Tuesday, September 1, 2015

ABC, CBS, and the Future of Broadcast Television

Galavant is more "different" than "good." Is that what matters?

A few months ago, as I was writing my upfront previews, I was surprised by how sympathetic I was toward ABC’s situation – its renewals, cancelations, and schedule – and how antagonistic I was toward the same news coming from CBS.  I was genuinely excited about ABC’s future prospects while giving CBS the “Ho hum; same old, same old” treatment.  I couldn’t figure out why.  It’s not because I particularly hate CBS shows or love ABC’s programming; I watch roughly the same number of hours on each network.  It’s not because I was particularly eager for any of their new series; I wasn’t even sure what shows were going to end up on the fall schedule.  It took me a long time to figure out what made me so optimistic about ABC and so pessimistic about CBS: While both networks appear very forward-thinking in their attempts to monetize the current television market, ABC's tactics embrace diversity and quality while CBS’s methods embrace repetition and quantity.

It may seem odd to call CBS (or any broadcast network really) forward-thinking.  After all, CBS has long had the reputation of being the “old people’s network,” where viewers outside of the 18-49 demographic go to get their fixes of police procedurals and multi-cam sitcoms.  Really, though, that’s never truly been the case.  Even setting that myth aside, it’s impossible to look at CBS’s scheduling decisions and not see a network that realizes the era of thriving on advertising revenue is over.  While NBC is trying desperately to bring more live viewing to its network with programming like Sunday Night Football, The Voice, or this year’s all-live season of Undateable, CBS frankly seems like they don’t care if you watch their programs live anymore because, you see, CBS has turned into a syndication machine.  Its sole purpose is to crank out 88-100+ episodes of dramas and comedies that it can then sell off into syndication for $2-3 million per episode. 

Thanks to syndication, it has become incredibly easy for a low-rated, aging drama to be much more profitable than even a hit new series in a plum timeslot.  With shows like Hawaii Five-0 and The Good Wife drawing more than $2 million per episode in syndication, most ad revenue they receive now is pure profit.  But there’s a catch.  In order for a show to make the CBS Corporation money in syndication it has to be a CBS-produced series.  This isn’t new or uncommon.  The trend across every network has, for the last couple of decades, been moving toward the production of more and more in-house programming.  But CBS has taken it to the extreme.  This fall, the network is airing only one drama that they are not at least co-producing: the WB-created Supergirl – and even that show is taking the place of two WB comedies: 2 Broke Girls and Mike & Molly. 

This isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon or even a negative one.  Other networks also produce much of their own programming.  Where it becomes frustrating with CBS is not just in how many in-house shows they are airing, but the fact that they all seem the same.  Because CBS is so focused on earning syndication money, they tailor their shows for precisely that market and that market wants procedurals.  The hard truth is that the kind of deep, complex, serialized drama that has come to define the “Golden Age of Television” is not the kind of television that gets great ratings in extended repeats.  Flip on TNT, USA, or WGN America on any given afternoon and you’re not going to find episodes of Breaking Bad, Lost, or The Shield.  You’re going to find endless airings of NCIS, Law & Order: SVU, and Castle.  These are the shows that people will watch over and over again and these are the shows that will command a $2-3 million payday for their episodes; these are the shows that CBS will continue to crank out of its factory.

ABC has looked at the exact same television climate and decided to take an approach that is almost entirely opposed to that of CBS.  Whereas CBS has focused on cranking out 22-25 episode seasons of its shows in order to make money on the back end, ABC is trying to fill every nook and cranny of its schedule with new programming: ordering (and renewing) multiple short-run series that don’t get particularly good ratings and have no chance at reaching long-run syndication. 

It’s not an entirely new strategy.  Dancing with the Stars, The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and Bachelor in Paradise have largely served as year-round programming for the last two years and there was an aborted attempt to introduce “bridge programming” in 2013, but the network ultimately decided to air Once Upon a Time in Wonderland in the fall, rather than using it to bridge the two halves of Once Upon a Time’s year in the winter. 

ABC introduced four bridge series in 2015: Agent Carter, which aired between Agents of SHIELD’s two half-seasons; Galavant, which did the same for Once Upon a Time’s; American Crime, which aired after How to Get Away with Murder’s intentionally truncated season; and Secrets and Lies, which came on after Resurrection finished its run 13-episode run.  None of these series managed even average ratings for the network, yet all were renewed, a particular surprise for Galavant and American Crime, given that neither drew ratings that would normally be considered acceptable. 

But ABC’s mission is clear.  Ratings for repeats are in the tank.  Granted, ratings overall have been falling for several years.  But while ABC’s overall numbers are down ten percent in the last two years, its ratings for repeat airings have fallen twenty percent, making original programming that much more valuable, year after year.  The strategy, then, is to replace as many repeats as possible with original programming, which is exactly what ABC has done.  In 2012-13, the network aired 161.5 hours of repeats.  That number fell to 133 hours last year and 108.5 hours this year.  While the ratings for those new original programs haven’t been great, they’ve at least been 30-50 percent better than the very poor ratings for the repeats they’ve replaced.

The advantage this has given ABC is that, while they still don’t have the scheduling depth, they have much more breadth to fill in the gaps.  They’re nibbling at the edges, essentially, striving to eke out every extra ratings point they can.  For the most part, it’s worked.  Last year, while the ratings for the other broadcast networks were falling five, fifteen, or in the case of Fox a whopping twenty-five percent, ABC was down a mere two percent.  And the craziest part is, for all of the talk in the fall about ABC’s drama boom, what with Scandal and Once Upon a Time returning way up and How to Get Away with Murder debuting to big numbers, the network was actually down about eight percent from 2014 in its new drama airings.  But those ratings were still double what they would get from repeat airings.

Bridge programming is working for ABC.  Not only is it allowing the network to inch its ratings up bit by bit, it’s also allowing them to try new things.  An eight-episode World War II spy drama with a female lead?  Sure.  A four-hour medieval musical parody that might just be a naked attempt to get Alan Menken an EGOT?  Why not?  Hell, even Secrets & Lies and American Crime – which, fundamentally, are just long-form crime dramas – managed to at least be interesting by taking the focus off of the police and placing it on the suspects and victims instead.  Like I said, none of these shows was great (and only Agent Carter was really any good), but they were different, at least, rather than hewing to the same formula again and again.

A quick look at this coming year’s schedule shows the same patterns holding.  CBS is debuting two new in-house dramas: Limitless, essentially a superhero procedural that sounds an awful lot like Intelligence, which CBS tried two years ago, and Code Black, a medical procedural.*  Now, could one of these shows turn into the next great procedural, a la House or The Good Wife?  I suppose.  But the odds are stacked against them and, even should they get renewed, they’re far more likely to end up like, well, Intelligence or The Gifted Man. 

* CBS also has Supergirl set to debut in November, but it is a) a Warner Bros. show and b) likely going to be another superhero procedural.

Compare that to ABC, which has on tap for 2015-16 The Family, a limited-series political thriller with deep mystery roots, Of Kings and Prophets, a retelling of the Biblical book of Samuel, and Wicked City, a true crime anthology series.  Again, there’s no guarantee that these will be great shows, or even necessarily good shows, but they’re different.  And by being different, there’s a heck of a lot better chance that they’ll be emotionally satisfying. 

As has been bandied about on Twitter and in the television critics’ world recently, this is the era of Peak TV.  The idea of Peak TV means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but to me it means that I have far less time for indulging the repetitive, which means that I am far more interested in shows that do something different, something new.  I like a good laundry-folding show as much as the next person, but with so much television on these days, I tend more and more to be eschewing procedurals that tell the same stories every week for shows that are wont to weave new narratives.  I’m looking for shows that will engage me and, the truth is, a standard procedural is almost never going to do that. 

What has made the Golden Age of Television and whatever period we’re in now great is change.  I expect to see the mild-mannered chemistry teacher become the drug kingpin.  Or I might even expect to see the reality television producer finally realize she’s the villain of the piece.  But I can always expect change.  I like watching a show and knowing that what I see in episode one is not what I’ll see in episode twenty or forty or one-hundred.  Right now, ABC is giving me that feeling.  I watch a bridge program on the alphabet network and I don’t know what will happen next.  Be they good or bad, these shows are still capable of surprising me.  I watch a CBS procedural and I feel like I’ve seen it all before, even if I’ve never watched a second of the program.  Hawaii Five-0, Blue Bloods, NCIS: Fundamentally, these are all the same show, even as the characters and plots change.   

That’s what it comes down to.  In 2015 my choices for television are essentially unlimited, but my time is not.  If I’m going to pick up a new show, it’s because it promises to give me something new, not the same thing I’ve seen before.  CBS, for all the success it’s found and all the future profits it’s promising, has succeeded largely by delivering the same thing over and over.  ABC is promising something different.  In the age of Peak TV, that makes all the difference.