I t’s odd how we cling to certain TV rituals. The whole idea of “Fall TV,” for example. ¶ There’s an ongoing, revolutionary upgrade in the many ways we watch television, so how is it that consumers are still expected to gorge on two to three dozen premieres at once (from broadcast, cable and streaming) every September and October, the way we’ve always done it? Or, with a nod to HBO satirist John Oliver’s exasperated segments on outdated social conventions: How is fall TV still a thing? ¶ Consider the 18 days in late July and early August that the networks (broadcast, cable and now streaming) spend promoting their new fall shows to the Television Critics Association press tour at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, in much they same way did in the 1970s.
Some 200 reporters and critics (including this one) get a good, long, hyped-up look at all the offerings that the new season will bring. They go to cocktail parties and interview the stars of the new shows. The hotel itself, a midcentury beauty of the “Mad Men” era where the Golden Globes are held each year and ancient celebrity photos adorn the walls, has a way of making critics feel like we’ve stepped back several decades. There can sometimes be a sense of shared delusion and optimism. I always come back from a press tour with a renewed crush on TV, in love all over again.
Then I come to my senses — usually when I re-watch the final versions of pilot episodes and have to write reviews of them. The mutual (possibly insane) understanding, from network to critic to viewer, is that half of these shows won’t survive.
That’s usually because they aren’t very good, but also, increasingly, because of inundation. In this “peak TV” era (the hazardous-waste stage of television’s latest “golden age”) a viewer has about 450 current dramas and comedies to choose from across multiple platforms, over a single year. More if you count foreign-made series, plus 700 or so others if you add non-scripted, “reality” programming.
Isn’t it ludicrous to still believe that a deluge of new shows would manage to find just the right audience in an eight-week period tied to the changing color of leaves? Especially in an industry that increasingly disregards its old measures of success, each choosing its own special cocktail of Nielsen ratings, in-house data, “buzz” (social network traffic), critics’ reviews and acute measures of time-shifted viewing to determine a hit?
Behind the happy hype, it’s madness. Alan Wurtzel, NBC’s longtime president of research and media development, is becoming a press-tour fixture; give him 20 minutes and he will overwhelm a roomful of math-challenged journalists with data about how and when different demographics ingest their TV.
In addition to the extraordinary amounts of content people are watching on video screens (from the TV on the wall to the phone in their hands it’s now close to six hours a day on average, NBC found), Wurtzel recently looked at factors that get viewers to start watching a new show at all.
He said that 54 percent of viewers of all ages agreed that they probably would not start watching a show unless multiple episodes are available to them on demand. To them, a “new” show is likely to be one they simply haven’t had time to watch yet but has been out long enough to earn a reputation or personal recommendation.
Once they’ve decided to try it out, they want as much of it as possible, or else it’s not worth committing to. One ballyhooed premiere episode is not enough.
“The idea that you can just open up a show is not enough anymore,” Wurtzel said. “You may have to refresh people’s interest or knowledge about that show months later. . . . This is a fundamental change in how people have been viewing TV.”
“Superstore,” the NBC sitcom about employees of a Walmart-like retailer, is an example of what the future of TV premieres could look like. Originally slated as a midseason show, “Superstore” first aired in late 2015 as a “sneak peek”-style preview before its actual premiere in January. The ratings (live plus three days of time-shifted viewing) were so-so. But as more episodes aired and the show got a second look from critics, “Superstore” started to look more like a hit in the long haul.
It’s perhaps telling, then, that NBC is sending only three new scripted shows into this fall’s sacrificial volcano — family drama “This Is Us”; adventure drama “Timeless”; and afterlife comedy “The Good Place.” (Two of these — “This Is Us” and “Timeless” — are the kind of shows I’d like to see stick around, while “The Good Place” feels expendable. But then, it wouldn’t be the fall season if all of it didn’t feel cancelable.)
CBS has six new shows this fall, ABC has five and Fox has four. Adding up all the new cable and streaming dramas and comedies premiering between Labor Day and Christmas, I count around 50 scripted shows. This includes HBO, which is launching four scripted series in coming weeks; even Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, which have no bottom-line reason to sell a “season” to viewers or advertisers, have directed some of their biggest offerings in 2016 to the fall.
If you think you make the best television, then fall is still the time to prove it. There are creators who still want to win that game the old-fashioned way.
“It actually is surprising sometimes,” said Jennifer Salke, NBC’s president of entertainment. “Someone will come in who I know could walk into any streaming platform and have a 13-episode order, [but] really wants to crack the network thing because they grew up on NBC and that’s where they want to work.”
In other ways, the fall TV model can sometimes have a negative impact on a network’s brand. CBS is coming under a lot of criticism for the lack of diversity — and imagination — in its six fall shows. Rolled out separately, over many months, these shows might have been judged on their own merits. But by packaging them together as fall shows, CBS essentially tells viewers that five of its best and brightest ideas in the year 2016 are shows that all star white guys in their 40s and 50s — Kevin James, Matt LeBlanc, Joel McHale, Michael Weatherly and Dermot Mulroney. (CBS’s other bright idea is a new “MacGyver.”)
“We need to do better and we know it,” said CBS’s president of entertainment, Glenn Geller, pointing out some gains in diversity among ensemble casts and in the number of episode directors on some series. “That’s really it. We need to do better. . . . These are the shows we picked up. We pick up the best shows from the pilots we make.”
Geller’s reference to “the pilots we make” is a reminder that fall TV begins months earlier as a series of time-honored rituals and business-as-usual: There’s a pilot-making frenzy in the spring, which leads to the “upfronts” in May and the presentation of a prime-time schedule, at which point advertisers make decisions about where and what to buy.
The reason fall TV is still a thing, after all, is that it serves as a stage upon which many billions of dollars in advertising revenue are at stake, in an industry that reports a gross profit margin of 40 to 50 percent on average.
Despite everything you read in the business pages about cord-cutters and consumer clout, television done the usual way makes big bucks. (Doubling down on sitcoms starring Kevin James and Matt LeBlanc might be viewed as a savvy business grab for the mainstream, no matter how much cultural heartburn it gives critics.)
“For 60 years, television, given the massive generational, behavioral, and technological shifts, has managed to change . . . not so much (the world still sits in front of a television),” writes media critic Michael Wolff in his succinctly argued 2015 book, “Television Is the New Television: The Unexpected Triumph of Old Media in the Digital Age.”
“And yet [TV] is always, no matter its continued success, ubiquity, and cultural centrality, about to be swept away.”
Likewise, fall TV is still a thing because the streaming revolution has yet to produce a comparable moneymaker and attention-grabber.
And to that we must also consider the ineffable, sentimental attachment. The memory of when the “FALL PREVIEW” issue of TV Guide, thick as the New Testament, would arrive at supermarket checkout lines and you’d beg your mother to buy it, so you could circle all the new shows you planned to watch. We have a fall TV season the same way we have a sense that it’s time for football games and the 800-page September issue of Vogue. The new theater, the big books, the Oscar-contending films.
Now is when we feast, and this is how we bring in the harvest, because, for as long as almost anyone can remember, we’ve always done it this way.