Upfronts 2017: Networks stick to familiar script amid change

CBS CEO: Streaming 'very important' to our future
CBS CEO: Streaming 'very important' to our future

For those who have been asking where television content goes in the age of digital streaming and Donald Trump, the answer among the major broadcast networks, anyway, appears to involve sticking with a familiar script.

Executives spoke of the wrenching, fast-moving changes impacting their industry throughout Upfront week, as the networks presented their wares to advertisers, hoping to secure billions in "upfront" commitments for the coming season.

Still, a response to that evolution isn't reflected for the most part in the new series that were ordered, which feature the by-now customary mix of spinoffs, revivals and concepts that certainly sound a lot like old or existing shows.

During discussions with press and their presentations, there was plenty of talk about TV's shifting economic model. The networks clearly fear losing more ad revenue to alternative sources such as digital fare, and spent the week stressing that TV represents a safer, more reliable environment for advertising. At the same time, they are beefing up their own digital efforts, recognizing the tides flowing in that direction.

CBS CEO Leslie Moonves even noted that advertising for the first time now accounts for less than half of the company's revenue, which helps explain why many low-rated shows were renewed. Networks earn money from a variety of sources, including streaming deals and international sales of programs that they produce and own, alleviating some of the pressure to perform ratings-wise, especially for certain projects.

"The back end is now worth more than the front end," Moonves told reporters.

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Network lineups, however, hewed toward the tried and true. And if the audience's heightened awareness of politics is seemingly unavoidable, the U.S.'s most-watched channels appear content to leave that terrain to their latenight hosts, delivering escapism and programs designed for an audience that wants to "feel," as ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey put it.

NBC, notably, is banking on that as well, making its emotional family drama "This is Us" -- already famous for milking tears from its fans -- the centerpiece of an effort to revive its storied "Must-See TV" slogan on Thursday night.

While each network develops shows separately, their collective roster underscores this trend. That includes a pair of new series from theatrical powerhouse Marvel, Fox's "X-Men"-informed "The Gifted" and ABC's "Inhumans."

As for revivals and spinoffs -- seen as a helpful way to cut through the marketing clutter -- CBS delivers a redo of the 1970s cop show "S.W.A.T." and an offshoot of "The Big Bang Theory," titled "Young Sheldon." NBC and ABC will reunite the casts of "Will & Grace" and "Roseanne" as limited-series events (the latter for midseason), and CW is putting a new spin on "Dynasty."

Even a fact-based NBC retelling of the Menendez brothers murder case will be branded under the heading "Law & Order True Crime."

"This is like your own personal Groundhog Day," late-night host James Corden quipped during CBS' presentation, after rattling off all the reboots and revivals.

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Comfort food, crime fighting and counter-terrorism also remain prevalent themes. NBC's best piece of real estate, after "The Voice" on Mondays, goes to "The Brave," about an elite military unit. CBS will offer its own special-ops show, "SEAL Team," joining a lineup heavy on crime procedurals.

Several other new shows bear a more-than-passing resemblance to past hits. Those range from NBC's "Rise" -- about high-school performers, a la "Glee" -- to ABC's "The Good Doctor," about a brilliant physician who is on the autism spectrum, from the producer of "House."

The new Fox president of ad revenue, Joe Marchese, told media buyers the trend of the highest-quality, Emmy-nominated shows being concentrated on ad-free platforms such as HBO and Netflix "should be terrifying to everybody in our industry."

The networks, however, have offered few programs likely to alter that dynamic or exhibiting that sort of storytelling ambition.

Although there were headlines during the scheduling process about a primetime "bloodbath," the number of new programs -- and thus cancellations -- is in keeping with the recent past.

If anything, broadcasters have embraced stability, spacing premieres throughout the calendar year. Including CW, the five networks will introduce 18 series in the fall, albeit with many more -- including ABC's sure to be closely watched "American Idol" revival -- targeted to midseason.


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