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Upfront 2017 Preview: Each Network Tackles Its Own Programming Issues

by Marc Berman  |  05.12.2017

Each of the five broadcast networks are prepping to unveil their original programming initiatives for the 2017-18 season next week. NBC kicks off the festivities on Monday morning, followed by Fox on Monday afternoon, ABC on Tuesday, CBS on Wednesday, and, finally, The CW on Thursday.

Naturally, each of the five broadcast networks has different needs—some more extensive than others.

Season-to-date ratings for each outlet from Sept. 19, 2016 through May 7, 2017, offers an immediate snapshot of which networks have momentum and which do not.

NBC

Total Viewers: 8.21 million (#2 rank: no change from year-ago period); Adults 18-49: 2.1 rating/8 share (#1: - 5%)

Led by The Voice, the Chicago-set franchise, Sunday Night Football and the biggest new scripted hit this season, This Is Us, NBC enters the 2017-18 season with more returning series than in recent years.

Overall, only four to five hours of the weekly schedule are in need of repair. But the obstacle remains the network’s lack of successful scripted sitcoms, with Superstore certainly not the hit the network would lead one to believe. And focusing on Friday is a priority, now that Grimm is history.

Returning Will & Grace could be a step in the right direction, particularly if the network chooses to lead Thursday off with it (or Wednesday, perhaps, if it adds a second hour of comedies). And Friday could be easily fixed, albeit older-skewing, if the network designates one of the Chicago hours and pairs it with The Blacklist, Taken, Blindspot or a new crime-solver to compete with the CBS dramas.

The renewal of Taken proves NBC understands the value of patience, but the valuable lead-out slot of Monday at 10 p.m. ET out of The Voice could be put to better use.

While Sunday Night Football alone all but guarantees NBC’s dominance among adults 18-49 in fourth quarter (and potentially all season), the success of This Is Us only magnifies the importance of going the more creative route. And the confirmed pick-ups of dramas Rise and For God and Country seem like a step in the right direction for NBC.

Fox

Total Viewers: 5.99 million (#4: +2%); Adults 18-49: 1.9/ 7 (#2: + 1%)

Minus American Idol this season, Fox would be on the noticeable downside year-to-year had it not been for that historic seven-game World Series last fall and Super Bowl LI in January. Only one night of the week, Wednesday, is not in need of repair despite even the network’s current crown jewel, Empire, losing steam. And at least one half of the network’s line-up — that’s seven-to-eight hours — is simply not working. Sunday, the home for the veteran animated comedies, has particularly sprung a leak. And breaking in half the seasons of both Empire and Gotham only resulted in more erosion for both series.

Since no network can introduce that many new shows to accommodate so many hours, the short-term goal at Fox is to rearrange the low-rated deck chairs to potentially infuse some interest – and lead-in support – for the newbies. And the long-term goal must be the ongoing search for more hit programs.

One quick fix for Fox would be to shift Empire to 8 p.m. on Wednesday into returning Star, both from Lee Daniels, which are perfectly compatible. The one freshman bright spot from last fall, Lethal Weapon, can be used to anchor another evening into one of the new dramas. Two of these are already confirmed: The Resident and Marvel Television’s The Gifted. And the perennial three-hour Sunday comedy block — now a combination of animation and live action — could certainly be trimmed to accommodate one of the new dramas at 9 p.m. ET.

Given the renewal of Gotham, pairing it with The Gifted—one based on D.C. Comics and the other on Marvel—could offer an interesting promotional opportunity.

ABC

Viewers: 6.23 million (#3: - 8%); Adults 18-49: 1.6/ 6 (#4: -11%)

Although the ongoing success of veteran Dancing with the Stars is certainly a sigh of relief, as is a confirmed two additional seasons for Modern Family, nothing new on ABC broke out this season. That includes critical favorites American Housewife and Speechless, which are both expected back, and Kiefer Sutherland drama Designated Survivor, which also lost steam after an extended hiatus.

The 10 p.m. hour leading into the late local news is particularly problematic — think Quantico, Agents of SHIELD and The Catch. Too many of the comedies are clones of one another, featuring dysfunctional parents with three goofy and smart-alecky kids. And the network’s Sunday-night line-up is in complete disarray.

In total, like Fox, ABC needs to address seven to eight hours of its primetime line-up.

While the network looks forward to the upcoming revival of American Idol rumored to be scheduled on Sunday nights in midseason, the rumored retooling of former mainstay Once Upon a Time is unlikely to generate much interest until then. With Scandal concluding next season, a move to Sunday this fall could infuse some interest in the evening, while offering potential lead-in support to a new drama. And it would free-up the Thursday 9 p.m. hour to potentially benefit out of the still-respectable Grey’s Anatomy.

With Last Man Standing history, Shark Tank at 8 p.m. on Friday, meanwhile, could also offer lead-in support to another new series. Like any network, putting an established series to the best possible use is always a priority.

CBS

Viewers: 9.73 million (#1: -12%); Adults 18-49: 1.8/ 7 (#3: - 1%)

CBS, the most-watched network once again, should have no trouble maintaining that title again next season and beyond. But since no network is perfect, the focus at the Eye must remain on finding that next big hit sitcom before The Big Bang Theory does eventually end and freshman returnees Kevin Can Wait, Man with a Plan and Superior Donuts are not breakout hits. Then there is the ongoing issue at CBS of too many generic crime dramas, which skews its audience older. That will not change given the themes of most of the dramas.

While CBS could get away with addressing only three to four hours of its primetime line-up — including the Sunday 10 p.m. hour, which did not benefit by Elementary this season — the key to any successful line-up is to be aggressive. One way to keep the Wednesday 8 p.m. timeslot alive in between editions of ageless Survivor could be with on-the-fence The Amazing Race. And some nights, like Tuesday’s flawless combination of NCIS, Bull and NCIS: New Orleans, should not be fiddled with.

The CW

Viewers: 1.79 million (#5: - 9%); Adults 18-49: 0.6/ 2 (#5: -25%)

At The CW upfront last May, CW President Mark Pedowitz boldly stated that the arrival of Supergirl from corporate cousin CBS would be the final superhero-themed hour on the network. But following the success of Supergirl (at diluted CW levels) comes Black Lightning, which could certainly be a compatible fit with any of the current CW action adventures.

The bigger issue, at least from a scheduling standpoint, is what exactly to do with the upcoming revival of serialized drama Dynasty and new drama Life Sentence, both of which deviate from the network’s current norm.

Since The CW is never shy on handing out renewals to low-rated product, including Jane the Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, iZombie, The Originals and Riverdale, the three new dramas already announced are probably the only three you will see. One way to free up an hour is have Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend share a time period. While you have to admire The CW for recognizing the importance of trying to diversify its line-up, sometimes you have to also admit defeat.

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