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Analysis: U.S. Network Upfronts


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The word “stability” popped up a lot as the U.S. broadcast networks unveiled their 2019-20 season grids. For the most part, ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and The CW emphasized returning hits, ordering just a smattering of new shows for the fall while keeping many more in store for midseason. A risk-averse strategy is not surprising given the widespread disruption in the media industry today, as appointment viewing takes a backseat to on-demand and the U.S. market braces for even more competition in the streaming space.

NBC kicked off the busy Upfront week on Sunday announcing just three new fall additions: a legal drama with Jimmy Smits called Bluff City Law, the comedy Perfect Harmony with Bradley Whitford and Kal Penn’s Sunnyside. In the wings for midseason are Council of Dads, Indebted, The Kenan Show, Lincoln and Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. Returning stalwarts include The Voice, This Is Us (renewed through season six), Dick Wolf’s Chicago franchise and Law & Order: SVU and The Blacklist, among others. Back for second seasons are Manifest (in midseason) and New Amsterdam. Midseason will also see the return of Blindspot, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Good Girls and Will & Grace. NBC has yet to announce decisions on Abby’sA.P. BioThe Enemy WithinThe InBetweenThe Titan Games and The Village.

“We came into this season from the vantage point of extreme stability, but without any complacency,” said George Cheeks and Paul Telegdy, co-chairmen of NBC Entertainment. “Our 52-week schedule takes into account the seismic shift in viewing habits, balancing short-term wins with long-term potential. Comedy is at the heart of the NBC brand, and we’ve picked up four new comedies that we think viewers will love for generations to come. Our new dramas will compel audiences to tune in week after week to our network while also delivering binge-worthy storylines, and our unparalleled alternative programs continue to delight audiences of all ages, providing enviable launch pads for many of our new shows.”

The newly independent FOX network unveiled its slate on Monday. “Today marks a new beginning for FOX Entertainment,” said CEO Charlie Collier. “So it is with a start-up mindset and, upon an incredible foundation of assets, that we deliver our first slate of new comedies, dramas and unscripted series. Alongside top creators and talent, and through innovative partnerships across the industry, we are redefining what it means to be an entertainment company, and what it means to be FOX, for 2019 and beyond.”

FOX, too, had just three additions for the fall (when Thursday, Friday and Saturday are dedicated to NFL, WWE SmackDown and Fox Sports, respectively). Landing on Monday in a competitive slot is Prodigal Son, which should benefit from the hit 9-1-1 as a lead-in, as well as the casting of Tom Payne and Michael Sheen. The new drama Not Just Me is set for Wednesdays and a new animated comedy, Bless the Harts, joins the Sunday slate. The bulk of FOX’s new pickups will arrive in midseason: 9-1-1: Lone Star, Deputy, Duncanville, Filthy Rich, The Great North, neXt and Outmatched. The network also announced a move for its megahit The Masked Singer to Wednesdays—as well as a season three renewal, which will debut in the plum post-Super Bowl slot—and the final season of Empire.

In her first Upfront as president of entertainment at ABC, Karey Burke touted stability as she announced four additions for the fall: the comedy mixed-ish, the dramas Emergence and Stumptown and a new Sunday unscripted series with comedian Tiffany Haddish, Kids Say the Darndest Things. The network had a number of high-profile cancellations, among them Speechless and Whiskey Cavalier—both were “tough decisions,” Burke said at a press breakfast before last week’s Upfront. New dramas The Baker and the Beauty and For Life, along with the new comedy United We Fall, will debut midseason.

“Since the beginning of the year, ABC has been the number one network with a schedule that is working, and we are going to nurture it,” Burke said of the fall grid. “Going into next season, our priorities are stability and launching shows in a way our audience will know we are committed to them. Add to that some of the most buzzed-about titles and top talent of the recent pilot season, and we have an enviable combination that sets the stage for us to win with women and grow our overall reach.”

CBS had more fall additions than the other networks, with five in total: the comedies Bob Hearts Abishola, The Unicorn and Carol’s Second Act, and the dramas All Rise and Evil. Among the titles arriving midseason are FBI: Most Wanted and Tommy, led by Emmy Award winner Edie Falco. The network shuffled its Thursday night schedule as it prepares for its post-The Big Bang Theory future, placing Young Sheldon in the veteran comedy’s slot.

“Our new lineup features both classic CBS shows and genres that viewers love, as well as some new series that push the boundaries of what you might expect from us,” said Kelly Kahl, president of CBS Entertainment. “We are also saving some very strong series for the second part of the year as part of a strategy to roll out new and returning series throughout the season.”

“This is a slate of new shows with thought-provoking stories, culturally relevant themes and tremendous casts, from award-winning producers and writers,” said Thom Sherman, senior executive VP of programming for CBS Entertainment. “We are also building on the diverse series we launched last season with more leading roles for women and more inclusive storytelling across all of our new comedies and dramas.”

The CW rounded out the announcements on Thursday with two fall additions: Batwoman (paired with Supergirl on Sundays) and Nancy Drew in the post-Riverdale slot. The Riverdale spin-off Katy Keene arrives midseason.

“The CW heads into next season riding a wave of creative momentum and expansion, with more original programming all year round, and a new fall lineup boasting scripted series in every single time period across our six-night schedule,” said Mark Pedowitz, president of The CW. “We have 14 returning series for next year and adding to that three exciting new shows, including our newest superhero, the thrilling Batwoman, the mystery and suspense of Nancy Drew and the aspirational Katy Keene, based on the Archie Comics characters. As the original multiplatform network, combining our linear broadcast and our best-in-class ad-supported digital services with our ability to harness social like no one else, The CW’s distinct brand and programming strategy perfectly positions this network to grow and thrive in the current media landscape.”

The CW schedule is heavy on known IP (DC Comics, Archie Comics) and hitmaker Greg Berlanti (who also grew his portfolio across the other broadcast networks). That trend could be seen elsewhere, from FBI, 9-1-1 and black-ish spin-offs to Lincoln, based on The Bone Collector novel, and Stumptown, adapted from a graphic novel, to the scripted format-inspired The Baker and the Beauty and Not Just Me. Vertical integration continues, with ABC, NBC, CBS and The CW all relying heavily on their sister production companies. Although, there remains room for independents on the U.S. grid, and not just in unscripted; Werner Entertainment scored a renewal on The Conners (repped by Carsey-Werner), Keshet Studios is involved in both Lincoln and The Baker and the Beauty (sharing distribution rights with NBCUniversal on the latter), Entertainment One landed a renewal of The Rookie on ABC and a pickup of Deputy at FOX, Lionsgate’s Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist rolls out on NBC in the fall, and Sony Pictures Television has four new shows arriving in midseason, including For Life on ABC.

The week also saw Disney and WarnerMedia both putting an emphasis on their expanded portfolios. Kevin Mayer, chairman of direct-to-consumer and international at The Walt Disney Company, delivered the opening remarks at the group’s Upfront Experience, its first since closing the 21st Century Fox deal. Executives and personalities from ESPN, Freeform, FX Networks, ABC and National Geographic touted the performance of those brands and opportunities for advertisers.

“This marks the latest watershed event in what has been a very remarkable year for us,” Mayer said. “We completed the acquisition of 21st Century Fox in March, we unveiled Disney+ last month and we announced an agreement with Comcast to assume full operational control of Hulu effective immediately and acquire Comcast’s equity stake in 2024. Among all of these developments, the power of the advertising portfolio that we have brought together might be the most exciting thing of all. You’re seeing the company’s first presentation of our full suite of ad-supported platforms in one unified event.”

Mayer noted that Bob Iger, chairman and CEO, led a restructuring of the company last year “to reflect our new strategic priorities and to super-serve our consumers and advertising partners. As a key part of this, we brought together advertising sales, technology and content distribution within direct-to-consumer and international. We reimagined our ad-sales approach to give you, the advertisers, the most efficient and powerful platform possible. The changes we made allow us to sell the way you want to buy, with the best brands, enhanced technology and data tools across all platforms. In this era of unbelievable choice, brands matter more than ever. And we have the best: ABC Entertainment, ABC News, ESPN, FX, Freeform, Disney, National Geographic, and of course, now, Hulu. Taken together, these brands have an unmatched ability to connect deeply with audiences and we have the ability to create opportunities for you that can cut through the clutter and appeal directly to the consumers that you want to reach.”

WarnerMedia’s first-ever Upfront presentation showcased the “power and breadth” of its expanded portfolio, with “unrivaled” data and insights. John Stankey, CEO of WarnerMedia, said: “We’ve combined the creative vision, iconic brands and full content portfolio of WarnerMedia with the global reach, capabilities and direct consumer relationships of our parent company AT&T. It means we’ve streamlined our business to ensure that all of our audiences and platforms are available to you—in one place, with one conversation.”

He concluded, “We all know video consumption is changing. Technology is changing. And our business models are changing. But the need to connect with passionate consumers at scale is not changing… We are absolutely committed to pushing the creative and commercial boundaries of the advertising experience, building better solutions for our partners, and working side by side with you—everyone here in the audience—to lead the evolution of our industry.”

Visit WorldScreen.com’s Fall Season Grid for all the details on the new and returning shows on the U.S. broadcast networks, and a listing of pickups by studio.











About Mansha Daswani

Mansha Daswani is the editor and associate publisher of World Screen. She can be reached on mdaswani@worldscreen.com.

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