Amid changes to their business models and competition from streaming services, networks presenting at the 2018 upfronts actually opted for more familiar, old-school approaches to their programming.
Held this past week, the big event in broadcasting revealed a long list of TV lineups and advertising opportunities for the upcoming season. But in a time of looking forward, the networks have actually become “more conservative in a lot of ways,” CNN media critic Brian Lowry said.
“I saw headlines building up to the announcements about a bloodbath of shows that were canceled,” he said. “And actually, if you look at it, there’s a lot of hyperbole in that. Really, they stuck with a lot of shows that I think in the past they would have canceled because they sort of have embraced the value of stability.”
As the guest on this week’s Reliable Sources podcast, Lowry joined CNN senior media correspondent Brian Stelter to discuss the main takeways from this year’s upfronts, diversity within television ranks, and the battle over CBS.
Listen to the whole podcast here:
The idea of networks becoming more “conservative” doesn’t necessarily apply to creating more shows appealing to Donald Trump’s America or the American heartland, a la “Roseanne.” In fact, Lowry said, “I don’t think that happened at all in any significant way.”
But ABC’s revival of the sitcom did create a “ripple through the lineups a little bit” with more multi-camera sitcoms and reboots, Lowry said. CBS now has a total of five reboots on its schedule, with “Magnum P.I.” and “Murphy Brown” joining “S.W.A.T.,” “Hawaii Five-O,” and “MacGyver.” A remake of “Charmed” is set to premiere on the CW.
This trend of revivals, Lowry said, is “basically a programming solution to a marketing problem.”
“It’s harder and harder to get your shows notice, so if you give viewers — and I think especially, the media — if you give them a title they’re familiar with, it’s harder for them to ignore it,” he said.
Reality TV is also sticking to what it knows, with more seasons of “American Idol” and “The Four” and a junior version of “Dancing with the Stars.”
“I don’t want to say the networks have embraced their lot as that they don’t have as much sizzle, but I think they’ve come to accept that it’s hard for them,” Lowry said. “They can’t put on their version of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and necessarily expect it to take off.”
Networks are also being more conservative about axing shows with ratings that haven’t bounded through the roof.
“Some of the shows that got picked up, if you just looked at their ratings, there was no reason to pick them up,” Lowry said. But then, if “you start looking at other ancillary parts,” like international sales or streaming deals, it’s possible to detect revenue from other sources.
“The balancing part of that is that even if the network owns the show and the network is making money on it, at what point does keeping around a show that’s not drawing much of an audience on your network start to undermine your network?” Lowry asked.
When Stelter asked if networks are “kind of settling” in an Amazon and Netflix age, and if “they basically admit that the best shows might be found on HBO or Hulu now and not on the broadcast networks,” Lowry said he thinks “if you pushed them, they would admit that.”
“But they would also point out, rather proudly — at least the ones who will talk about such things — that the shows that they put on are still watched by more people than most of those shows,” he added.
While Lowry thinks the upfront presentations are important because they “give a sense of a network’s priorities,” he does miss the days of what he calls “scheduling gamesmanship.”
“A network would announce a schedule, and then you would see networks countering moves and explaining how they were putting this show against that show, and there was really a lot of strategy and brinksmanship that went into that,” he said. “Now, you barely hear most of the networks even talk about that strategy.”