TV Networks Are Playing It Safe Next Fall. Why?

After several years of creative programming, the major networks have gone mostly conventional for the 2018 fall season. We examine why.

There are certain events on the calendar that reporters, journalists, and enthusiasts look forward to. 

The NFL Draft gives sportswriters and football fans an idea of what the coming season will look like. Financial analysts and reporters breathlessly await major corporations’ quarterly earnings reports so they know where to invest and what to cover next year. Political reporters are presumably just always looking forward to a stiff drink at the end of the day.

For television and entertainment journalists, the network upfronts are the clearest indicator of the changing winds within the TV industry. Upfronts are events that TV networks organize in which they officially introduce and hype their schedules for the upcoming season. Major advertisers and media are invited so the important tastemakers and advertising execs know where to put their time, attention, and money. 

For the past few years now, networks have brought their A-game to upfronts, presenting experimental, diverse, and creative offerings for the upcoming season. In 2017 Fox presented a science fiction comedy from the creator of Family Guy (The Orville), NBC had a show about a young doctor with autism (The Good Doctor), and CBS introduced a new version of Star Trek with production quality that rivals cable to debut exclusively on a new app (Star Trek Discovery). 

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In 2016 The Good Place (NBC), Speechless (ABC), This is Us (NBC), and Lethal Weapon (Fox) all premiere in the fall. The few years preceding that saw Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW),American Crime (ABC), Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox), Fresh Off the Boat (ABC), Black-ish (ABC), Jane the Virgin (The CW), Gotham (Fox), and more debut.

This year, however, there are few novel, interesting, or risky new shows to be found. 

NBC’s fall schedule features three hours of programming devoted to The Voice, three hours for Dateline, and an entire day devoted to Dick Wolf shows with “Chicago” in the title (Chicago MedChicago FireChicago P.D.). There are only three new shows: a hospital drama (New Amsterdam), a This Is Us-influenced drama (Manifest), and an Amy Poehler-produced sitcom (I Feel Bad).

Fox’s schedule features only two new series – the comedies Rel and The Cool Kids. Thursday has been sacrificed to the NFL gods entirely, and ABC’s Tim Allen retread Last Man Standing occupies a prominent Friday at 8 p.m. slot. 

CBS is debuting six new shows but two of them are either reboots (Murphy Brown) or remakes (Magnum P.I.). ABC is bringing five new shows to the table, one of them an Alec Baldwin talk show (The Alec Baldwin Show) and another with a Big Chill-meets-This Is Us premise (A Million Little Things).

This is about as conservative and safe a network fall TV schedule that has been presented in a long time. Some of the shows could very well be great. CBS’ The Neighborhood, ABC’s The Rookie, and Fox’s The Cool Kids all look fun. Some of the returning shows are worthwhile as well like NBC’s Superstore, The Good Place, and much of ABC’s comedy programming.

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Still, after several years of welcome experimentation and risk-taking, why are all four (or five) major networks suddenly playing things safe?

To begin to formulate a theory, let’s take a look back at a brilliant, risky comedy from Fox’s bolder programming days: Arrested DevelopmentArrested Development was as insular, experimental, and unrepentantly weird as they come. It’s a small miracle that Fox ever greenlit it in 2003 and an even bigger miracle that it stuck around for two more seasons (and now two more after that on Netflix). 

There’s a scene in Arrested Development that might be illustrative of the networks’ current predicament. In season one of the show, analyst/therapist (analrapist)-turned failed actor Tobias Fünke is discussing his failing marriage with his brother-in-law, Michael. 

“As you may or may not know, Lindsay and I have hit a bit of a rough patch,” Tobias says.

“Really? When did that start?” Michael asks.

“Well I don’t want to blame it all on 9/11 but that certainly didn’t help.” 

You see where this is going now, don’t you? I’m so sorry. 

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Why are the networks playing it safe this year? Well, I don’t want to blame it all on Donald Trump but he certainly didn’t help. I know you didn’t want the answer to involve the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election but it has to for this reason. Network television channels fundamentally want to try to attract as many viewers as possible. 

They don’t just want to, they need to. Despite the rise of streaming services and despite the switch from analog to digital televisions in 2009, the big four cable networks are among the most widely watched terrestrial television channels on all cable packages. According to a Statista study, the most watched TV channels in 2017 were CBS (with an average of 8 million viewers per show), NBC (7.3 million), HBO (7.25 million), ABC (5.6 million), and Fox (4.73 million). Aside from HBO, which is a subscription service, those are all terrestrial-based networks available on every cable package that must attract advertisers to make a profit. 

Not only that but all four of those networks have media-oriented parent companies who are relying on their revenues moreso than they rely on smaller “sister” channels on cable like Freeform, USA Network, and FX. 

CBS’ parent company CBS Corporation declared revenues of $13.7 billionin 2017. Of that the entertainment division (basically everything related to the actual CBS channel) made up $9.2 billion. That’s a huge chunk of the company’s bottom line. NBC parent company Comcast declared revenues of $84.5 billion in 2017. Of that $9.5 billion was attributed to the NBC broadcast division, which is almost as much as all of NBC Universal’s cable networks (SyFy, E!, USA Network, Bravo, Telemundo, and more) combined. 21st Century Fox’s 2017 revenuewas $28.5 billion, with $6 billion coming from Fox Broadcasting Company. Disney took in $55 billionin revenue in 2017. ABC made up $7 billion of that which is still a sizable percentage given ABC’s portfolio. 

The point of all this is to provide you with numbers to help support what you already knew intuitively. The major networks are geared towards more general, less specialized audiences. When major corporations rely on one division to make up a sizable percentage of their bottom line, that division had better appeal to everyone they can. 

In that mission, the networks undoubtedly have major demographics departments that crunch every possible number they can find to determine just exactly what it is “The People” want. Sometimes, however, current events provide a much larger (and much cheaper) case study to bring insight into what the country is looking for. 

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The 2016 U.S. Presidential Election was a lot of things. It was contentious, it was ugly, it was unprecedented. And from a certain cynical perspective, it was a massive, free demographic study for networks. Every major election is undoubtedly. This one in particular, however, offered an even clearer dichotomy than usual. One candidate had represented the political establishment (fairly or unfairly) for most of her adult life. The other was a crass outsider whose campaign slogan was a direct appeal to the past. 

Around 135 million American adults voted, which is around 41% of the total U.S. population. The result was close enough and the working class backlash so profound that perhaps networks decided to go more conservative (politically-conservative and artistically less experimental-conservative) with their programming. 

Now that’s obviously an oversimplification and no amount of number crunching will inarguably prove that a room full of ABC executives shouted, “Trump won. Call Roseanne!” after the election. And to be clear, there are plenty of other potential reasons. Netflix is now the most-watched content provider in the countrywith 125 million subscribers reported in 2017. That doesn’t even account for other services like Amazon and Hulu. It’s entirely possible and likely even that the traditional networks are spooked by upcoming technologies and are retreating into what they know best. 

Still, there was a massive referendum on where the citizens of the United States want their country and culture to go in 2016 and it is disingenuous to say that that wasn’t one of the major causes of something as subtle and admittedly silly as a less-than-stellar 2018 fall network TV schedule. 

Yes, the networks have sophisticated tools at their disposal to determine what programming will be successful. But at the same time, network television is in the business of “big.” It needs to attract big viewership numbers, to get big advertising contracts, to ensure their parent corporation gets big revenues. 

Sometimes in the pursuit of “big,” decisions need to be made in the most macro, simplistic way possible. What better macro evidence can a network find than the result of the 2016 election, the current political climate, and the discussions about America as a multicultural society that now take place every day? The 2018 fall network TV schedule skews older, safer, and easier because using both the massive demographical tools at their disposal and a general sense of the country’s direction the networks believe that older, safer, and easier is what we want. 

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