Network TV announces fall schedules, but with as many questions as answers

Although the upfront presentations, as they’re called, aren’t happening this week as is customary, the networks appear to be employing a strategy based on proceeding as if the TV season is going to happen as scheduled, while sorting out the details later.

CBS announced its lineup last week, with only a few new shows — including dramas based on “The Equalizer” and “The Silence of the Lambs” — joining 23 returning series. Fox did the same on Monday, while picking up a pair of already-produced shows that previously played on smaller platforms as what amounts to a hedge against the inability to produce new ones: “L.A.’s Finest,” a cop show that premiered on cable provider Spectrum; and the latest iteration of the science show “Cosmos,” from National Geographic.

NBC, for its part, held a teleconference with advertisers on Monday, going over broad plans in terms of working to adapt to the threat of Covid-19, setting aside specific talk about its programming — or contingency plans, if established shows like the hit drama “This is Us” aren’t available.

Asked about such contingencies, the network’s sales team merely said that NBCUniversal possesses a vast programming library, and it would be up to its creative talent to figure that out.

Jennifer Lopez attends the NBCUniversal 2017 Upfront on May 15, 2017 in New York City.  attend the NBCUniversal 2017 Upfront on May 15, 2017 in New York City.
The closest analogy to the current situation would be past writers strikes, which forced networks to find creative ways to program their schedules. That has included everything from acquiring existing series produced abroad to offering shows that were made for sister networks. As the Hollywood Reporter noted, for example, during the 2008 strike CBS aired edited reruns of Showtime’s “Dexter.”

In any normal year, billions are invested in the fall network-TV lineup, with the great unknown being what series might break through and which ones will flop. This year, due to the novel coronavirus, those traditional concerns have given way to new dimensions of uncertainty.

The irony of it all is that people have been watching more TV than in some time. After steadily declining ratings, stay-at-home orders have boosted network viewing, despite the competition from streaming services and other alternatives.

Even as those orders are relaxed and more people venture out, continuing anxiety about Covid-19 and the major job losses associated with the crisis likely means more people will choose to stay home and watch TV as entertainment, both for financial and safety reasons.

During its streaming presentation, NBCUniversal chief of advertising and partnerships Linda Yaccarino conceded that there is “not a lot of visibility into the future,” while promoting a variety of ways that NBC can help sponsors get their messages across.

One of the biggest challenges facing primetime TV, meanwhile, is outside of the networks’ control: NFL football, which has announced a fall schedule, but will leave gaping holes in NBC and Fox’s lineups on Sunday and Thursday nights, respectively, if it’s not able to proceed as planned.

Similarly, NBCUniversal president of ad sales Laura Molen noted that viewers were “still going to be able to cry through the next season of ‘This is Us.'” But like virtually everything surrounding industry right now, that’s a promise that NBC might not be able to keep.

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