Upfronts: The Dying of the Light

Once again, it’s Upfronts Week. Try to contain your enthusiasm.

Timeless: Image provided by imbd/NBC

Upfronts Week is the annual broadcast TV circus where the networks present their Fall schedules, spotlight new shows and confirm which series have ended. Executives try to interest advertisers in their new wares while gamely putting as good a face on the past season’s diminishing returns as is possible.

More than ever, this year’s upfronts have the feeling of re-arranging deck chairs while the ship goes down. It’s the most vivid example of the broadcast networks desperately clinging to the vestiges of a broken system mired in the past, instead of charting a course into the future.

The upfronts presentations are the cherry on top of the wasteful sundae that is Pilot Season. Networks have a few slots on their schedules to fill with new programs. But between them, they commission dozens of pilots. Most never make it to air. It’s a backward, bizarrely punitive approach to series development.

The handful of shows that make it to air tend to generate less and less enthusiasm. Reboots of past hits, adaptations of movies or comic books and barely distinguishable spins on familiar cop, doctor, lawyer, workplace and buddy comedy series abound. And those will mostly be thrown at viewers during a frenzy that lasts a couple weeks in late September. A majority will ultimately fail.

Conviction: Image provided by imdb/ABC

The upfronts also perpetuate television scheduling concepts that are increasingly outmoded. The traditional “TV Season” that runs from September to May has been weakening for two decades. Cable networks long ago staked out the warm weather months for their original programming. That success has forced the broadcast networks to offer “summer programming.” But unlike cable networks, that schedule year-round and have largely freed themselves from the “TV Season” and its “sweeps” months, broadcast networks cling to that model. It’s familiar, even if it means less and less every year.

The concept of stretching out four or so months of programming over eight months is increasingly ridiculous. Broadcast networks have been trying all sorts of things to make that bizarre model work, when viewers have expressed antipathy. The advent of shorter seasons has worked for some shows. Sooner or later the networks will realize they need to join their cable competitors and simply run all of a show’s episodes in a tighter time frame. There are a couple hints from this year’s upfronts that the networks are starting to realize that. But wholesale change isn’t imminent.

The upfronts also highlight one of the biggest problems for ABC, CBS and NBC: the 10 p.m. hour. The networks have struggled for years to launch successful series at 10 and haven’t done a great job of nurturing success stories there. The time may have come for ABC, CBS and NBC to admit that they’re programming too many hours of prime time. They could join FOX and The CW in turning that hour back to affiliates, who’d be thrilled to expand their late newscasts. Or, since rerun time has been squeezed out of schedules, they could turn the hour into their venue for encore airings. The 10 p.m. slot is a problem that looms to break sooner rather than later.

The broadcast networks are at a crossroads. Viewing patterns have changed. Live viewing is only one of several ways that fans consume series. And for many shows, it’s becoming almost irrelevant. Putting so much effort and hope into the upfronts is another clear signal that the networks haven’t gotten the message.

They need to stop trying to figure out how to lure fans back to an outdated viewing model that holds little appeal to modern audiences. They need to focus on how to make money from the way people watch TV now.

But big media companies change slowly and uneasily. The fervor of the upfronts presentations only shows how willingly network executives will ignore reality, even as the old model crumbles around them.

Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on May 17, 2016.

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