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Network upfronts cautiously look back to the future

If the major networks are running scared of changes assailing their business model, it hasn't been enough to make the...

Posted: May 17, 2018 2:14 PM
Updated: May 17, 2018 2:14 PM

If the major networks are running scared of changes assailing their business model, it hasn't been enough to make them change their shared programming strategy -- a formula tilted toward familiar titles and relative stability, based on this week's upfront presentations to media buyers.

Although the networks collectively stress that television is a year-round business, the fall prime time lineup remains a bellwether for just how much turnover broadcasters think they can absorb, and how many new shows they can effectively promote. The reliance on reboots and revivals, moreover -- with CBS' updates of "Magnum P.I." and "Murphy Brown" and a CW "Charmed" remake joining fare like "Will & Grace" and "Roseanne" -- offers a leg up in getting new fare noticed and sampled.

Broadcasters have largely concluded that even modestly performing shows present less risk than willy-nilly change, with the five networks -- including the CW, which is expanding its lineup to a sixth night -- scheduling just 18 new programs in the fall, the fewest in recent memory. Part of that has to do with the presence of NFL football Sunday and Thursday nights (on NBC and Fox, respectively), but the number of brand-new shows ordered overall has been drifting downward -- about three dozen this upfront, including mid-season pick-ups, from 45 in 2015.

As for stability and comfort, NBC's decision to schedule its three "Chicago"-branded dramas together on Wednesday night is an almost symbolic expression of those priorities -- a logical enough move that nevertheless became a punch line for competitors (and even the network's own late-night host, Seth Meyers) throughout the week.

The programs themselves, meanwhile, don't exhibit much effort to break existing molds in a TV ecosystem that has become more crowded than ever, with a fairly conventional lineup of procedural dramas and comedies. Even the anticipated "'Roseanne' effect" -- predicated on ABC's hit -- was muted, tilted more toward the aforementioned revivals than the discussed possibility of a resurgence of multi-camera sitcoms.

Fox, in fact, did as much that appeared to reflect "Roseanne's" influence as ABC did, resurrecting that network's canceled Tim Allen comedy "Last Man Standing" -- a maneuver that executives attributed to the chance to showcase a proven sitcom star, not the show's format or its conservative politics.

Related: Moonves vs. Redstone: A pivotal week for CBS

Fox also went against the grain -- likely out of necessity -- by stressing the value of a go-it-alone strategy with the pending sale of its studio assets to Disney, while virtually every other network touted the benefits of size and synergy. The network maintained that the divestment would actually prove beneficial, allowing "New Fox" to be less reliant on ancillary concerns, like international programming sales, than its competitors.

By contrast, ABC shared the stage with Freeform, its sister cable network, citing the advantages in working together. And NBC was virtually lost in a sweeping presentation promoting all the channels owned by parent Comcast, which CEO Steve Burke kicked off by boasting that there are "more people watching television on the networks of NBCUniversal than any other company."

CBS, as usual, offered the most robust defense of broadcasting, with CEO Leslie Moonves calling the medium "the true survivor of this crazy TV business that we love," one that has weathered "every supposed threat" posed by new players.

For CBS, the lineup possesses a decidedly retro flavor -- with the two new revivals joining existing ones "Hawaii Five-O," "MacGyver" and "SWAT." Still, the network also made strides in addressing past criticisms regarding a lack of diversity in its casting, featuring African-American leads in three new fall shows, while Jay Hernandez, a Mexican-American, stars in "Magnum."

Despite a fair amount of discussion about the shifting TV consumption model and challenges that creates for advertising, the overall tone was more cheery than dire. Turner Networks -- showcasing its stable of networks alongside the broadcasters -- was most direct in addressing the need for change, with ad sales president Donna Speciale introducing the presentation by saying, "Today will be different. It has to be." (CNN is part of Turner Broadcasting.)

For the most part, though, an upfront week for a 2018-19 TV season that will see "Roseanne," "Murphy Brown" and "Magnum P.I." back on the air seemed content to party like it's 1988.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

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Confirmed Cases: 38569

Reported Deaths: 1511
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hennepin12456787
Ramsey4911228
Dakota238291
Stearns237119
Anoka2241109
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Olmsted112915
Washington111440
Mower9522
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Scott7344
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Todd4012
Carver3811
Sherburne3175
Lyon3162
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Benton2173
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Martin1695
Nicollet16912
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Winona12515
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Pine1050
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Lake60
Traverse60
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Lake of the Woods00

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

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Confirmed Cases: 31670

Reported Deaths: 722
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Polk6638179
Woodbury325244
Black Hawk230158
Buena Vista171411
Johnson13148
Linn129482
Dallas128029
Marshall104919
Scott81510
Story7793
Pottawattamie73612
Wapello70830
Dubuque70222
Crawford6772
Muscatine64344
Sioux4770
Tama46529
Wright3861
Louisa36213
Jasper32517
Plymouth3225
Warren2901
Dickinson2663
Washington2439
Webster2292
Hamilton1891
Cerro Gordo1821
Boone1481
Clay1340
Clarke1322
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Mahaska11617
Shelby1140
Clinton1121
Poweshiek1068
Carroll991
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Bremer946
Des Moines922
Franklin900
Emmet880
Henry863
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Monona770
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Benton691
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Jefferson640
Sac640
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Jones610
Butler572
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Humboldt551
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Iowa530
Delaware511
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Clayton443
Lyon440
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