6 Takeaways From TV's Big Upfront Week
For the last several years TV networks have tried to use the upfronts to show they can compete with or take advantage of digital platforms with their own second-screen apps, Twitter partnerships and digital series. While this week saw some brief digital announcements and stats about social engagement, the focus swung back to TV: how networks are getting viewers to watch live and how broadcasters can match cable networks' edgier fare.
While each network introduced new comedies, a challenging area for most, the attention was really on dramas -- darker thrillers, limited series and big superhero series. Here's a look at the biggest takeaways from the 2014 TV upfronts.
Game on... and other sports phrases were the norm at all of the Big Four broadcast upfronts, as each interrupted their prime-time presentations to highlight the success of their sports franchises. CBS, of course, exalted its deal to air "Thursday Night Football" in the fall, which will allow it to spread its highest-rated shows to other nights of the week and air fewer reruns throughout the season. NBC praised "Sunday Night Football," and its Olympics coverage, which it announced a week earlier will continue through 2032. The peacock network will also air Super Bowl XLIX in February after two years off. Fox talked up its sports division and new cable networks, Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2. But the biggest surprise came out of ABC, whose ad-sales chief Geri Wang invited Ed Erhardt, president of global customer marketing and sales at sibling network ESPN, to the stage during its presentation to discuss how the two will work together. The Walt Disney-owned networks, whose ad sales teams have operated relatively separately, signaled to advertisers they will come together to offer clients broader reach and scale.
"Eventizing": The week's most over-used term isn't even a real word. Definition: to turn a program into an event. NBC and Fox, in particular, used the coinage to describe their plans to compel viewers to watch programming live. Those efforts include live musicals, like Fox's live performance of "Grease" and NBC's previously announced "Peter Pan" and new acquisition "The Music Man." But they also include limited series like "The Bible prequel "A.D." on NBC, the return of NBC's "Heroes," and Fox's "Gracepoint" and "Wayward Pines," from M. Night Shyamalan. A "Simpsons"-"Family Guy" cross-over on Fox is also being pegged as a can't-miss event.
Lead-ins Matter: That was the message from several broadcast executives. Despite viewers watching more programming on a time-shifted, on-demand basis, having the right shows paired together continues to have an effect. Nina Tassler, chairman, CBS Entertainment, said strong lead-ins still matter when introducing new series. Both Ms. Tassler and ABC Entertainment Chief Paul Lee highlighted their returning "building blocks." Mr. Lee said the alphabet network has strong shows every night of the week to help introduce new series. ABC will use "Modern Family" to introduce the new sitcom "Black-ish," and "Scandal" has been moved up an hour on Thursdays as a lead-in to the new Shonda Rhimes drama "How to Get Away With Murder." NBC is also moving "The Blacklist" to Thursday nights in February, which will allow its new drama "State of Affairs" to get a prime lead-in from "The Voice" on Mondays.
Superheroes: Nearly every broadcaster has a new comic book-based show coming to their network next season. NBC will air "Constantine," based on "Hellblazer" on Friday nights; ABC is bringing back "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." and adding "Agent Carter"; Fox has the Batman-prequel "Gotham"; and The CW will add "The Flash," a spin-off from "Arrow," which will also return. (In this the broadcasters aren't alone, of course: Netflix is working on four series based on Marvel Comics characters, which will culminate in... you guessed it, a special event.)
Diversity: TV networks stressed the importance of introducing characters of different backgrounds. ABC, in particular, highlighted a schedule that Mr. Lee said reflects the changing face of America, with shows like "Black-ish," about an African-American family; "Fresh off the Boat," about an Asian family; "Cristela," which has a Latin voice; "How to Get Away With Murder," which has a black woman in the leading role; and "American Crime," which explores racial tensions. On Fox, "Empire" has a predominantly African-American cast and The CW's "Jane the Virgin" borrows from telenovelas.
Fallen "Idol": Sometimes it's what you don't say, and at Fox's upfront presentation the former centerpiece of the network, "American Idol," was barely mentioned. Sure, Ryan Seacrest made a cameo via video at the beginning of the presentation, but not much was said about the future of the reality singing competition. "Idol" was renewed for a season 14 despite hitting record lows this year. On a press call ahead of the presentation Kevin Reilly, chairman of entertainment for Fox, said "Idol" would get a new format, pared down to about 37 hours from over 50, in a bid to keep it around for years even in reduced form. But at Fox's presentation the network didn't say much about "Idol" to media buyers and advertisers. Exactly how "Idol" will appear on the schedule also still remains a question mark, and as a result Fox held back its mid-season lineup until it figures it out.