Spring has sprung and with it comes the annual ritual of TV upfronts, when broadcast networks roll out the red carpet for Madison Avenue. Beginning Monday, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and The CW will unveil their 2019-2020 primetime programming lineups and convince TV ad buyers to spend big. The goal is to sell “upfront” advertising commitments, and billions of dollars are at stake.
Broadcast networks are no longer the only game in town, as cable networks, social, mobile, and digital vie for the same business. “TV lacks the digital world’s precision targeting, deep measurement and analytics and sexiness, and the ways networks price, package, and sell their TV spots looks much more like the 1970s than the 2020s,” says Dave Morgan, CEO of Simulmedia.
Heading into the upfronts, perhaps the biggest challenge facing the broadcast networks is remaining relevant.
Overall, primetime broadcast TV viewership is down, especially among the much-coveted 18-49 demo. And with increased competition, it’s much harder than it ever was to create truly must-see TV. Across broadcast networks, cable networks and streaming services, 487 scripted programs aired in 2017, according to data from the cable network FX. Compare that to the 288 that aired in 2012.
With recent executive shuffles and media conglomeration, this year’s upfronts will see significant changes—and challenges—for each of the broadcast networks. Here’s a look at what each network is up against as they head into the 2019 upfronts.
What a difference a year makes. At last year’s CBS upfront presentation, Les Moonves, then CBS Corp. CEO, got a standing ovation when he took the stage to present the network’s lineup. In September 2018, after 15 years leading the company, Moonves stepped down amidst sexual harassment charges. This will be the first upfront season in many years that Moonves won’t be hawking CBS’ new shows. The timing isn’t terrific given The Big Bang Theory, network TV’s most watched comedy, will wrap up this season. They’re betting on The Big Bang Theory spinoff Young Sheldon, as well as an American version of the hit U.K. reality show Love Island, to hit big, especially with younger demos.
This marks the first upfront since the Disney-Fox merger was finalized in March and it will be the first one that combines the two companies’ TV properties. ABC Entertainment will present its schedule alongside sister cable networks Freeform, FX Networks, ESPN, National Geographic Global Networks, and Disney Media Networks. ABC’s overall viewership and ratings among the 18-49 demo are down from last year. Comedy stalwart Modern Family is entering its final year and the long-running American Idol franchise might have bottomed out.
New ABC Entertainment President Karey Burke told television reporters earlier this year that she aims for ABC to regain its spot as the most-watched broadcaster among women. For that to happen, they’ll need to establish new brands to complement existing female-skewing shows such as Grey’s Anatomyand How to Get Away with Murder.
In advance of the upfronts, NBC has renewed all three of its Chicago-set drama series from hitmaker Dick Wolf, as well as its comedy crowd-pleasers Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Superstore, and The Good Place. But it needs an influx of fresh programming to lure back audiences. “The lack of hit sitcoms is the big obstacle at NBC,” says Berman. Among 18- to 49-year-olds, NBC’s primetime ratings are down 27% from last year, so they’ve got to deliver the goods at this year’s upfront presentation. At least they can count on some reliable hits: This is Us, The Voice, and Sunday Night Football, among others.
Fox enters the upfronts in the best shape of any of the broadcast networks in terms of ratings. It’s the only one that’s holding steady among 18- to 49-year-olds and among total viewers (an impressive 10%). But this will be the first upfront since Fox Corp. sold off the bulk of its entertainment property in the Disney deal. The new standalone company owns the Fox TV network as well as its owned-and-operated network affiliates, the Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, and Fox Sports. Without access to the Fox TV studio, which produced most of the shows that air on Fox, the TV network is likely to emphasize reality series, live special events, and sports. That said, it has already ordered four dramas and two comedy pilots in advance of the upfronts. The Simpsons fans can rest easy because the network has already signed on to two more seasons.
The CW’s total primetime viewership is down to 1.3 million, a 24% dip from last year’s 1.7 million, according to Nielsen figures through 31 weeks of the 2018-19 television season. In the key 18-49 demographic, ratings are down 33% from last year. But what The CW lacks in numbers, it makes up for in buzz. “The CW has a very small audience, but it’s strong in social media,” says Marc Berman, TV analyst and editor-in-chief of Programming Insider.
The network has already renewed its hit Riverdale for its fourth season and picked up a Riverdale spinoff series Katy Keene, in addition to lesbian superhero drama Batwoman and a Nancy Drew series. “Everyone is super-excited about Batwoman. It’s not going to bring in 10 million viewers. But it’s not about the number of viewers. It’s about bringing in the right demographics,” says Berman.
Of course, it remains to be seen which of these much-hyped new shows will click with audiences. In an era of peak TV, it’s increasingly difficult to stand out—and broadcast networks don’t have the same creative freedom as cable or streaming services. Advertisers know going into the upfronts that it’s likely that more than half of the shows presented will fail.
But TV remains the place to be for advertisers looking for the broadest reach. “No media or communication platform can deliver high impact sight, sound, and motion to more people faster than television advertising,” says Morgan. “As big as digital media channels have become, only TV networks can reach 80 to 90% of Americans with ads multiple times each day.”
A recent study from Adobe found that marketers still rank TV higher than most digital formats in the “ability to build an emotional connection with a brand.”
“There are still television moments that simply cannot be missed that attract a wide audience and give brands the opportunity to create buzz,” says Rex Briggs, founder and CEO of Marketing Evolution.
Or, as Berman puts it, “if you choose the right shows, broadcast TV still gives you the biggest bang for your buck.”