Network executives tried to stay positive at the bi-annual Television Critics Association Press Tour in Los Angeles. The one exception at the recent gathering: Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS, who opened the executive session addressing the potential loss of federal funding by simply stating "the outcome is uncertain."
If only honesty was the best policy elsewhere. Since that is not going to happen anytime soon, let’s take a look at some real answers to key issues facing the Big 4 broadcast networks—beginning with the most heated executive session.
While CBS will likely remain the most–watched network next season (unless the 2018 Super Bowl and Winter Olympics lift NBC past it), the ongoing issue is the inherent lack of diversity. "We want our slate to be inclusive. We want it to be diverse. We want all sorts of programming, all sorts of different types of programming. And we believe that we will get that," said Thom Sherman, CBS’ recently appointed senior executive vice president for programming, when asked why the network continues to lack diversity.
"We have two shows with diverse leads this year that we didn’t have on the schedule last year," added Kelly Kahl, the newly minted president of CBS Entertainment. "We have a midseason show with a lead character who is gay. And over the last few years, if you look at the number of diverse series regulars, that’s up almost 60 percent. The number of writers we have from diverse backgrounds is up over the last few years, as are directors. So we are absolutely moving in the right direction."
While a recently introduced CBS sitcom like "Superior Donuts," starring Judd Hirsch and Jermaine Fowler, is certainly a step in a diverse direction, upcoming generic crime solvers like "SEAL Team" and "S.W.A.T."—which features African-American actor Shemar Moore in the lead role—continue to define the network. Focusing on a formula that seems to work is not a bad strategy, and CBS should certainly not be the only network taken to task over his issue.
But the next time Kahl also points to increased diversity in its reality series, however, take a look at this summer’s cast of "Big Brother," which is sorely lacking, as does the upcoming fall editon of "Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers."
Be immediately wary when a network boasts dominance without offering any specific data to support it, which is exactly what Entertainment President Channing Dungey did at ABC’s executive session.
"Many of our shows double in their ratings when all the multiplatform viewing is taken into account. And we have seven of the top 10 co-viewed shows," Dungey boasted. "And we’re the most social network. Our viewers make an effort to watch. And because they make that effort, they are more engaged when they do."
Season to-date (through August 6th), according to Nielsen, ABC ranks third in both total viewers (6.62 million) and adults 18-49 (1.8 rating/6 share). So, focusing on multiplatform is certainly a no-brainer. But what are these seven shows that rank in the Top 10? What is the specific benchmark? And what exactly qualifies ABC as being the most social network?
Ignited by "Sunday Night Football" and reality mainstay "The Voice," it is no surprise that NBC once again won the traditional (September to May) TV season in adults 18-49. "It’s great to have a lot of momentum going into next season, and as you all know, because we have the Super Bowl and the Olympics in February, I think we will be No. 1 in both the demo and in total viewers next year, which is something we haven’t accomplished since 2002," crowed Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment. "I know sports will play a big part in that, but I’m optimistic we will also hold our 18 to 49 lead even when sports are factored out."
NBC is heading into 2017-18 with its most competitive season in years. The breakout success of "This Is Us" proves the broadcast networks still have the ability to foster an immediate hit. Anything with Chicago in the title is a guarantee of some audience interest (albeit older-skewing), as is veteran "Law & Order: SVU."
The return of "Will & Grace" will certainly out-rate anything NBC has had in the comedy department in years. Moving dramas "Blindspot" and "Taken" to Friday could give CBS some competition for older viewers. If NBC does pull a total viewer upset next season, it is for a combination of positive reasons and not just sports. In this case, the gloating is warranted.
Like most networks, Fox will never admit defeat, even for recent limited series "Shots Fired," which shot blanks in the traditional TV ratings. "The numbers were okay," said Dana Walden, the co-chairman and CEO of Fox Television Group. "It didn’t break out and become that lightning rod, but I think it did do what we hoped." She also touted growth in total audience for "Lethal Weapon," "The Mick" and animated "Bob’s Burgers."
But what looks consistent for Fox on paper by the traditional ratings this season – 5.02 million viewers and a 1.6 rating/6 share in adults 18-49 – was a result of Super Bowl 50 and the seven-game World Series, not the regularly scheduled programming line-up.
Of the Big 4 networks, Fox has the weakest primetime line-up this fall. Animated mainstays "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy" are hemorrhaging on Sunday. Sophomore "Lucifer" does not offer much lead-in support to newbie drama "The Gifted" on Monday, nor does relocated "Gotham" into oddball "The Orville" on Thursday. Comedies on Tuesday just do not resonate. "Empire" on Wednesday, now at 8 p.m., is no longer the force it once was. And "Hell’s Kitchen" paired with returning "The Exorcist" on Friday is more like filler than an aggressive maneuver.
While Walden is particularly bullish about upcoming singing competition "The Four" for midseason, citing "a genre that broadcast television owns," no one apparently told that to ABC, which has flopped miserably this summer with "Boy Band." If there is one singing competition worth touting, it is probably the revival of "American Idol" on ABC. In this case, new may not be necessarily be the better option.