From May 13 to 15, the five major television networks—ABC (DIS), NBC (CMCSA), CBS (CBS), Fox (NWS), and Univision—gathered in New York City to reveal their official fall schedules. And their unofficial midfall schedules. And to hint that maybe they’d switch things up in winter. Or summer.
Television networks used to release new shows twice a year, with a big debut in the fall and a midseason face-lift in the spring. But with the proliferation of cable networks and surprise successes such as Downton Abbey on PBS and the History Channel’s The Bible, they’ve been forced to move to the more nebulous schedule model of “throwing s--- up against a wall and seeing what sticks,” as Jimmy Kimmel put it during ABC’s upfront presentation on May 14.
Kevin Reilly, chairman of entertainment at Fox, described it more professionally in a recent conference call. “The competitive landscape has changed dramatically,” he said, explaining that this year the network would “really try to break out of the confines of the traditional broadcast season.”
Schedule staggering isn’t new, but it used to be the province of small-time outfits. When the WB existed, it often delayed its lineup. Now even the big guys are doing it. “AMC (AMCX) premiered The Walking Dead in February, the middle of the season, and on the same night as the Grammys,” says Brad Adgate, research director at Horizon Media, which studies the entertainment industry. “You used to never go against a big program like that.” The zombie show pulled in an impressive 12.3 million viewers that evening, just less than half of the Grammy audience.
Networks have traditionally guided America’s viewing habits, but because of DVRs and streaming programs such as Netflix (NFLX) and Hulu, they’re playing catch-up instead. In addition to shifted seasons, television has moved toward high-quality, long-form programming (think AMC’s Breaking Bad and FX Networks’ The Americans) that has a sizable online audience but no clear measurement system to help advertisers figure out where to spend. (They are still spending: TV advertising rose 7 percent in 2012, according to Nielsen (NLSN), with the major networks pulling in around $9 billion in ad commitments.) This fall, ABC will work with Nielsen to survey its online demographics and measure mobile and streaming advertising potential, to give it and advertisers a better idea of what they’re dealing with.
Despite all this uncertainty, one network remains calm: ESPN. “There’s no genre performing better than sports in this fragmented, cluttered marketplace,” Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN’s global customer marketing and sales, said at its May 14 presentation. “Everyone still watches sports live,” Adgate says. Of course, as tablets and mobile devices become more common, the question for ESPN won’t be when people tune in but where and how they watch.