Yet like so much else during the coronavirus pandemic, the past two weeks have instead been filled with unknowns, uncertainty and heavy scrambling. As a result, the fall television season will look unlike anything seen in recent memory.
With productions potentially sidelined for months, a calendar normally filled with shiny new scripted series and returning favorites will instead contain shows like “L.A.’s Finest” — made for and even already aired on other services. The networks are even considering news and other kinds of programs that rarely grace prime time.
“It’s horrible what’s going on around the world but also in this industry,” said Preston Beckman, a longtime network television executive whose resume includes both Fox and NBC, alluding to many of the 900,000 entertainment workers sidelined by the lockdown. But, he added, "it will be an opportunity to redefine a lot of television.”
Broadcast TV is a highly interdependent organism. Networks order pilots, a few of which become series that then are scheduled for the fall. There, with the help of highly rated NFL games and Major League Baseball postseason contests, the shows launch to potentially tens of millions of viewers, whose interest attracts advertisers. In flush times, it all works hummingly.
But this year nearly every part of that life cycle has been disrupted.
Sports leagues remain a question mark amid health concerns and revenue-sharing questions. With the economic uncertainty brands also have less money to spend on advertising, and consumers more reluctance to buy the products advertised.
And, most important, networks may not have the shows that could drive all of this.
While the coronavirus crisis has worn on for months, networks had already gotten through much of their production for their spring scripted series and their summer competition shows before the crisis worsened. That reprieve is now ending.
“The fall is going to be tricky for any network that relies on original programming,” said Robert Greenblatt, chairman of WarnerMedia Entertainment and former chairman of NBC Entertainment. WarnerMedia’s own CW has already said it will push the start of next year’s prime-time television season until early 2021 and instead air a lot of content already produced or made available elsewhere in the usually lucrative fourth quarter.
Network television is sometimes seen as a fading business, with little heat and few viewers. But its hits continue to collect an audience most streaming shows could only dream about. Even with drops in recent years, nearly a dozen broadcast shows averaged eight million viewers or more this season, with four of them – “The Masked Singer” “The Voice,” NCIS” and “FBI” – routinely topping 9 million.
But those numbers could take a tumble in the fall.
Most of the roughly 50 pilots ordered this year were never shot. (Pilot-shooting usually takes place in the spring — right as lockdowns began.) That means network executives would have to order full series with nothing but a script on which to base their decision, a process they have historically resisted as too risky.
Not that they could shoot those programs — or any returning ones — if they wanted to. To make a September debut, series need to begin shooting by July or early August at the latest. Yet production is nowhere near restarting. Producers and the guilds that cover most Hollywood workers have all said they are not yet comfortable reopening sets, where hundreds of cast and crew work in close quarters for long hours.
Legal issues involving liability protection for studios and workplace compensation for crew members are also becoming a dense thicket. “Making the decision to shut down is easy. Opening it up again is much harder,” said Scott Edel, who runs the entertainment department at the Los Angeles office of the law firm Loeb & Loeb and is helping clients navigate these issues.
There are also political obstacles, particularly as the two biggest U.S. production hubs, Los Angeles and New York, remain in broader lockdown.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) held a roundtable with top Hollywood figures earlier this week and said that there will soon be guidelines released for production to restart in a number of California counties. But he said that L.A. County — where many of the soundstages are located — would not be one of them. The county continues to experience more than 1,000 new coronavirus cases on many days.
Moving to another location with fewer restrictions, such as Georgia, isn’t an alternative, producers say. Many TV shows, especially returning ones, have established crews and sets on Hollywood and New York stages, and replacing them would be expensive and inconvenient. Stage space and crew availability elsewhere are already tight and most could not be accommodated.
Some in the creative community have acknowledged that a return to normal production routines in the fall is unlikely given the health and liability concerns.
“The actor is going to be the least protected person on set,” Jon Huertas, star of NBC’s “This Is Us,” said on the roundtable. “We can’t film with PPE on.” He acknowledged he and the show’s creators have discussed the matter and agree that it’s plausible production would not restart until 2021.
That would be of concern not only to fans but to NBC — “This Is Us” garnered more viewers in the 18-to-49 demographic than any other drama last season.
What the fall television scene will instead look like is anyone’s guess.
News programming could be added, especially in advance of the election.
Late-night shows, which have continued to be shot from hosts’ homes, could be moved from 11:30 to a prime-time slot of 10 p.m.
Reruns are a possibility, though those tend to get extremely low viewership numbers in prime time.
Programming from Canada, Britain and other English-speaking territories that have never aired in the United States could also be snapped up by broadcast networks, giving prime time a curiously exotic feel.
Meanwhile, individual networks can pursue tailor-made solutions. CBS could air series that have already been made for and shown on its All Access streaming service — series such as “The Good Fight” and “Star Trek: Picard” that have drawn fan bases but reach only a fraction of the audience that a prime-time network schedule does.
This would, experts say, allow the network to sell advertising at a traditionally high rate while offering in essence its own commercial for a streaming service, though such a move could be risky — it could prompt some All Access customers to drop their service.
Nor is CBS the only place All Access might be seen. The CW said it would air the modern fairy-tale series “Tell Me a Story,” which aired for two seasons on All Access, part of the rush to buy up existing shows from other services. The company has also said it will air “Swamp Thing,” a show that aired for one season on its DC Universe service.
ABC said Thursday in its quasi-upfront announcement that it would bring back 2019-2020 shows such as “Stumptown” and “Black-ish” for new seasons and also move forward with a new series from the titanic TV creator David E. Kelley. But since there’s no telling when the shows will be able to shoot, it didn’t give any hint what days of the week they would air or what month they would debut, instead just calling the programs its “slate for the 2020-2021 season.”
Whatever shows end up on ABC and other networks’ airwaves, it will make for a strange dynamic. Broadcast television has long been the place where programs originate before migrating downstream to cable platforms, digital services and the stations of other countries. Now, U.S. network television could find itself at the other end of the water’s flow.
It won’t just be consumers and programmers that will feel the consequences; the advertising sector will too.
Networks in May usually sell ads at upfront rates — comparatively lower prices so that the biggest brands, which know they want in on a fall season, can buy in bulk (as opposed to the more expensive “scatter” markets at a later date.)
That gives advertisers a good deal and broadcasters the peace-of-mind that they will have a steady stream of revenue once their shows start rolling out. As much as 80 percent of network advertising is typically sold at upfronts.
Not this year.
“There’s no one buying anything right now because there’s nothing for them to buy — the networks can’t say what they’re airing,” said Anthony Crupi, a longtime ad expert and commentator. “So you’re seeing almost no activity at all. Some meetings, maybe. But no deals.”
One of the few networks trying to push through with minimal changes is CBS. The network held a virtual upfront this week with many of its ViacomCBS characters, such as both a live and animated Stephen Colbert. The latter held a conversation with Chase from the long-running animated Nickelodeon hit “Paw Patrol” featuring the kind of ad-reach talk normally found at the company’s Carnegie Hall upfront presentation.
“I’m just a puppy,” Chase said. “But even I know that in all demos and all key platforms ViacomCBS reached 75 percent of kids 2-11 and 92 percent of people 18-34.”
CBS announced a schedule for the fall of some two dozen returning shows and added two fresh series, including a reboot of “The Equalizer” with Queen Latifah. But privately, few in the television business believe the schedule will come to fruition anytime soon. While many of CBS’s shows have had writers rooms open (virtually) there is no timetable yet for them to begin production.
But some remained optimistic. Greenblatt pointed to a number of lockdown television phenomena from the spring, like concerts broadcast from stars’ homes, that garnered high ratings.
Others also sought to find the silver lining.
“You could see a lot of creativity and innovation in the fall without the regular shows,” Beckman said. “At least, that’s what I’m choosing to believe."