February 2015
Volume 35 No. 2

February 2015
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The Vanishing Overnight Ratings And Back Nine of U.S. Television

By Susan Hornik

To survive in an increasingly uncertain landscape, U.S. TV network presidents are continuing to do whatever it takes to change the way they do business. That was clear during the executive panels at January’s TV Critics Press Tour, held bi-annually, first in Pasadena, California, and later in Beverly Hills.

With CBS in the number one position, CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler was more than excited about the network’s growth. “We’ve had another terrific year. Once again, we’re number one in viewers, up two percent from last year. We have seven of the top 10 series and 12 of the top 20.”

Tassler has done her best to adapt to changes in the television industry. “We’re halfway through another season where the overnight ratings continue to disappear in relevance. At the same time, the number of ways that viewers watch our shows and how we get paid for them continues to increase. Our ratings are higher on DVR and VoD, and more viewers are watching our content online. In addition, we launched a digital subscription app in October, ‘CBS All Access,’ where viewers can watch the network and CBS shows on-demand both online and on mobile devices.”

She added: “In today’s digital, multi‑platform era where new distribution services are emerging and competing against each other every day, the value of every single viewer has never been greater. We’re no longer a business that’s simply about the overnights or 18‑49. It’s about finding all viewers wherever they are, whenever they watch and creating the biggest hits. And CBS’s ability to build big audiences for our network and for our shows distinguishes our brand in all parts of our business — to advertisers on the network, to our distributors when we negotiate carriage agreements, and to those who license our shows in syndication and around the world.”

CBS is continually working on moving to an all-season programming model, acknowledged Tassler. “It started with summer shows such as Under the Dome, Extant, and upcoming series Zoo. But it’s more than just summer. This year we’ve rolled out shows throughout the season and tailored production orders for both new and returning series to help fill traditional repeat cycles. We’re going to continue to mix and match our episode orders in a way that best serves the creative needs of the show and the flexibility of our schedule,” she said.

Tassler continued: “The term ‘back nine’ [extending the order from 13 to 22 episodes] is quickly becoming as obsolete as the overnight ratings. We are programming 64 more hours of originals on our schedule this year between September and May. More than 80 percent of our season is now original programming, up 71 percent from last year.”

NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt acknowledged the network’s struggles to establish new comedies. “I’m here to tell you that we are really challenged with the comedy brand that we’re trying to build on the network,” he said. With freshmen comedies A to Z and Bad Judge already canceled, sophomore About a Boy posting poor ratings, and lone bright spot Parks & Recreation heading into its final season, the network is looking to shift from single-camera comedies to multi-cameras.

“Some of the best shows on NBC in its history were multi-cams,” Greenblatt said. “We drifted into single-camera territory for the right reasons. We’re going to try some multi-cams now.” He added that “It’s been a couple of years of trial-and-error on a number of fronts...It’s hard to build that audience back, [but] we’re doing it one show at a time. NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke commented, “We’re really trying to attack it from all levels again. We just need to get some luck and some good scheduling.”

Salke said the network is considering experimenting with new comedy formats as it looks to reestablish itself in the genre. “We’re talking about doing a live comedy.” They’re considering “a limited comedy series that we could attract big stars to.”

Diversity was once again a key point of the ABC executive panel, with ABC president Paul Lee reiterating the network’s commitment to have shows that reflect the changing demographics and ethnographics of America.

“Our schedulers and programmers did something very special this season, which is that TGIT [Thank God It’s Thursday] is really a big cultural phenomenon,” Lee said of the network’s night of Shonda Rhimes’ successful series, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder.

Said Lee: “We’ve encouraged millions of people to take out wine and popcorn every Thursday night and really enjoy what is water cooler television. And it’s a rather brilliant mix of the very, very new and the very, very old…What’s not traditional is the billion Facebook impressions that we got for TGIT.

“As the world fragments more, the ability to have a focused brand is going to be a competitive advantage,” Lee added. But, he noted, “We didn’t pick up these shows because they were diverse. We picked them up because they were great.”

In addition, ABC has American Crime, a limited/anthology series and upcoming crime mystery drama Secrets & Lies. “We love having more limited series on the network, that allows for a mixed economy and allows us to bring a different kind of storytelling and a different talent to it,” said Lee.

FOX’s Gary Newman and Dana Walden, co-chiefs making their press tour debut, have a big job ahead: get the network out of the number four position. “We are well aware that we are the fourth-place network and our ratings are challenged,” said Newman, now chairman and CEO of the Fox Television Group.

The duo have been professional partners for 15 years as joint heads of 20th Century Fox Television, and have created uber successful series like The Simpsons, Family Guy, Homeland, 24, New Girl and Glee.

“For a long time, FOX has had a reputation for big, bold shows, some things that break out, but that also feel broad and appealing,” Walden said. “I would hope ultimately that the network is recognized for great showmanship.

“The question we are asked most often is why on earth would you take this job at this point in the broadcast history,” said Walden. Her response is that running the network gave them “the opportunity to meaningfully control our own destinies…We worked hard on these shows, we would deliver them, and essentially we would have to walk away. We had no say in the scheduling, marketing, programming and platforming of our shows, and frankly that got a little bit frustrating. So being in a position now to meaningfully affect those decisions has been really gratifying.”