TV Upfronts: 5 Burning Questions for Broadcast’s Big Week and Where Each Network Stands

How will Fox capitalize on “Empire” success? Will CBS make bigger push for youth?

Taraji P. Henson of "Empire," Super Bowl 49, Brandon Routh of "DC's Legends of Tomorrow" (Fox, NFL, DC/CW)

Broadcast TV upfronts hit New York this week and NBC is first at bat with its presentation Monday. NBC chief Bob Greenblatt will be first of the five network honchos who will plead the case for why broadcast is still the No. 1 place for advertisers to reach consumers.

The bad news for Greenblatt is streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon loom larger than ever. The good news for Greenblatt is NBC heads into the week once again No. 1 in the coveted 18-49 demo (2.5 rating). Like last year, CBS also heads into the week No. 1 in total viewers (11.336 million).

As a matter of fact, there’s been moderate year-over-year movement across the networks with the exception of Fox who stumbled from No. 2 to No. 4 after the loss of the Super Bowl, eroding “American Idol,” and failing to launch any other ratings hits other than Lee Daniels‘ soapy breakout “Empire.” Fox is averaging 5.903 million total viewers with a 2.0 rating.

ABC ranks as a solid No. 3 with a 2.2 rating and average of 7.904 million total viewers. Network chief Paul Lee’s programming changes proved to be smart moves. Shonda Rhimes Thursday night programming block dubbed “TGIT” launched hit “How to Get Away With Murder,” which finished its run as the No. 2 rated new drama of the year. Its retooled Wednesday comedy block in which “black-ish,” “Fresh Off the Boat” and “The Goldbergs” joined “Modern Family” has also seen solid ratings gains since last year.

This Year’s Network Rankings for 2015 Upfronts
NBC   2.5 rating 18-49 demo     8.715 Million Total Viewers   Down 10.7% (R) Up 7.8% (V)
CBS    2.3 rating 18-49 demo   11.336 Million Total Viewers   Down 4.2% (R) Up 5.1% (V)
ABC    2.2 rating 18-49 demo    7.904 Million Total Viewers   Up 4.8% (R) Down 5.7% (V)
Fox     2.0 rating 18-49 demo    5.903 Million Total Viewers   Down 20% (R) Down 21.1% (V)
CW     0.8 rating 18-49 demo    2.108 Million Total Viewers    Flat (R) Up 12.1% (V)

Last Year’s Network Rankings for 2014 Upfronts
NBC   2.8 rating 18-49 demo    9.451   Million Total Viewers
Fox     2.5 rating 18-49 demo    7.478   Million Total Viewers
CBS    2.4 rating 18-49 demo    10.789 Million Total Viewers
ABC    2.1 rating 18-49 demo    7.475    Million Total Viewers
CW     0.8 rating 18-49 demo    1.881    Million Total Viewers

Here’s 5 burning questions heading into Upfronts:


How will Fox capitalize on the success of TV’s biggest show “Empire?”
May 2015 is a bit of a crossroads for Fox, the fourth-place broadcast network. While the network has had a couple bright spots including early season “Gotham,” Fox’s biggest TV ratings came from football overruns and Lee Daniels‘ soapy breakout “Empire.”

Football will remain in play which is certainly helpful as the network looks to launch is new season. While “Empire” was a no-brainer renewal, Fox is still sorting out when it will return and for how many episodes. Insiders told TheWrap that the Lee Daniels series will likely return in early fall for an 18-episode run.

Anticipation of “Empire’s” sophomore season is high, but Fox needs to figure out a way to leverage the show’s success into broader gains. Heavy cross-promotion as well as using “Empire” to launch one of its new series is a given. But without a smash-hit comedy and a falling reality slate, Fox needs to focus its efforts on exploiting what ain’t broke in an effort to fix its future.

Fox’s upfront will no doubt will feel in parts like an “Empire” concert. Will some sass by Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and rhymes by Bryshere Gray a.k.a. Yazz the Greatest be enough to have media buyers reaching for their checkbooks? Savvy advertising executives know that one show does not make for a fall TV schedule. So, Fox — what other broad appealing potential hits do you have up your sleeve?

Photo: Bonnie Osborne
Photo: Bonnie Osborne

Does CBS ramp up its efforts to go younger?
CBS has made an effort to skew more youthful: “Supergirl,” “Scorpion” and its first-to-market over-the-top offering — but it’s still pulling in the oldest broadcast audience by far. While that’s working out fine for now, it can’t be a particularly long-term plan as Hollywood turns its collective attention towards millennials. But when is it truly do or die time for CBS — is it 2015-2016?

The answer is “probably not.” After all, the baby boomers are becoming the “old people,” and there’s a ton of them. The AARP world is your oyster, and the general stay-the-course strategy has paid off for CBS chief Les Moonves to the tune of $57.2 in 2014 earnings.

All that said, the Moonves is clearly one savvy executive, and knows that his network has to be courting next generation of viewers ASAP. Clearly crossing that bridge from old to young is what “CSI: Cyber” was all about. But, how much of its Wednesday presentation will focus on, talk to (at least about) a younger population — and how much is still years away? CBS traded in Craig Ferguson and David Letterman for James Corden and Stephen Colbert — which is a definite start, but it’s way too early to finish.

Grant Gustin, Stephen Amell
Grant Gustin, Stephen Amell

Is CW risking DC Comics overload and will it alienate other viewers?
The CW has always been a niche network, targeting young females, but in recent years they’ve expanded their demographic to include more male viewers and older viewers. That happened a few years ago, with the arrival of DC superhero adaptation “Arrow.” Not surprisingly, it quickly launched a spinoff show, and “The Flash” led the network to some of its highest ratings in history this season.

And now the “Arrow”-“Flash” universe is expanding once again with the network recently picking up “Legends of Tomorrow,” featuring characters who previously appeared on the two aforementioned shows, set to debut during the 2015-16 season. As it becomes increasingly difficult to watch “Arrow” without also keeping updated on “The Flash” and vice versa, is adding a third title to the “pull-list” (to use a comic book term) risking putting too much pressure on its audience to give them not just one hour a week but three just to keep up with their favorite characters?

As the network with the fewest number of shows on the air, its brand is also on the line as The CW becomes increasingly synonymous with the DC comic book adaptation universe. After putting in the work to expand their audience with broader programming choices, is the network now risking a different sector of viewers?


How deep will ABC go for diversity this year?
ABC’s recent push for diversity in programming has been admirable, but the results have been a bit of a melting pot for the network. The Anthony Anderson comedy “Black-ish” has been a solid hit for ABC, while the immigrant comedy “Fresh Off the Boat,” though earning a Season 2 renewal, has been a more measured success. Its serviceable ratings probably appear worse due to the very public criticism leveled by Eddie Huang, whose memoir the series is based on.

The freshman Latina-centric comedy “Cristela,” meanwhile, was put out of its misery after a single season. To be fair to that attempt, however, the Cristela Alonzo sitcom was somewhat buried from Day 1 on Friday nights.

Leading up to the network’s upfront presentation, ABC’s choices indicate that the mixed results haven’t caused a walk-back from the diversity edict. The network has given a series order to a revamp of the John Candy movie “Uncle Buck” featuring an all-black cast led by Mike Epps; further deepened its relationship with powerhouse showrunner Shonda Rhimes with a series order for “The Catch”; and picked up the comedy “Dr. Ken,” starring “The Hangover” funny man Ken Jeong as a brilliant doctor with no bedside manner.

On Tuesday we’ll find out if the network has any further plans to diversify as it flogs its wares to advertisers this year.

Rob Gronkowski/Getty
Rob Gronkowski/Getty

How can NBC Threepeat Sans Sochi and the Super Bowl?
NBC has had a good run overall over the last two seasons. As previously mentioned, the broadcast net is entering its second straight upfront on top of the ratings heap — somewhere that it hadn’t been essentially since the days of “Seinfeld.” The tough part will be doing it again.

The third time is probably not going to be the charm for the network that benefitted greatly from the Sochi Games in 2013-2014 and a highly competitive Super Bowl this season — unless it pulls off something spectacular. We’re not saying winning 2015-2016 is impossible for NBC — just very difficult.

“Sunday Night Football” is still top dog in primetime, which is a great start. Problem is, chief competitor CBS has the Super Bowl next year, giving it a massive advantage before the schedules are even announced. To make matters worse, it’s Super Bowl 50, which will surely come with even extra excess promotion.

NBC had better have a ton of rock-solid live events up its sleeve to even have a prayer next year. And we don’t think 13 live “Undateable” episodes are what the doctor ordered. “The Wiz” is a bit of a better start. Either way, the network will have to add at least two hit shows to the schedule to compete.

But there is some good news. While the network likely will not overtake CBS September-May, NBC works with a 52-week season, September-September. Therefore, internally at least, it’s bought some extra time to come back. And with the summer months comes the Summer Olympics, which may make things a little more interesting post-2016 upfronts.

Tim Kenneally and Linda Ge contributed to this story.