling time-slot battles

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As much as younger viewers effectively have little use for network schedules—outside of sports and other high-impact live events, those nearer to womb than tomb are increasingly unlikely to tune into their favorite TV shows in real-time—it's a reach to say that time slots no longer matter. The rise of the DVR, Netflix and other digital diversions have diminished the importance of lead-ins and counter-programming, but they haven't usurped the significance of scheduling altogether. As long as the majority of viewers are still watching live (and they are), advertisers should continue to pay attention to the arrangement of the building blocks of prime time.

If nothing else, the show that wins its hour among live viewers is far more likely to deliver higher commercial ratings than one that reaches a disproportionate percentage of its audience in playback. (About 75 percent of the ads that are captured by the DVR are zipped or zapped, so the show that makes the best case for being viewed in real-time automatically has a leg up.)

The vagaries of playback aside, time slots continue to play a key role in determining how ad inventory is priced. The anchor shows that air at 8 p.m. consistently fetch higher unit rates than the dramas that occupy the decidedly less-trafficked 10 p.m. slots, when the DVR reigns as the top-rated "network."

So, yes: However attenuated by habit, technology and an overabundance of alternative programming options, network scheduling abides. To that end, here are five of what promise to be among the most hotly-contested time slots on the fall schedule.

Monday 9-10 p.m.: Magnum P.I. (CBS) vs. 9-1-1 (Fox)

Credit: Karen Neal/CBS; Michael Becker/FOX

CBS's greatest advantage over its broadcast competition is its ability to all but command sampling of its new series, a gift that perhaps has less to do with persuasion than sheer cumulative reach. Including its national NFL broadcast window, CBS can lay claim to six programs that average north of 10 million viewers per week, or more than NBC, ABC and Fox combined. With that embarrassment of promotional riches at its disposal, the Eye network enjoys what amounts to a big head start; factor in the readymade brand equity of "Magnum P.I." and advertisers can expect to reach an eight-figure audience when the reboot bows in September.

Which isn't to say that the new-look "Magnum" is going to simply drop Ryan Murphy's "9-1-1" into the nearest dormant volcano. One of this past season's very few unqualified breakouts, "9-1-1" not only served up enviable commercial impressions (over the course of its 10-hour freshman run, the show averaged north of a 2.5 rating in the C7 currency), but it was almost metronomically consistent. Rare indeed is the season finale that draws a rating that is just one-tenth of a point shy of the premiere number. Rarer still is the 9 p.m. show that can pull that off without a viable lead-in. (Ratings for the final six installments of "The X-Files" failed to break the 1.0 mark.)

With a median age of around 55 years, the audience for "9-1-1" isn't exactly overcrowded with spring chickens. If "Magnum," like "Scorpion" before it, can make a connection with the dewier end of CBS's 25-to-54 demo, the two could spend a good part of the season fighting it out for auto, wireless and QSR dollars. But if the gender breakdown plays out as expected ("9-1-1" draws three women 18 to 49 for every two men in the demo who tune in, while "Magnum" should provide a more even split), the Fox show may be more vulnerable to the twin predations of NBC's "The Voice" and ABC's "Dancing with the Stars."

If some of the creakier members of the Tom Selleck Fan Club choose to sit out the "Magnum" reboot, that certainly won't have any impact on CBS's target demo. (In other words, Oahu cares if the old guys don't show up?) And if the cutdown and recent history are any indication, the pilot should be stuffed with the sort of cinematic stunts and action sequences that will have men in their 30s and 40s coming back for more. That the first episode was lensed by Justin Lin, director of the "Fast & Furious" franchise, will likely help in that regard.

Prediction: The comma-free "Magnum" revival will run away with the demo that matters most to CBS, and its more immediate, visceral pleasures should help give it a slight edge in live-same-day deliveries of adults 18 to 49. Along with giving CBS its best shot at rebuilding its razed Monday night lineup, "Magnum" may be the closest any network comes this year to a sure thing.

Tuesday 9-10 p.m.: This Is Us (NBC) vs. FBI (CBS)

Credit: NBCUniversal; Michael Parmelee/CBS

With CBS having sent "Bull" packing to the Monday 10 p.m. slot, the new Dick Wolf procedural "FBI" is charged with going head-to-head with broadcast's top-rated drama. Starring Missy Peregrym ("Reaper," "Rookie Blue") and Jeremy Sisto ("Six Feet Under," "Law & Order"), "FBI" marks Wolf's first non-NBC drama to bow since his "Dragnet" reboot landed on ABC in February 2003.

Aside from the information-starved title (were "Crime" and "Police" already spoken for?), the "FBI" cutdown offers a sneak peek at a grim slab of sleuthing that begins with the death of a seven-year-old child before moving on to a self-satisfied neo-Nazi bomber, a jailhouse shanking of a would-be informant and, inexplicably enough, the Oasis track "Wonderwall" reinterpreted as a torch song for the moderately suicidal. "FBI" is at once generic and overfamiliar—and yet it appears to perfectly inhabit the sweet spot in the Venn diagram that unites CBS's brand of crimebusters and Dick Wolf's blueprint for procedurals.

If "FBI" doesn't appear to offer anything new, that's probably beside the point. The show will very likely end up being a reliable draw for CBS in the post-"NCIS" slot, which in the last decade or so has been a sturdy launch pad for such newcomers as "Bull," "NCIS: New Orleans," "NCIS: Los Angeles" and "The Mentalist."

Of course, hanging a big number after "NCIS" and topping the Kleenex-depleting wonder that is "This Is Us" are two entirely separate matters. Heading into its third season, the Dan Fogelman confection not only commands the highest live-same-day ratings for a broadcast drama, but it also earns back a whole bunch of impressions in playback as well. Discounting the episode that aired after Super Bowl LII, "This Is Us" enjoyed an uncommonly high lift in its delayed commercial ratings, adding more than 1 million adults 18 to 49 to its season average upon application of C7 data.

A water-cooler show that already averaged a 2.7 rating in live-same-day before each week of ad impressions were factored in, "This Is Us" is the sort of program that is all but impossible to subvert. Barring a disastrous decline in the quality of the storytelling, "This Is Us" is somewhat of a unicorn in that it can beat you fair and square in the here and now before going on to pile on even more points in playback. (Most series are lucky to scratch back as many as 400,000 demographically apposite viewers via the DVR, which is more or less designed to aid in the avoidance of commercials.)

Prediction: If the battle for overall deliveries may be tight, with both shows averaging over 10 million viewers per episode, "This Is Us" should beat "FBI" in the 18-to-49 and 25-to-54 demos without so much as breaking a sweat. And if the race is close down the stretch, they can always kill off another major character, only to have him or her reappear through the magic of flashbacks.

Tuesday 10-11 p.m.: The Rookie (ABC) vs. New Amsterdam (NBC) vs. NCIS: New Orleans (CBS)

'The Rookie' and 'New Amsterdam'
'The Rookie' and 'New Amsterdam' Credit: ABC/Tony Rivetti; Francisco Roman/NBC

The 10 p.m. time slot may be one of the roughest chunks of real estate in which to launch a new show, and yet the fall season will see two newbies try to find their feet in this most cursed of hours. According to Nielsen live-same-day data, the five series that aired in the terminal Tuesday slot in 2017-18 averaged a miserly 0.9 rating, which translates to fewer than 1.2 million adults 18 to 49 across the three participating networks. In a TV universe of diminished expectations, any show that can gut out the season in this slot and come out the other end with a 1.0 rating counts as a hit.

While schedulers like to believe that there's no such thing as a haunted time slot, it's difficult to come away with that impression after having dug through ABC's Tuesday night archives. Since September 2015, ABC has only managed to eke out a 0.7 in the demo at 10 p.m., and of the four new series it has introduced to the hour, only the ShondaLand drama "For the People" has survived to see a second season. If the time slot isn't exactly a vortex of supernatural activity (the walls aren't bleeding, at any rate), there's definitely a scent of failed commerce in the air. Like a food court in a dying mall that has played host to an endless succession of disappearing chain restaurants, ABC's Thursday night capper is a place that reeks of desolation.

Enter Nathan Fillion, late of "Castle" and, as he introduced himself during ABC's upfront presentation, "a really big deal to your mom." The actor, who is due to age out of the demo in 34 months, stars in "The Rookie" as John Nolan, a small-town lug who moves to Los Angeles to join the LAPD. While the trailer demands that you suspend your disbelief at every turn—there's improbable and then there's the 47-year-old Fillion throwing himself into the rigors of basic training in order to land a $60,000 salary—"The Rookie" wisely eschews the sort of Prestige Drama traps that upended earlier ABC series like "Wicked City" and "Of Kings and Prophets."

Forever on the verge of bursting through the fourth wall like the Kool-Aid Man, the likably snarky Fillion is a perfect choice to lead a show that seems content to veer from cops-and-robbers set pieces to the sort of goofy, wounded romanticism that characterized his work in "Castle." (There's a reason why your mom thinks he hung the moon.) After trying to force-feed viewers a steady diet of off-brand basic-cable fare, ABC with "The Rookie" has given itself its best shot at winning the time slot since "NYPD Blue" occupied the hour.

If "The Rookie" is to turn things around for ABC, it'll have to out-deliver an aging veteran series and a new paint-by-numbers medical drama. Since being separated from its original "NCIS" lead-in two years ago, CBS's "NCIS: New Orleans" has lost nearly half of its demo deliveries. Fans know where to find it, so there's little reason to suspect that the vast majority of the 2 million adults 25 to 54 who tuned in every week won't be back in the fall. (Naturally, strong tune-in in the "Magnum, P.I." hour can only help the cause.) Worst case scenario, your Fillion-crazed mom will tune in to ABC while your dad and Scott Bakula spend some quality time kicking ass and taking names in the garage. And that's fine! They both still watch the commercials! They definitely buy stuff! Don't let advertisers' myopic fixation on penniless, ad-avoiding millennials spoil their good time!

As the nation's parental units settle in for an hour of procedural intrigue and Fillionic hijinks, NBC looks to get more milage out of its "This Is Us" lead-out. While the sudsy drama has made NBC the envy of its network peers, it's not had a halo effect on the Tuesday 10 p.m. shows. During the season that just ended, "Law & Order: True Crime" managed just a 1.0 in the 18-to-49 demo, squandering 65 percent of its "This Is Us" lead-in, while "Chicago Med" fared better in its eight pairings with the Pearsons, losing 40 percent of the earlier hour's audience.

NBC's cutdown for "New Amsterdam" introduces us to Dr. Max Goodwin, the saintly medical director at New York's Bellevue Hospital who at first blush comes off like Gregory House, M.D., if the Fox antihero had been addicted to anti-asshole pills rather than Vicodin. If it's impossible to say if the pilot is anywhere near as saccharine as the trailer (NBC is really not shy about emotionally manipulating its viewers with a whole lot of pensively twinkling piano notes), the script suggests a far more nuanced work lies in store.

The one factor that may work against "New Amsterdam" is that it's entering a schedule that is already fairly overgrown with medical dramas. Barring any pre-season audibles, there are five such series slated for the fall, and two of them (ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" and "The Good Doctor") are already among the highest-rated dramas on TV.

If genre saturation is as deadly as the ebola virus that haunts the "New Amsterdam" cutdown, or if the show otherwise has a hard time finding an audience, NBC has a midseason replacement at the ready. A sprawling ensemble drama that reads like a particularly smart fit with "This Is Us," "The Village" rides the new wave of touchy-feely TV without completely drowning the home audience in treacle. Bonus: The cast includes Uncle Junior and a three-legged dog.

Prediction: ABC exorcizes its ghosts with "The Rookie," but NBC counters in 2019 with "The Village."

Thursday 8-10 p.m.: The Big Bang Theory, Young Sheldon, Mom, Murphy Brown (CBS) vs. Superstore, The Good Place, Will & Grace, I Feel Bad (NBC)

Candice Bergen and I Feel Bad
Candice Bergen and I Feel Bad Credit: Johnny Vy/CBS; Evans Vestal Ward/NBC

If the CBS vs. NBC Thursday night comedy battle wasn't a fair fight in 2017-18, the addition of "Murphy Brown" to the lineup only makes things even more one-sided. The first hour finds TV's second- and third-highest-rated comedies poised to once again eclipse NBC's "Superstore" and "The Good Place"—this season, "The Big Bang Theory" and "Young Sheldon" more than doubled the deliveries of their direct competitors—while a sagging "Will & Grace" isn't expected to have much more luck against "Mom" than it did over the last six months of close combat. (After bowing to a stellar 10.2 million viewers and a 3.0 in the demo, "Will & Grace" steadily lost ground, finishing the season with a pair of 0.9 ratings. "Mom" by comparison was the picture of consistency, never wavering more than three-tenths of a point from its opening number.)

The "Murphy Brown" reboot is set to take on "I Feel Bad," a mismatch that prompted CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl to joke that 9:30 is now the "I Feel Bad for NBC" slot. While Kahl's gleeful jab is the sort of thing that CBS execs tend to toss around at its annual upfront breakfast, the barb has more to do with the sort of built-in brand recognition and wised-up political satire "Murphy Brown" can offer versus the no-stakes suburban ennui of "I Feel Bad."

If the single-cam "I Feel Bad" seems an odd fit for the traditional multi-cam "Will & Grace," it could very well turn out to be something of a placeholder before NBC is ready to go live with the Mick Schur comedy "Abby's." (Set in Natalie Morales' backyard speakeasy, this high-wire act will be shot outdoors in front of a live audience.) But if the actual show is as weirdly frantic and lazy as the cutdown—there are "sex is like pizza" jokes! more than one!—then Murphy and the old "FYI" crew are going to eat NBC's sex pizza for lunch.

Prediction: For 11 weeks, Fox is going to stomp everything else on the dial like so many grapes. From Sept. 27 through Dec. 13, "Thursday Night Football" will eclipse its scripted competition, and while that's not going to do NBC any favors, CBS historically has been resilient to the NFL's primetime incursions. More importantly, the season is 35 weeks long, and its anyone's guess how Fox will try to make the adjustment back to entertainment programming in the first quarter. When the final numbers are tallied, expect a decisive victory for CBS.

Friday 8-9 p.m.: Last Man Standing, The Cool Kids (Fox) vs Fresh Off the Boat, Speechless (ABC)

Last Man Standing and Fresh Off the Boat
Last Man Standing and Fresh Off the Boat Credit: FOX; ABC/Kelsey McNeal

As much as everyone seems to love Fox's decision to salvage Tim Allen's "Last Man Standing," the sudden shift from its signature brand of serialized single-cams to the laugh-tracked family comedy cut loose by ABC is a little jarring. Formatting and the chuckles of the doomed aside, "Last Man Standing" is far older-skewing than most other Fox originals, or at least it was when it aired on ABC. (In its final season on the Disney-owned network, Allen's show averaged a more-than-respectable 1.4 C3 rating, while reaching an audience with a median age of around 59 years old, or a full decade beyond the upper limit of Fox's target demo.)

Speaking of golden agers, Fox will follow "Last Man Standing" with the new sitcom "The Cool Kids." Set in a retirement home—and certainly nothing quite rouses the demo like the prospect of institutionalized senescence—"The Cool Kids" stars David Alan Grier, Martin Mull, Leslie Jordan and Vicki Lawrence, a cast of TV stalwarts with a combined age of 267 years. Yes, there's an awful lot of comic pedigree up on the screen, and co-creator Charlie Day's FX show "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" is a force of maliciously delightful chaos, but the pairing of "Cool Kids" with Allen's "Home Improvement 2: Get Off My Lawn" all but telegraphs Fox's intention to play out the string while waiting for the Disney deal to kick in.

In what amounts to broadcast's only other contested comedy block, the Fox shows will square up against ABC's lowest-rated extant sitcom ("Fresh Off the Boat") and "Speechless," a series that lost nearly one-third (31 percent) of its 18-to-49-year-old deliveries between its first two seasons. In one of those Möbius strip ironies that is forever folding back in on itself, "Fresh Off the Boat" will occupy the time slot vacated 14 months ago by "Last Man Standing," and like its predecessor, the show is produced by 20th Century Fox TV. If/when the Fox assets are sold to Disney, the studio and the content produced therein will become the property of the Mouse House.

Prediction: Unless Comcast plays spoiler and scuttles the Disney-Fox transaction, there is quite literally no way for ABC to lose here. At any rate, this is a temporary arrangement; in light of its new WWE deal, Fox already has plans for how Friday nights in fall 2019 will shake out.

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