Why Thursdays will be brutal, next February will get crazy and broadcast is taking a page out of cable's playbook
Networks have made their big pitches to advertisers for the new season, and when you look past the bright lights, veneered smiles and massaged viewership data, here's what they all said:
We know ratings are down, and we're going to try harder next year.
Every network, from first-place CBS to the fourth-in-the-demo ABC, is bringing in big names and high-profile projects. All are trying to offer some sure bets its in a landscape running out of them.
NBC has comebacks from Sean Hayes and Michael J. Fox. CBS has lured Robin Williams back to television for the first time in three decades. Fox is reviving "24," and ABC is enlisting "Avengers" spinoff "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."
All the big guns will make for big fights, especially on Thursday, when viewers can bounce between "The Big Bang Theory," Williams, Hayes, Fox, CBS's new "The Millers," the CW's biggest show, ABC's new "Once Upon a Time" spinoff and, oh yeah, "X Factor." To name just a few of their options.
"The Big Bang Theory," TV's biggest sitcom, has a quirkiness that's hard to reproduce. But everyone's trying to build their own "Modern Family," the second-biggest sitcom. (The show is such a powerhouse that USA, the last network to present its upfront, touted its "Modern Family" originals as much as its own originals.)
It's a little symbolic that "The Office," the ultimate quirky workplace comedy, ended its run Thursday on the day of the last upfront. This year's shows – from the multigenerational "Millers" to NBC's "Michael J. Fox Show" – focus heavily on families dealing with unique problems.
Here's what we know about next season, based on what we saw this past week.
1. BROADCAST WILL LOOK MORE LIKE CABLE
No, not because of nudity. Sorry.
But networks will follow cable's lead by unveiling big shows throughout the year and in many cases airing fewer episodes. The best example is Fox's "24" revival, which will air just 12 episodes (so Jack Bauer can sleep this time, OK?) and premiere in May. ABC's "Betrayal" and CBS's "Hostages" also will have shorter runs than the traditional 22 to 24 episodes.
Networks are also getting back into the miniseries game — or as they're calling they now, limited-run series. They include Fox's "Wayward Pines," which "24" will help launch. CBS is getting into the spirit early by premiering Stephen King's "Under the Dome" next month.
2. LOOK FOR EVERYTHING TO GET CRAZY NEXT FEBRUARY
That's when NBC uses the Olympics to launch Jimmy Fallon as the host of "The Tonight Show" and Seth Meyers as his replacement on "Late Night." Fox, meanwhile, will get a bump from the Super Bowl, which it will follow with an episode of "New Girl" and another comedy to be named later. The fresh eyes may help "New Girl" recapture the big ratings it had in its first season, and maybe bolster the rest of Fox's Tuesday lineup as well. And Fox will have to find room on its midseason schedule for the new "Gang Related."
3. FAMILY FIRST
Remember when NBC ruled Thursdays family sitcoms like "The Cosby Show" and "Family Ties," then shows like "Seinfeld," "Friends" and "Will and Grace," in which friends filled in for family? Those Thursdays gave way to smart office comedies that won accolades but not always ratings.
Now NBC is getting back to Thursday family shows, with "Sean Saves the World" and Fox's show back-to-back starting at 9.
Both have a "Modern" kind of twist: Hayes plays a gay divorced dad, and Fox plays a man whose family is coping with his Parkinson's. They join CBS's "The Millers," about two generations of broken marriages, and "The Crazy Ones," a work/family sitcom that pairs Williams with Sarah Michelle Gellar as his daughter. NBC also has "Welcome to the Family," in which a teen pregnancy unites white and Hispanic families.
That's just on Thursday.
On Monday, CBS's "Mom" finds a mother and daughter adjusting to sobriety together, and Fox's Tuesday "Dads" is about guys in their 30s dealing with rough-edged fathers. ABC has two other Tuesday family comedies: "The Goldbergs" is a kind of '80s "Wonder Years," and "Trophy Wife" is about a woman adjusting to her new role as a stepmom.
4. THURSDAYS WILL BE BRUTAL. DITTO TUESDAYS
"The Big Bang Theory" has bested "Idol" this season, but it will face interesting Thursday counterprogramming from ABC's "Once Upon a Time in Wonderland," as well as comedy competition from NBC. And with Britney Spears and L.A. Reid out, expect another revamping of "X Factor" that will draw a new slew of fans and rubberneckers.
The CW gave the new Mary, Queen of Scots drama "Reign" the 9 p.m. slot after "Vampire Diaries," its top-rated show. But with all the competition on Thursday, the entire night will be as brutal as "Game of Thrones."
On Tuesdays, meanwhile, "S.H.I.E.L.D." may want to call in the Hulk. It should have a huge built-in audience, but it will need it at 8 p.m. against "N.C.I.S.," which gained in the ratings this past season after a decade on the air. They will also face Fox's new "Dads" and Fox's Andy Samberg cop comedy "Brooklyn Nine Nine." NBC airs "The Biggest Loser," and the CW unveils its "Vampire" spinoff, "The Originals."
ABC makes another big play at 9, putting "The Goldbergs" and "Trophy Wife" up against CBS's "NCIS: LA," NBC's "The Voice," Fox's "New Girl" and "The Mindy Project," and the CW's "Supernatural." At 10 p.m., ABC's lottery drama "Lucky 7" tries to hit against NBC's "Chicago Fire," a show the network is pushing hard, and CBS's "Person of Interest," one of the few other returning shows this season to improve on its ratings.
5. DID WE MENTION BIG NAMES?
CBS passed on a "Beverly Hills Cop" series that would have had drop-ins from Eddie Murphy. But other than that, networks have ponied up for projects with big names, like the aforementioned Hayes, Fox, Williams and Gellar. It's one of their ways of signaling to advertisers and viewers that they're serious.
One of the best big-name faceoffs will be on Mondays at 10, when the NBC James Spader drama "The Blacklist" airs opposite the CBS Dylan McDermott-Toni Collette series "Hostages." Our early money is on "The Blacklist" doing better, both because the trailer is great and because of its structure.
"The Blacklist" has a strong procedural element, in that Spader's master criminal helps the FBI catch a different bad guy every week. "Hostages," meanwhile, finds McDermott's villain holding Collette's family hostage unless she agrees to botch a surgery on the president. CBS promises the show has enough story to last beyond the initial 13-episode run, but "The Blacklist" seems to have an easier sell.