Welcome to the 4th annual edition of The Runway. If you’re a TB regular, you know the drill: Ashish and I read every single Fall network TV pilot, we review them, and we let you know which ones we think will be greenlit to series. That lattermost part basically involves a regression analysis. We have to look at the quality of the script, who is the above-the-line talent, what are network needs this season, who is the production studio, will it work as a series, does it capture the zeitgeist, etc. Some of it is basic studio math, but there’s also a lot of intuition involved. Does it feel like a series? Sometimes we’re right, sometimes we’re wrong. Though to be fair, even NBC execs were originally going to pass on Seinfeld before giving it a short order first season.
This year, the looming question is: How can network TV remain relevant? This has been the question since we started The Runway series, but like a snowball heading downhill, it has only gained momentum. We’re seeing prime time shows routinely getting beaten out by cable news networks, The CW is dangerously close to renewing a prime time show with a 0.1 Nielsen rating, and Amazon, following Twitter’s lead, is digitally showing Thursday Night Football this year, eating into the one reliable source of money at the networks (sports!).
But the truth is the networks do matter. They reach the broadest audience and still court some of the best talent through lucrative deals. Even new OTT offerings, like YouTube TV and Sling TV, include the networks in their packages, and some of the most profitable shows on television, like The Big Bang Theory and NCIS, are on network television. Sure, ratings king The Walking Dead airs on AMC, but let’s be honest… cable and streaming are facing a lot of the same struggles as network TV. The only difference is they produce less episodes, churn out a decent number of critical and awards season darlings, and in the case of Netflix and Amazon, have a large war chest to spend on new programming (some of which, no doubt, is spent on programming for very niche audiences that wouldn’t make a Nielsen dent on network either).
It’s not all doom & gloom at networks — they no longer cancel shows, they just let them fade out during the season. Plus the number of bad football games (i.e. blowouts) in prime time during 2016 is highly unlikely to be replicated. But I’m guessing Kevin Reilly’s quality of life has improved since he landed at TBS/TNT from Fox. I wouldn’t wish a network head job on my worst enemy these days.
Before we take a look at some of the preliminary trends for 2017, let’s recap last pilot season. Here are the winners and non-winners (because just making it to air is a win!) from 2016:
This Is Us
Whoa. We knew something big was coming when This Is Us put out the most watched online television trailer in history last Fall, featuring Milo Ventimiglia’s uncovered backside prominently. But This Is Us, with its twist-an-episode approach, outperformed even the most optimistic Nielsen expectations. Perhaps there was pent up demand for a family drama (RIP Parenthood) or people were looking for a show to distract them from a tense election season or Fogelman was brilliant to feature a lot of underrepresented groups on TV (an overweight character, an adopted character, an African-American family). Whatever it was, This Is Us worked in a big way.
I speculated during last year’s Runway that we may have seen peak Family Comedy. ABC was almost literally not canceling any of their existing ones, and yet still found room to add two more (the critically acclaimed Speechless, and the critically ignored American Housewife). On Fox, we saw The Mick slot in nicely, and prove once again that Kaitlin Olson is criminally underappreciated. CBS was able to score minor Nielsen success with Kevin James and Matt LeBlanc’s respective comedy attempts.
Did you know that Grey’s Anatomy is still on the air? How about Hawaii Five-O? Shades of Blue? All of these long running series will be back in Fall 2017. Why? Because newer shows simply aren’t getting enough traction to unseat their older, more expensive network siblings. As ratings have dwindled, network presidents have become more risk averse. So it’s very rare to see a show unexpectedly canceled while still pulling in numbers (witness Castle and The Good Wife, which were as much undone by cast issues as Nielsen points). Coupled with the fact that more networks are buying from their in-house studios, and the financial incentive to cancel underperforming older shows has dissipated.
Last year’s hottest topic turned out to be a bust. Time After Time is already canceled, NBC’s expensive swing with Timeless is unlikely to be renewed, and Making History most certainly didn’t live up to its title. Time travel is a tough concept to pull off, so who knows why networks were so into it last season? About the only successful time jump was aging up Mandy Moore to play a 60-something (that wig though…).
I’m putting an asterisk because I liked the two episodes I watched and the Nielsens were alright. This was my rock solid pick for guaranteed hit last pilot season though. It had Keifer Sutherland, it had political intrigue, it had Sutherland’s dorky glasses. It was basically 24 by another name. It did do OK in the Nielsens, particularly early in its run, but it never quite broke out in the way This Is Us did. Maybe 10 years ago it would have done better. Who knows? But I felt like ABC must have been a little disappointed with how things played out.
Oh boy. This network should be re-named Oxygen, because it is on life support. (Thank you! I’ll be here all week!) Perhaps I’m overstating the troubles at CW. However, two of their new shows, No Tomorrow and Frequency, are DOA. Riverdale, despite an interesting premise and good reviews, hasn’t really found steady footing. My favorite network show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, is perpetually on TV Grim Reaper’s 0.0 Nielsen watch (so far, I think it hasn’t breached 0.2, though). Even with the gift of Supergirl from CBS last season, CW needs to do a bit better at development this season.
We’ll finish up with trends for this Pilot season. Based on loglines, I see three big ones…
Networks are finally coming around to what has been pretty obvious if you look at the Nielsens — minority-led casts outperform in viewership. I’m not saying that’s true 100% of the time, but shows like Black-ish and Empire are pulling in very solid numbers. So what’s interesting about this network season is that studios are going with the Fast & the Furious approach — pairing up various diverse actors. It worked pretty well last season with Lethal Weapon, which was the first new Fox show to get a back nine episode order, despite coming from an outside studio (Warner Bros.). This season we’ll see that trend with Libby & Malcolm (ABC), Untitled Marc Cherry (ABC), Brothered Up (CBS), Distefano (CBS), Hannah Royce’s Questionable Choices (CBS), Untitled Kourtney Kang Pilot (NBC), and Dynasty (CW).
Just how movies have gone with the “Bigger is Better!” approach, TV is shying away from police/medical/law procedurals this season. Perhaps there’s fatigue in those categories, but the more likely scenario is they don’t move the needle enough. Why have a police case each week when you can have the threat of World War III each week? That’s why we’ll be treated to the likes of Unit Zero (ABC), Deception (ABC), Instinct (CBS), Unt. Navy Seals (CBS), Behind Enemy Lines (Fox), and For God & Country (NBC).
TV Spin-offs & Reboots
Last year was big for movie reboots on the small screen. There were hits (Lethal Weapon) and misses (Frequency), Nielsen-wise. This year, with a lot of movie properties already exhausted, TV is turning inwards to spinoff shows (i.e. Young Sheldon at CBS and The Goldbergs spinoff at ABC) and reboot classics (i.e. Dynasty at CW and Will & Grace at NBC). Perhaps network execs have been inspired by Netflix alleging that Fuller House is their most successful original programming to date? Regardless, these properties will definitely have a leg up on the competition for the greenlight.
So that’s it for The Runway intro. Tune back in on Thursday as I go through the CW’s slate…
Andrew Woodberry | Contributor