Advertisers could spend up to $10 billion on the upcoming TV season, and don't want to waste it on flops. So what are they hearing from the researchers who advise them on how to spend their ad dollars?
TheWrap asked executives at top media agencies 10 questions about the 2011-12 season, from whether Ashton Kutcher can save "Two and a Half Men to why there aren't more minority groups on network shows. Here's what they said.
Most of the broadcast networks are adding more sitcoms both in the fall and for mid-season. Is that a good strategy for drawing more viewers and a good one from an advertiser viewpoint?
Billie Gold (vice president and director of programming research at media agency Carat): Comedies, if they hit, can be very profitable for the networks, especially on the back end of syndication. The problem is that most freshman comedies fail unless slotted in a protected time period. So advertisers are taking a bit more of a risk if they are making long-term commitments or sponsorship deals in comedies.
Brad Adgate (senior vice president of research, Horizon Media): I think it’s a good strategy. Comedies have had a mild resurgence of late led by ABC’s "Modern Family." If you rank the highest-rated shows among Adults 18-49, there are now a number of comedies in the Top 15. From a business standpoint, it makes a lot of sense since comedies repeat better than dramas. So there is a more lucrative aftermarket and it typically brings in younger viewers, a consideration as the median age continues to rise at the four largest broadcast networks.
Sam Armando (senior vice president, director at media agency Starcom): People do not watch "Modern Family" because it is a sitcom; they watch it because it’s funny. Good content will draw more viewers to a program, regardless of its genre.
Steve Sternberg (longtime head of research at media agency Magna, now head of his own research consulting firm and author of The Sternberg Report): I think scheduling more comedy is a great idea. It’s good counter-programming, and it will help the networks get a bit younger. The problem is that they seem to want to schedule them opposite one another. Also, the nets need to understand that family comedies work better than romantic comedies. Let’s keep in mind that three-quarters of all homes only have one TV turned on during primetime. Families are looking for shows they can watch together.
More music competition reality shows are being added this year to the network schedules, and NBC is also adding a music-themed scripted show with "Smash." When will this music surge reach its peak?
Gold: I think this season will be the true test as to whether viewers will tire of this music-programming trend with so much of it on the air. I think "American Idol" may even lose some audience because of the new Fox show "X Factor," and "Idol" could also suffer because of NBC’s "The Voice." And Fox’s "Glee," which already saw its ratings decline a bit this season despite a loyal fan base, may see its ratings decline even further next season if NBC’s "Smash" becomes a hit. I think viewers this fall and into mid-season will still be curious and tune into each of these shows but by the end of next season, ratings will have hit the bubble for a lot of them.
Adgate: NBC’s "The Sing Off" and "The Voice" are not airing concurrently and neither is "X Factor" and "American Idol" on Fox. So the… music competition shows are not as many as they seem. NBC’s "Smash" is somewhat similar to Fox’s "Glee," but "Smash" is a drama with music and seems to be targeting an older audience. Personally, looking at the popularity of these types of shows, there seems to be room for more of them at the present time.
Armando: Unfortunately, there is no formula that tells us when a type of show may wear out. Just when people were ready to write off CBS’s "Survivor," it reinvented itself and continues to compete in its time period. As the number of music-themed shows continues to increase, the possibility of a huge breakout hit becomes reduced, but the total demise of this type of show is still a long way off.
Sternberg: Clones seldom do as well as the originals. Given that "Smash," with a substantially older cast, is focusing on Broadway rather than high school like Glee does, I would guess it would skew much older than "Glee." Also, pre-"Glee," musical-scripted series did not fare well. "Glee" is unique and can’t be copied.
There are several new science fiction-themed scripted shows on the schedules for Fall. Sci-fi shows traditionally get smaller, albeit fiercely loyal audiences, but rarely have long runs. Will any of these new sci-fi themed shows work?
Gold: It’s so hard to tell without having seen the complete pilots of all these shows and additional episodes. But I think if any have a chance it will be Fox’s "Terra Nova." Despite its slow climb to get on air, it’s still a big budget special effect Steven Spielberg vehicle. True, Spielberg hasn’t had much success on television, but there are no other dramas in "Terra Nova"’s time period. It will be interesting to see if viewers have given up on the big epic “must watch every week” show after ABC’s "Lost" ran its course. Truth be told, recent shows in this genre don’t have strong shelf lives, although Fox’s "Fringe" and CW’s "Supernatural" have remained on the air for a while.
Adgate: These paranormal shows can attract a younger viewer. Look at the popularity of the "Twilight" and "Harry Potter" movie franchises. They both attract younger moviegoers. Some of the most successful shows on the CW and its predecessor network The WB have been younger-skewing shows with sci-fi elements.
Armando: A lot depends on where and how the networks schedule them. Because sci-fi shows rarely obtain a large, mass audience, putting them on Friday night makes sense because television audiences are expected to be low on this night and the loyal audience these shows draw could be large enough. On Friday, Fox’s Fringe delivered a 1.4 adults 18-49 C3 rating and Fox took pride in having a “winning night.” That same 1.4 rating Monday through Thursday would not receive such rave reviews.
Sternberg: There’s a difference between sci-fi and fantasy themes. "Fringe" is sci-fi, NBC’s new
show "Grimm," ABC’s new show "Once Upon a Time," and even CBS’s "The Gifted Man" are fantasy-themed shows. These seldom do well and I don’t expect any of them to last long.
Is media acclaim for new shows before they premiere the kiss of death? Last year NBC's "The Event" was lauded in the press before the start of the season, and two years ago ABC's "Flash Forward" got similar positive advanced press. Both were not renewed after one season. Will highly acclaimed new shows for the upcoming season like Fox's "Terra Nova" from Steven Spielberg meet a similar fate?
Gold: I wouldn’t say it’s the kiss of death. Media acclaim gives shows a chance to get seen but the shows have to sell themselves to the audiences who tune in. Sometimes a show has a good pilot or big star, but future episodes don’t live up to the pilot.
Adgate: I think "Terra Nova" is too expensive to go more than 13 episodes. It took several years to produce. The cost for the pilot was astronomical. Unless the ratings go through the roof, I’m not sure if they have a viable revenue model for it. I also don’t know why they are airing it opposite "Monday Night Football."
Armando: Keep in mind that shows like "Grey’s Anatomy," "24," "Criminal Minds" and "Modern Family" also received critical praise. While critical acclaim does not guarantee large viewing audiences, it does help create a buzz that results in sampling of the show when it premieres. From that point on, however, it’s the show itself that must make viewers return week after week. If "Terra Nova" fails, it will be more likely because of competition from "Dancing With the Stars," CBS comedies and "Monday Night Football" and less because it received media acclaim.
Sternberg: Media acclaim did not have anything to do with past shows’ failures. In fact, it was NBC’s secrecy about "The Event" that hurt it most. Many industry analysts, including me, did not get to even see the pilot. There was virtually no positive press about the show all summer. That said, I think I’ve clearly demonstrated over the years that pre-season buzz has no correlation to eventual success. Over the past decade, the success rate of the most buzzed shows is about 30 percent — virtually the same as all prime time series in general.
5. What grades on an A-F scale would you give the development seasons of NBC's new entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt and ABC's new entertainment president Paul Lee based on the new shows on their Fall and midseason schedules?
Gold: I would give both a B although Greenblatt didn’t take his seat until development was already underway. I think NBC/Comcast did invest as promised and I think they took chances with their programming which I applaud them for. Still I am not sure I see any big breakout hits. As for ABC, I think their Tuesday night comedies are weak, but there’s no comedy in that time period so they have a chance. I also think they have a potential mid-level hit with "Pan Am" and possibly "Suburgatory." Regarding "Angels," bringing back old '70s series doesn’t ever work.
Adgate: For Paul Lee I give a C. Some shows looked good but a lot looked just OK. Can’t comment on NBC because we are their media agency.
Armando: I’m going to have to treat this like the NFL draft and say I’ll answer that question in a year. Just like waiting to see how a high draft pick performs on the field, we’ll have to see how Greenblatt’s and Lee’s shows perform before assigning a grade.
Sternberg: I’d give NBC a C and ABC a B. CBS gets an A minus.
6. There are few new broadcast shows with minority lead characters or even with minorities in ensemble casts. Shouldn't today's TV shows do more to reflect our diverse society?
Gold: I think the networks tried having minority leads (such as in NBC’s "Undercovers") last season but it didn’t play out as well on broadcast TV as it does on cable. I do think that casts for most dramas are multi-racial, albeit in non-lead roles. With the price points of developing programs, the networks seem to have reverted back to what’s tried and true. In the '70s and '80s minority-helmed programs worked on broadcast. Today it seems to only work on cable.
Adgate: I think TV shows should have more ethnic diversity especially if you want a younger audience. There are 50 million Latinos and that group has a median age of 27. What TV broadcast network wouldn’t want numbers like that?
Armando: I am not sure if it is a case of the networks being obligated to do so, but as networks trying to reach broad audiences, it would be smart to deliver relatable characters to all audiences, including minorities.
Sternberg: There are actually a lot of established series that have minority characters as integral parts of their casts. But I definitely think that there can be greater Latino presence as leading characters. But last year’s new shows had lots of minority leads — NBC’s "Undercovers," "The Event," "The Outlaw," ABC’s "Detroit 187," CBS’s "Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior." They just didn’t work.
Gold: "Two and a Half Men" is my favorite show and I am not a fan of Ashton Kutcher. So I will have to watch the dynamic of the show to see if it works. The thing I loved about the show is that Charlie played Charlie and it was out there for all to see. I don’t know what they will do with Aston’s character. It’s a big question. I think it will get high tune-in at first because everyone will be curious, but it will all depend on the show’s new chemistry and storylines.
Adgate: Initially there will be a lot of sampling with Ashton. Then it will be up to him and the writers to see if they will lose any of those initial viewers as the weeks go by.
Armando: A lot depends on how his character is written in. He will not be successful if he is asked to reprise the role that Charlie Sheen made popular, so look for him to be integrated in a different way. He should be able to get the show’s loyal audience to return to get a look and possibly introduce a new audience to "Two and a Half Men" as well. Shows of this age usually look for a shot in the arm and this may provide that.
8. For the fall season, each of the broadcast networks have made lots of changes to their schedules, not only adding more new shows than in past years, but also moving returning shows to new time periods. Will this be confusing to viewers and hamper the chances of new shows to catch on?
Gold: I think it is confusing for the audience and it will cost the networks viewers in some cases, but it’s what they have to do to develop new hits and place them around existing hits.
Adgate: I don’t think it’s too confusing these days to find TV shows because of all the electronic programming guides or interactive programming guides, along with DVRs and all the promotion and press programs get. Viewers can find shows if they want to.
Armando: Programs have changed time periods for many, many years so this is nothing new. The difference today is that viewers are more in control and, with all of the technology at their disposal, are watching TV on their time and not held exclusively to the network schedule.
Sternberg: Up until five or six years ago, half of the fall schedule consisted of shows either new or in new time slots. Now it’s only 40 percent. But what really makes it hard for new shows to catch on in broadcast is that the networks refuse to promote one another’s shows. That is the single biggest reason most new shows will flop.
9. Several networks have touted big name directors and producers of their new shows, including some who have been successful with movies. How important is it to have high profile show runners? Or is it the acting and writing that matters more?
Gold: Big-name show runners don’t do that much for viewers. J.J. Abrams, David E. Kelley, and Steven Spielberg have all had many TV flops. It’s the writing and likeability of the cast that matters most. Capped off by a good time slot that allows them to get sampling.
Adgate: I don’t think it’s that important to have big name show runners. Many top producers have had failures, including David E. Kelley, Jerry Bruckheimer and Shonda Rhimes. What matter is how good the show is, not whose name is on the credits.
Armando: Like media acclaim, a big name show runner does not guarantee success, but it does help a network create awareness of it shows and enhance the possibility that it will get a great deal of sampling when it premieres. From there, however, the show will live and die on the writing and acting. A big name may bring viewers to the screen for week one, but acting and writing brings them back for week two and beyond.
Sternberg: It’s really not very important per se, but some producers seem to know how to come up with good TV shows. Success in movies has little to do with success in TV. Oftentimes, a big-name director is only involved with the pilot so that it helps sell the show.
10. Even if most of the new shows do not succeed, do you believe the acting, scripts and production quality is greater this season than it's been in the past, and that development of new TV programming gets better and better each year?
Gold: I think there are definitely more big-budget shows with great production value out there this season then there has been in recent years because the networks know they have to step up to the plate. In that regard, we can thank cable, which is pushing broadcast networks to take chances. However, despite this investment in programming, most of these new shows will get cancelled. So it’s a big gamble for the networks. Non-scripted fare which has much lower production costs often has higher ratings, so the networks always have that battle to contend with.
Adgate: The number of pilots made and the large number of scripted shows scheduled for mid-season is an indication of the network’s commitment to programming. That said, it will be interesting to see how many new reality series will be launched that went unannounced in the upfront presentations.
Armando: Competition is a good thing and with all of the original programming on other viewing sources and video being consumed on many different platforms, it does seem that everyone has upped their game and are providing shows with great characters and superior production quality.
Sternberg: No. It’s usually hit or miss. Every few years the broadcast networks strike gold, as ABC did in the 2004-05 season when it came up with "Lost," "Desperate Housewives," "Grey’s Anatomy" and "Boston Legal." During that same season, CBS premiered "CSI: NY" and "Numb3rs," NBC debuted "The Office" and Fox trotted out "House." In the 2009-10 season, ABC premiered "Modern Family," CBS premiered "NCIS: LA" and "The Good Wife," Fox gave us "Glee," and "The Vampire Diaries" debuted on CW.