The Art of the TV Slate

Apr 12, 2009  •  Post A Comment

It may be the age of TiVo and Hulu, but the next few weeks will once again underline an important tenet of the broadcast TV economy: Schedules still matter.
Even as networks increasingly adapt to the notion that their programming is being absorbed long after its original broadcast, the day and time a show first airs remains critical to its long-term success.
Just ask the producers of “Kings”: Originally planned for a high-profile Thursday launch, the show’s odds of breaking through plummeted the minute NBC moved the series to 8 p.m. Sundays, a slot NBC has struggled with for years.
“At the end of the day, your schedule is still the most efficient way to get people to check out a new show,” one network veteran said. “Nobody’s figured out a better way to introduce a show than to put it behind a hit show.”
As the networks get ready to once again strut their stuff for Madison Avenue next month at the upfront ad market, programmers will grapple with a slew of complicated—and sometimes competing—factors as they assemble their new lineups.
Among the questions that promise to loom large as the 2009-10 season comes together:
How will the awful advertising economy affect the shape of the networks’ schedules?
Here’s the dirty little secret of upfront season: The loudest voices in the room at scheduling meetings are often those from the sales department. If advertisers are clamoring for more comedies or fewer reality shows, the plaintive wails of development executives will be ignored so that a network can maximize its potential fourth-quarter revenue.
This year, with networks bracing for one of the toughest selling seasons in years, the network sales staffs could have even more clout than usual. That could be bad news for any shows with edgier content, but a good thing for producers of scripted shows.
That’s because advertisers are said to be begging for as much scripted programming as possible, one network insider said. As a result, don’t expect a flood of new reality concepts this fall (although established hits will be fine).
But this year, it won’t just be the salespeople making their presence felt.
Financial calculations promise to be front and center in upfront decision-making. With corporate parents pinching every penny, executives are more mindful than ever of the need to make costs line up with potential revenue when putting together a lineup of shows.
“When times are good, you try to put on the best shows, and you figure the ratings will follow, and then the ad sales,” said the executive, who declined to be named. “But we don’t know what sales are going to be this year. We don’t know if the demand will be there.”
And without knowing just how much revenue they can count on, networks aren’t going to want to risk putting on shows that could pump up the overall cost of running the network.
That doesn’t mean ambitious or costlier fare doesn’t have a chance. But in the case of a toss-up between two shows, the cheaper one has a better chance of moving forward this year.
Will the four-comedy block make a comeback?
CBS had done OK this season with its one-hour of sitcoms Wednesdays at 8, boosting its ratings by about 9% in total viewers versus a year ago. The network’s modest success already has some industry observers urging the network to roll the dice and expand to a four-comedy block on the night, moving “How I Met Your Mother” or “The Big Bang Theory” in the process.
“This is the time to do it,” said an executive at a rival network who asked not to be named. “They’re the only ones out there who have the goods.”
Expanding to two hours of comedy on Wednesday would mean shifting “Criminal Minds,” which does quite nicely in the 9 p.m. timeslot. Given CBS’ historic tendency to not mess with success, it’s hard to see the network making such a shift—particularly since its current 8 p.m. comedy hour, while solid, isn’t exactly a monster hit.
Other networks might actually be more likely to launch new four-comedy blocks in the fall.
ABC has had very little comedy traction in the past five years, but has been working overtime to come up with easy-to-promote half-hour concepts in development. The network has nearly a dozen comedies in the works, with established sitcom stars such as Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton and Leah Remini attached.
Premiering four new comedies in one block could be suicidal—or it could be the sort of bold play that allowed the network to launch “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” with no real lead-in support. And ABC might not have to start from scratch: “Better Off Ted,” despite shaky ratings, has some strong critical buzz, and “Samantha Who?” is a contender to return as well.
Meanwhile, Fox might look to beef up comedy beyond its current Sunday stable of animated series. It needs to find a companion for “’Til Death,” a fact that makes it likely the network will expand its comedy offerings by at least one hour.
How will NBC launch new shows without a 10 o’clock timeslot?
On the surface, the folks inside NBC shouldn’t have much of a problem figuring out what to do with their grids next fall. After all, Jay Leno will now fill 10 p.m. weeknights, Sundays are devoted to football and networks have generally avoided original scripted series on Saturdays for several years now.
That leaves just 10 hours for NBC schedulers to play with. Take away some slam-dunks—“The Office” and “30 Rock” for an hour on Thursdays, and room for at least one hour of the “Law & Order” franchise—and you’re left with just eight hours for new and returning NBC series.
NBC’s biggest headache will be finding ways to use its few existing pillars of strength to launch new shows. That’s one reason some wonder whether NBC might not consider shifting “Heroes” to an 8 p.m. timeslot in order to make room for a new 9 p.m. drama on Mondays.
Stripping Mr. Leno from Monday to Friday also means NBC can’t put a new scripted show behind one of its biggest hits, the two-hour editions of “The Biggest Loser.” One possible—though risky—solution: Split the two hours into two parts, airing an hour each night. That would allow two scripted shows to benefit from a “Loser” lead-in while allowing NBC to benefit from the two-night strategy ABC and Fox use for “Dancing With the Stars” and “American Idol,” respectively.
Then there’s “Heroes.” Despite suffering more erosion this season, the show still has a core following that could be useful in launching another show. But moving it to 8 p.m. could permanently kill off an already fragile franchise.
NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios Co-Chairman Ben Silverman said having Mr. Leno at 10 will allow the network to take a conservative approach to scheduling.
“We’re going to be more stable than any other network,” he said. “Stable because of Jay, stable because of Sunday football, stable because of our Thursday comedies.”
Has Fox finally found a way to thrive in the fourth quarter?
At the very least, the network shouldn’t struggle quite so mightily in the four dark months before the benevolent light that is “American Idol” shines again.
That’s because the network has slowly established procedural tentpoles that should work well in the fall, from “House” and “Bones” to this season’s newcomers “Lie to Me” and “Fringe,” both likely to return.
Fox also may get a boost from the long-in-the-works premiere of “Family Guy” spinoff “The Cleveland Show,” which is expected to bulk up Sunday nights (barring a surprise launch on another night). It also has at least an hour of chef Gordon Ramsay screaming on “Hell’s Kitchen” to fill some time successfully.
Add in the wild card of Ryan Murphy’s musical comedy “Glee”—which will get a big launch behind “Idol” next month—and Fox has more fall building blocks than at any time in recent memory. If just one of its newcomers can spark with viewers, holding onto the No. 1 slot in the ratings should be pretty easy for Fox next season.
Can CBS launch a drama that’s not a crime procedural?
It’s a perennial question for the network. And while the answer lately has been no—R.I.P., “Swingtown,” “Cane,” “Love Monkey,” et al.—it also hasn’t really mattered. The No. 2 network is up nicely in viewers and demographics, and it has one of the few hits to emerge from this season, crime procedural “The Mentalist.”
In a sense, CBS’ biggest issue isn’t finding a non-crime hit. It’s dealing with the fact that many of its current crime shows are getting up in years. What’s more, because CBS has so few holes to fill—Thursday at 10 p.m. being the biggest—finding launching pads for new dramas will be a challenge for the network.
That’s why the industry consensus is that either “Cold Case” or “Without a Trace” could be sacrificed to open up another hour of real estate in which CBS can experiment. Such a move would have the added benefit of lowering the cost of the network’s primetime schedule, since a new show wouldn’t be as expensive as “Case” or “Trace.”
“They can put in a much less expensive show that has the potential to become a future hit,” one rival executive said. “That’s programming for (profit) margins in a smart way.”


  1. what about The CW?

  2. I would hate to see CBS cancel either “Cold Case” or “Without a Trace” (or for that matter, any of its other dramas) as both are still very good entertainment shows. Also, CBS should make sure to keep “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and “Gary Unmarried” on Wednesday nights. Both are very funny sitcoms and are compatible with each other. CBS made a bold move last fall by scheduling sitcoms in the lead-off Wednesday night slot, and they have had some success with it. But CBS should be patient with these two sitcoms on Wednesday nights and seriously consider adding another hour of sitcoms to the night since CBS seems to be the network that has the best success with sitcoms. If CBS decides to cancel any of its long-running hourlong shows or any of their sitcoms, CBS should move them over to sister network the CW’s Sunday and Friday nights. That way CBS doesn’t completely lose the rights to those shows in case they need them to come back at some point, and those shows would greatly help the CW on Sunday and Friday nights.

  3. 28% DVR penetration, mostly in upscale homes most targeted by advertisers, and schedules are crucial? No way. Don’t trot out Kings as an example. It was originally scheduled Sunday nights and people sampled it and they didn’t like the taste. Thursday wouldn’t have helped this turkey.

  4. Screw TV. Read a book.

  5. Diito.

  6. Would the world crumble if they cancelled Flashpoint? I watched it Friday night when my plans got cancelled and wow, is it awful. People get paid to write this?
    I have to admit my Friday night guilty pleasure though: Ghost Whisperer. It’s very nearly bordered on soap opera this year but has managed to remain enjoyable despite the questionable decision to kill one of the lead characters. Say what you will about it, but it’s consistently entertaining (and I can’t say that about every show that I make a point to see).

  7. Get out of the house on Friday night. Those shows will prematurely age you.

  8. The reason Heroes is fragile is because the writing is horrible! Those guys need to watch a couple episodes of Lost to see how to weave storylines together without dropping half of them. I give Heroes till the end of this season to shape up. If not, forget it!

  9. I like Heroes–it’s improved this “chapter”, but I would rather keep Chuck at the 8P Monday time slot.
    Was “Eleventh Hour” cancelled?

  10. Thanks for the excellent strategic overview. To Tracy & Jason, if you love books so much, why in the world are you reading a publication called TV Week…?!?!? Go read and leave those of us who love TV alone. What do you say…?

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