Once it was the Big Three, then Fox muscled its way into the broadcast cabal to make it the Big Four. Now what once was quaintly termed the television industry is a cacophonous bundle of multiplatform, platform-agnostic content providers attempting to appeal to consumers who have infinite choices and dwindling attention spans.
And the just-concluded upfront week, which returned to in-person presentations for the first time in three years, cemented that shift. At many of the presentations — by NBCUniversal, Fox Corp., Telemundo, TelevisaUnivision, Disney (which includes flagship ABC, ESPN, FX as well as Disney+ and ESPN+), Warner Bros. Discovery, Paramount and the CW — new fall shows seemed like an afterthought. There was a paucity of actual show clips and few appearances from the show’s stars. (The contrast to 2009 when ABC showed the entire pilot episode of “Modern Family” at its upfront at Lincoln Center was noted throughout the week.)
In years past, the broadcast networks would pick up hundreds of pilot scripts and order dozens of series. But as their companies diversify and throw more money at content for streaming services, those flagship networks, despite still being big money makers, have seen their development budgets slashed. And so they’ve been forced to re-imagine the old way of doing business. Susan Rovner, chairman of entertainment content at NBCUniversal Television, only invoked the pilot season to remind assembled media buyers that NBCUni was committed to a “year-round development cycle.”
And NBC — as well as Fox and ABC — still have several pilots in contention for midseason as the year-round development cycle becomes the new normal. Of course, the broadcast networks are the last ones on this particular bandwagon. Premium and ad-supported cable (HBO, FX) have long adhered to the model, so has Netflix.
The lack of attention to new series did nothing to streamline the presentations. After years of purposefully trimming run times, many were bloated and overly long (NBCUniversal, Disney), in part a consequence of the unwieldy nature of the industry with each company presenting multiple networks and heavily flogging streaming services that are the key to their survival.
Paramount, formerly known as ViacomCBS, put on a presentation heavy with content from streamer Paramount+ (much of it from actor-turned-writer Taylor Sheridan). True, it’s hard to compete with the superstar talent on Paramount+ — Kevin Costner (“Yellowstone”), Jessica Chastain (“George & Tammy”), Sylvester Stallone (who was on hand to talk up his upcoming Sheridan-penned drama “Tulsa King”). But the shows coming to CBS this fall were shunted to the end of Paramount’s presentation at Carnegie Hall when the stars of the “Star Trek” franchise, led by Patrick Stewart, let media buyers know that they could find clips online. For the record, those new shows are dramas “East New York,” “Fire Country” and “So Help Me Todd” and reality show “The Real Love Boat.”
And Fox has yet to even reveal a fall schedule in the midst of ongoing negotiations with 20th Television on renewals for returning series “9-1-1” and “The Resident,” both of which Fox executives very much want back on the network in the fall. Fox Entertainment chief executive officer Charlie Collier brushed off any potential for confusion, saying that the company’s “new approach” made more sense in the current era when linear and streaming are “complementary.”
The CW was the outlier of the week. Rob Tuck, the network’s executive vice president of national sales, acknowledged as much when he told the audience at New York City Center: “We are going to keep things pretty simple by only talking about one network.” What commenced was a breezy 60-minute presentation that included actual trailers for its four new shows: “Walker: Independence,” a prequel to the Jared Padalecki vehicle “Walker”; “Supernatural” origin story “The Winchesters”; “Nancy Drew” spin-off “Tom Swift,” and DC Comics “Gotham Knights.”
Longtime CW CEO Marc Pedowitz even presented a night-by-night schedule. Of course, the CW is facing down an impending sale. Nexstar Media Group (the leading owner of local TV stations with 197) is the top bidder for the network, a venture between ViacomCBS and WarnerMedia.
That the CW — a bona fide broadcast network — has become expendable to its owners, with competing media behemoths chasing a streaming future, is a fitting exemplar of a week and an industry in the throes of reinvention and an uncertain future.