Why TV time slots still matter for new shows

Didn’t end up there by accident.
Didn’t end up there by accident.
Image: AP Photo/CBS, David Giesbrecht
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The fall season—TV’s annual version of Thunderdome—is almost upon us. During the next month, the US broadcast networks will debut 20 new series they hope will connect with audiences (with three additional new shows premiering slightly later in the fall). New programs like Gotham, black-ish and The Flash will be competing for viewers alongside 49 returning series—and again, this isn’t even counting offerings on any of the cable networks, Netflix, Amazon or Hulu.

Twenty shows will enter; just half of them will be lucky to make it to a second season. With more outlets than ever before producing original content, it’s grown even tougher for broadcast networks to persuade audiences to sample their new shows. (Rolling them out in such a compressed timeframe certainly doesn’t help matters, but some TV traditions are particularly resistant to change.) Some networks are addressing this dilemma by debuting their premiere episodes online early, but CBS is taking a different approach this fall: its new shows are almost carbon copies of a beloved long-running series in time slots immediately before them (known as a show’s lead-in) or after them (its lead-out), in an effort to capture as much of the returning show’s audience as possible.

In doing so, the network is bucking conventional wisdom that lead-ins and time slots no longer matter as that less viewers are leaving their televisions simply turned to one network all evening as they once did. On Sundays, CBS is airing Tea Leoni’s Secretary of State drama Madam Secretary right before The Good Wife, for a double dose of dramas centered on strong women of a certain age, aimed at a highbrow audience that usually doesn’t watch the network’s other procedurals. Over on Wednesday nights, Criminal Minds—whose women-in-peril procedural story lines have attracted an audience that has kept it on the air for 10 seasons—leads in to Stalker, which delves into similar themes. And Tuesdays, the world’s most-watched drama, NCIS, is being followed by new spinoff NCIS: New Orleans, which is—surprise!—NCIS, but set in the Big Easy.

Given her network’s approach, it’s little wonder that CBS Entertainment Chairman Nina Tassler maintains that time slots and lead-ins are in fact essential in encouraging audiences to watch new series, as was the case last season on NBC when The Voice ’s sizable lead-in audience helped turn The Blacklist into an out-of-the-gate hit.

“It may not be where people end up consistently watching a show, but when you’re in this ‘discovery’ phase—when audiences are trying and sampling—that’s when I think lead-in matters more than anything,” Tassler told Quartz. “Right now, we’re able to have that, because you’re going to embed your promos in shows that boast and help launch that new show. So having Stalker promos in Criminal Minds, it doesn’t get better than that.”

She has a point. While time-shifted viewing via DVRs, on demand or streaming can sometimes double a show’s initial “Live” ratings within in a month of its premiere, it’s also true that roughly half of US households still don’t have DVRs. So there is still a healthy segment of the population that watches live programming the old-fashioned way, and can still be swayed by the shows airing before and after their favorite one.

That said, Tassler admits that her strategy was somewhat of a happy accident, as she was developing these new shows last fall, before she knew for sure which of last season’s series would be canceled. “You don’t really know during the buying season where your holes are going to be. You have an idea, but you don’t know definitively,” she said. “When [The Following creator] Kevin Williamson came in to pitch Stalker, he’s obsessed with Criminal Minds, and he’s the one who said to us, ‘It’s a perfect companion piece.’ And sure enough, it worked out.”

As last season progressed, Tassler took note of what she called “off-brand” failures like Hostages. “We took that very much to heart and this year in particular, were strategic in our development,” sticking closer to shows that would appeal to the network’s core audience, said Tassler, adding that she and her team decided to pair up the like-minded series last spring as they figured out their fall schedule. “You get into the room with a bunch of options, and it is moving pieces around on the chessboard.”

In the coming weeks, we’ll all find out if her new strategy is bold enough to win this season’s tournament.