Welcome back to the 3rd annual edition of THE RUNWAY! The premise is simple: we read, review and prognosticate on the future of every single network show picked up to pilot. This year features two major changes: 1. We’re adding CW pilots to the mix, and 2. I’ll only be handling comedies. The incredibly talented professional reader Ashish Mehta will be picking up the slack on dramas. You’re in great hands with him. So let’s get into it with our State of the Network address.
These two words dominated the TV landscape last year. The term, popularized by FX President John Landraf, refers to too many outlets producing too many hours of original television. In this seeming second Golden Age of television, it’s exceedingly hard to attract viewers to a show, and even harder to retain them.
Network TV has been particularly hard hit by Peak TV. Networks rely solely on advertising, so all they care about is eyeballs (particularly those in the key demo — 18 to 49 year olds). But when eyeballs are spread around to 1000s of viewing options — not to mention other distractions like SnapChat and Twitter — network TV suffers. Couple that with creators preferring the autonomy and shorter season of cable outlets, and you have big problems at the networks. Just look at who wins Emmys, the bellwether for quality TV, and you’ll see that the big four networks are getting left in the dust.
That being said, networks still have a few advantages. They overall have the largest distribution footprint. They still bring in copious amounts of cash, particularly from large events like sports. And they have existing relationships — and sometimes talent holding deals — with major A-list writers and actors/actresses. So it’s not all doom and gloom for networks. But it’s also not the endless party it was in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s.
Looking back on last year’s Runway, I think we did a good job of identifying the three major trends:
Diversity. Empire was a late midseason juggernaut, so the networks were a little slow in realizing how big of a deal diversity casting is. We saw pretty strong ratings for Dr. Ken and Quantico, with The Carmichael Show garnering critical acclaim and a renewal. However, Uncle Buck and Rush Hour are still waiting to premiere (not a good sign) and Truth Be Told and The Player fizzled. The networks should and will double down even further on diversity this year.
Remakes. Yes, there were a lot picked up. No, they haven’t had a tangible impact. Minority Report was DOA and the aforementioned Uncle Buck and Rush Hour are still waiting to get off the shelf. Only Limitless, with its more playful tone than the movie, has endured and gotten a second season pick up.
Vertical Integration. You won’t really notice this as a viewer. But the networks definitely picked up more pilots to series from their sister studios. How this impacts showrunners? It makes it more imperative not to get in a long term contract with a studio whose sister network station doesn’t fit the brand of show that you make.
What are my predicted trends for 2016? Diversity, Remakes and Vertical Integration. Yes, the very same three as last year. Boring, I know. And one other trend…
Less Pilots Picked Up to Series. Why will this be a trend? Because series with not great Nielsen numbers are being renewed. Lower Nielsens across the board mean networks are taking a closer look at bottom lines. It’s become easier for networks to say yes to more seasons of more inexpensive shows like The Carmichael Show, Undateable, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Couple that with live musical events (e.g. Grease: Live) and cheap overseas pickups (e.g. You, Me and the Apocalypse), and there just isn’t enough room on the schedule.
To conclude this first look at pilot season, I’ll give you a quick overview of how each networks doing. Tune in next week as I look at the ABC Comedy Slate.
ABC. Paul Lee is finally out. Always interesting — both in taste and personality — this delightful Brit was the longest tenured network head until his recent ousting. Interestingly, his replacement is ABC’s former head of drama development, Channing Dungey. I’m happy for her, because we finally have an African American female running a network. But the curious thing is Paul Lee was fired because ABC’s drama development was so poor last year. While comedy has stabilized at the Disney-owned network, the drama side produced a string of freshman duds: Blood & Oil, Wicked City, Of Kings and Prophets. Dungey does have a good relationship with Shonda Rhimes, the one constant on the drama side, so there’s a chance we’ll see even more Shondaland shows on the air. Makes sense, given their ratings.
CBS. The Eye used to be a can’t miss network. Now it can miss, occasionally. They are buoyed by some long running mega-hits like Big Bang Theory and the NCIS franchise. But the recent misses have started to pile up a bit — Angel From Hell, CSI: Cyber, Code Black. With the impending retirements of Mike & Molly and The Good Wife, they’ll have some holes to fill this pilot season.
CW. I’ll be honest, I’m not the right demo for CW. But they renewed basically every show on their schedule. This means one of two things: 1. The ratings on all the shows were good enough, or, 2. They’re very worried about this development season. Either way, it’s going to be tough to get a show on that network if you have one in contention.
Fox. Fox is at an inflection point. They paired the (beloved by me) Grinder with Grandfathered, to muted ratings. Meanwhile, Bordertown and Cooper Barrett’s Guide to Surviving Life were ratings duds. So if you have a comedy pilot in contention at Fox, you’re in good shape. The biggest swing and miss, financially speaking, was Minority Report (not enough heart or humor, for me). That’s offset by Empire’s boffo (by modern standard) ratings and Bones‘ continued success. So drama might be a tough in at the network.
NBC. NBC has fully moved away from low-rated, highly beloved comedies. But only Superstore has gotten a renewal notice so far. Plenty of opportunity to get your comedy on the air for showrunners. Drama is still driven largely by Dick Wolf’s Chicago trilogy and The Blacklist and its tonal cousin, Blindspot. We’re out of public service providers in Chicago, so a couple of new types of dramas will have the chance to make it on air, along with Shades of Blue getting a sophomore green light.
Andrew Woodberry | Contributor