safe bets

Television is taking a cue from summer movie blockbusters

May 12, 2014
May 12, 2014

It’s become harder than ever to successfully launch a new TV show. Of the 47 new series introduced this past TV season by the major US broadcast networks (NBC, CBS, FOX, ABC and The CW), only 13 have been renewed for next year, meaning that roughly 3 out of 4 freshman shows—including high-profile series with beloved stars like Michael J. Fox, Robin Williams, Greg Kinnear and Sean Hayes—were canceled.

This week, the cycle begins anew with the network “upfronts”—the annual week in which broadcast execs unveil their new TV lineups to advertisers, in the hopes of getting a jump on the approximately $9 billion in advertising dollars that keep their primetime programming afloat each year. Grappling with season-to-season ratings declines (only NBC showed growth this year), the networks are trying a new tactic: approaching their lineups as if they are summer movie schedules.

To that end, the new crop of series for the 2014-15 TV season is dominated by shows based on comic books (a whopping five, including four from DC Comics properties—FOX’s Batman prequel Gotham, NBC’s Constantine, The CW’s Arrow spinoff The Flash and The CW’s iZombie—and one from Marvel, ABC’s Captain America-spinoff Marvel’s Agent Carter), sequels/spinoffs of other popular, long-running series (NCIS: New Orleans and CSI: Cyber, both from CBS, and NBC’s Heroes revival, Heroes Reborn) and fresh takes on classic characters (The Odd Couple on CBS, now starring Matthew Perry as messy Oscar Madison, and NBC’s Wizard of Oz-inspired Emerald City).

It’s an approach that mirrors this summer’s box office lineup of blockbuster hopefuls, which revolve around—sound familiar?—comic book properties (The Amazing Spider-Man 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Guardians of the Galaxy), sequels to popular films (22 Jump Street, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and How to Train Your Dragon 2) and new takes on classic characters (Hercules, Disney’s Maleficent).

The networks are coming to the same conclusion as the movie studios: the best way to potentially attract huge audiences, both domestically and internationally, is by relying on “safe” projects featuring well-established, beloved brands. That’s a big reason why Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was one of the few new series to get a renewal this year.

On the TV side, American viewers have more channels than ever at their disposal: an average of 189.1, up from 129.3 in 2008, according to a new Nielsen study. And that’s not counting the influx from TV programing from nontraditional outlets like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. Yet even as the TV landscape is more diluted and segmented than ever, the broadcast networks are still searching for those elusive projects with mass appeal.

To that end, it’s much easier to market to and hook audiences with a familiar concept—Batman, before he became Batman! NCIS, but in New Orleans! The Wizard of Oz like you’ve never seen it before!—than, say, a drama about an immortal medical examiner (which is the plot of ABC’s new Forever) or a female aerospace engineer making her way in 1960s NASA (the upcoming NBC comedy Mission Control).

And if their blockbuster approach draws in audiences and reverses the ratings declines, look for more of the same this time next year. NCIS: Avengers has a nice ring to it.

Follow Jason on Twitter @jasonlynch.We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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