A few things happen every year at the broadcast upfronts, the annual week in which broadcast network execs unveil their new TV lineups to advertisers: they trot out a bunch of new shows (most of which will be canceled a year later), they try to wow attendees with fancy statistics that mean nothing (We’re number one in, um, engagement!) and they pay lip-service to the notion of extending the traditional September to May television season to a year-round programming cycle.
This year’s upfronts, which wrap up today, May 15, followed a similar path, save for one important change: the networks are finally serious about programming year-round, and they’re actually putting their money where their mouths are.
“In the course of just two years, we have completely redefined summer,” said CBS Entertainment Chairman Nina Tassler, who discussed her network’s “most aggressive summer schedule ever.” FOX and NBC made similar pronouncements as they unveiled plans to attack the summer months in a big way after decades of hibernating. “June is just as important as January,” echoed FOX Broadcasting Chairman Kevin Reilly. “We really, really want to be a 12-month network.”
To that end, FOX is running “limited series” 24: Live Another Day through mid-summer, and premiering new drama Gang Related on May 22. Next season, it is holding back several shows to deploy next summer; if 24 does well, it could also return. NBC also announced a “year-round” lineup, premiering new shows Undateable and Crossbones at the end of the month, and making plans to roll out several shows next summer as well. And CBS is following up last year’s summer hit Under the Dome—which turned out to be the year’s most-watched new series—with another high-profile summer entry: Extant, starring Halle Berry and produced by Steven Spielberg.
This represents a complete reversal from how the networks operated for decades: once the official TV season ended in May, they coasted on repeat airings all summer. As cable began filling the summer void in the ‘90s and gaining traction with its original programming—Sex and the City’s early popularity had much to do with the fact that viewers had few other options, and the media had no other summer shows to write about—the networks would occasionally follow suit. But whenever those summer experiments unexpectedly hit paydirt (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in 1999, Survivor in 2000, American Idol in 2002) they were quickly moved in-season.
In recent years, as network repeats became less-watched and, therefore, less lucrative, the networks would half-heartedly claim to be interested in summer original programming, but instead would fill those months with reality shows and cheap series imported from Canada. Once again, cable took advantage of the lull: USA and TNT owe much of their recent successes (including Burn Notice, The Closer, and Rizzoli & Isles) to their summer time slots. Last summer, a new outlet joined the fray: Netflix rolled out both Arrested Development and Orange is the New Black during the summer months, and dominated much of the TV buzz. And when Netflix viewers weren’t streaming Arrested or Orange, they likely were binge-watching other shows on the service.
But as broadcast ratings continue to erode, those networks can no longer assume that their viewers will stay loyal and return in the fall. So when CBS took a chance on adapting Stephen King’s Under the Dome as a “limited series” last summer, and it became the highest-rated scripted summer series in 21 years, the network kept it in the same spot this year (it returns June 30). With the addition of Extant and other summer shows, CBS will have 90 hours of original programming this summer.
Now, said Nina Tassler, “we roll out our shows all year long.” It’s about time.