5 Tips for Broadcast TV This Summer (and Beyond)

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by NBCUniveral and Michael Becker/FOX

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Last week, without any fanfare, ABC premiered a quirky little nature series titled When Nature Calls. Cheekily narrated by Dame Helen Mirren — acting legend and Nevada resident — the show takes footage from the BBC’s myriad documentaries and adds in the imagined, hopefully comedic musings of the animals involved. It’s a little weird, and very cheesy. Purists will no doubt be aghast at turning Planet Earth into a mid-level DreamWorks Animation production. But When Nature Calls is also not something you see very often on American broadcast TV, and apparently audiences were interested: The debut of When Nature Calls drew just over 4 million viewers, making it one of the ten most-watched non-sports broadcasts last week. Not bad for a talking-animal show.

Now, it’s entirely possible those Nielsen numbers will drop sharply over the next week or two, particularly since summer ratings can be highly variable. (Lots of folks bailed between the first and second half of last week’s episode.) And yet even if Nature Calls ends up a quickly forgotten flop, its mere existence is encouraging to those of us who want to see broadcasters rally and figure out how to make themselves relevant in the digital age. Not because the world necessarily needs more anthropomorphic slapstick, but because it’s a sign the networks heretofore known as the Big Four are starting to figure out how to adjust to their diminished role/standing/status in the TV universe. Seven years ago, during the 2014-15 television season, more than 25 entertainment shows on the networks attracted an average weekly audience over 10 million viewers. This past season, that number was down to six. It’s really hard to come up with those blockbuster hits everybody wants to watch, and I think broadcast execs have adjusted their expectations accordingly.

This doesn’t mean networks should stop creating entertainment that, in theory, has broad appeal. CBS shouldn’t be doing Adult Swim–style animation, and Kevin Can F**k Himself wouldn’t work on ABC. But for the longest time, broadcast execs condescendingly wrote off far too many ideas as “too cable.” Shows like Dr. Pimple Popper or Queen of the South were seen as fine for a TLC or USA Network, but were deemed too “niche” for the networks. That was always ridiculous, since the only reason many — though obviously not all — cable shows generated smaller audiences was because their respective networks didn’t have a big enough marketing budget, or they lacked the sort of tentpole programming (sports, local news, Wheel of Fortune) that allows broadcasters to more easily reach casual viewers just browsing around the dial. It’s even more ludicrous now, at a time when the biggest franchises on cable have the same sort of brand awareness and cumulative audience as network shows. Heck, even with cable-news ratings sliding post-Trump, Fox News or MSNBC primetime shows regularly reach more eyeballs than some broadcast series. And in the young-adult demos that networks still try to target, there are nights when a random rerun of Friends on cable notches the same rating as a first-run broadcast show. (It’s rare, but it happens.)

Of all the big networks, ABC was arguably the first to abandon, in earnest, the old-fashioned notions of what makes a “broadcast” show. A few years ago, the network followed the shocking success of Celebrity Family Feud by adding more and more revivals of game shows such as Pyramid, Match Game, and Press Your Luck. That promoted rivals to start joking about how the Alphabet was turning into the Game Show Network. I remember one source scoffing that it seemed liked ABC was “giving up.” But while none of the sequels proved as popular as Feud, ABC’s so-called Summer Fun and Games programming proved to be a consistent draw, keeping the lights on during the slow summer months at a relatively cost-effective rate. Encouraged by this, and maybe a little desperate to fill some holes in its schedule, ABC next started shifting those summer games into the regular season, and once again, audiences showed up. Some at-bats, like the primetime Wheel of Fortune and the champions edition of Jeopardy!, have even been legit hits. Now all of the networks are swimming with gameshows (maybe too many, which is not something this die-hard gameshow lover says lightly). ABC didn’t invent the idea of low-cost programs or trying untraditional formats, of course. Fox is the king of out-there ideas, whether it’s current smash The Masked Singer or long-ago eye-poppers such as Joe Millionaire. But the Alphabet did change the game, as it were, in terms of how much to rely on alternative formats.

The takeaway from what ABC has done is not that network TV should be nothing but cost-effective unscripted series, or that broadcasters shouldn’t aim for big hits. Fox’s 9-1-1 and CBS’s The Equalizer prove audiences will still show up for traditional network-style shows if they’re well-cast and well-executed. And the fact that social media goes into a tizzy whenever a broadcast network kills a show that’s done well on Netflix (think Good Girls or Manifest) is a sign networks clearly still know the formula to create programming millions of folks feel passionately about. There may have to be more sharing of costs with sibling streaming platforms, but network comedies and dramas aren’t going away anytime soon, even if I think there will be fewer of them five years from now.

As much progress as networks have made the past couple of years evolving their program strategy, I’d argue the former Big Four haven’t gone far enough in shaking things up. What networks need to do now is to throw out even more rules about what belongs on a network primetime schedule, or how those shows get scheduled. They need to take a page from the Elizabeth Warren playbook and go for big, bold structural changes — stuff that goes against all the lessons they’ve learned over the decades about how to successfully run a TV network. And they should start ASAP, by rethinking how they program the summer.

Summertime has long been network TV’s season of experimentation, in part because the stakes are so much lower due to lower ad revenue and viewership. In years past, summer is how we got shows such as Seinfeld and Northern Exposure and Survivor — ideas once seen as far too out there to put on during the regular TV year. Nielsen numbers have sunk so far in recent summers, I honestly think there’s never been less downside, ratings-wise, to just going wild and doing stuff that’s the opposite of a sure thing. Few folks even notice when a network show comes on and barely cracks one million viewers. Cable ratings have sunk to even more embarrassing lows, but I’m not even sure the Hollywood trades bother to cover those numbers. Doing something flashy and different probably won’t result in notably worse ratings than the usual mix of reruns and reality shows, and there’s the chance a few ideas could break out.

To be sure, my throw-caution-to-the-wind strategy falls apart if all you’re looking to do is maximize short-term revenue. A low-rated rerun or reality show makes a lot more money than an ambitious idea which simply matches the ratings of something it replaced. But I don’t think being more creative means networks need to start packing summertime with massively expensive original productions. I think there are ways to get clever and build buzz with some modest, strategic investments that don’t break the bank. More importantly, the goal should be not to dramatically boost summer ratings, but to use the season as a testing ground to identify ideas that might translate well to the regular season and help in broadcasters’ bigger battle — not just to survive, but to thrive.

As anyone who follows me on Twitter knows, I’m a bit of a frustrated programming exec. So it’s not surprising that I actually have some ideas about how the nets can spice up their off-season:

Summer would be a great place to figure out how to bring back TV movies for broadcast. The genre died because it was impossible to justify the production costs versus the relatively low ratings that telepics produced for just one telecast. But networks can now immediately monetize movies by selling them to streaming platforms (or putting them on their own services). You don’t need to aggregate a lot of viewers in one night. As it happens, ViacomCBS is planning a major push into TV movies for its former cable networks (now known as “brands”). By next year, you’ll start seeing films based on various Comedy Central and MTV-related properties pop up on the cable channels and Paramount+. As of now, however, there have been no plans announced to make such movies for CBS — and that makes zero sense to me given the rich catalogue of IP available to the network via CBS Studios.

Reboot Diagnosis: Murder with Neil Patrick Harris or reimagine The Love Boat as The Love Boat Mysteries, with Issac now moonlighting as a crimesolver. Instead of committing to a full series revival — and all the risks entailed — do two or three movies of each title, and rotate them weekly in the same slot over the summer. (This sort of “wheel” format worked really well in the 1970s to launch shows such as Columbo and Quincy.) NBC could do something similar, perhaps launching some spinoff TV movies revolving around minor characters in the Dick Wolf Cinematic Universe. If all that is too ambitious for the summer, the networks could get the folks who do Hallmark and Lifetime telepics to churn out some cost-effective pulp fiction or quickie biopics for the summer.

Speaking of films, CBS had some success last year mining the Paramount vault to revive the network movie night. It was a great idea, but I don’t think the Eye realized its full upside. While the network tried to cut back the number of ads on some titles, most were still loaded with commercials. For audiences now used to streaming movies ad-free on Netflix or Disney+, or with small ad breaks on a free streamer, sitting through 20 or 30 minutes of commercials for one movie is a deal-breaker. The solution, I think, is to do what local TV stations (and sometimes networks) did back in the 1970s and ’80s, which was to present movies with “limited commercial interruptions.” There would be just two or three breaks for the whole film. Networks could bring that concept back by finding sponsors willing to pay a bit more for exclusivity: Think The Matrix brought to you by State Farm Insurance. Or perhaps a movie night could be sponsored by a streaming service connected to a network. Pluto or Peacock, for example, could tout their lighter ad loads by sponsoring a movie on CBS or NBC. Streamers seemingly have cash to burn for marketing, so why not spend some of it in-house on your broadcast partner?

And while there was certainly some logic to making last year’s CBS movie of the week rely on the biggest of blockbusters, I also wonder whether there might not be more upside from programming titles that don’t fall into the “seen it 20 times” category? I’m not suggesting ABC air My Dinner With Andre, but instead of Frozen II, maybe it pulls Sister Act from the Disney vault — and has Whoopi Goldberg film an intro, or even reunite with some of the cast. You don’t need  to commission a full-on documentary to accompany a film, but something as simple as a celebrity host and taking part in a livetweet during the broadcast could make it into an event.

Soap operas long ago disappeared from primetime and are barely clinging to life in daytime. But I’d love to see a network use summer to figure out a way to reboot the genre by using beloved brands. For example, why not revive Generations, the landmark sudser which featured a mostly Black cast, as a six-week, 30-episode limited series which lived on both NBC and Peacock? Instead of thinking in terms of a new series which would go on for years, the revival could be refashioned as an American telenovela, with a fixed end to the main story. Generations is admittedly a show which was never a big hit during it short life, but NBC, ABC, and CBS all have legacy soap brands whose resurrections would become an instant event. And while you’d probably want the production values to be a bit better than daytime, soaps producers are experts at keeping costs down. But I think the success CBS has had over the years with Big Brother, and its dogged attempt to make Love Island a bigger hit in the States, hints that audiences will embrace shows that air multiple nights per week. Plus, at the end of the run, the streaming partner for the show will have the equivalent of a three-season binge to offer subscribers.

NBC’s 2009 attempt to have Jay Leno do his show at 10 p.m. was a legendary failure. That said, given how much has changed in the TV landscape over the past dozen years, I think networks should experiment again with having their hosts appear earlier in the evening during the summer. For example, why not give James Corden six or eight weeks off from his nightly CBS show and instead let him do six 90-minute primetime editions packed with the variety-show stuff he does best? Book some big guests, do a few more musical numbers than usual, and air it after Big Brother or Love Island. Will the numbers be massive? Probably not. ABC’s NBA Finals–adjacent primetime editions of Jimmy Kimmel didn’t set any records. But a 12:35 a.m. host such as Corden would gain some extra exposure for his regular series, and CBS would gain some insights into whether the viewers who aren’t staying up until 12:30 a.m. might tune in for a weekly primetime talkshow.

Similarly, there’s no reason daytime talkshow hosts — specifically,I’m thinking of Kelly Clarkson — can’t stay up later during the summer. The singer was born to host a full-on variety show, with production numbers and sketches. I know, I know: The format has been largely extinct for 30 years, and attempts to revive it in recent years have been a major bust. (Maya Rudolph deserved more time.) Unlike a Corden or Kimmel, Clarkson can’t simply shift her daytime show to nights: NBC produces it, but the show is actually syndicated to local stations, not all of which are affiliated with the network. Because of that schedule, it’s highly unlikely she’d have the time to do a regular weekly variety series, too. But why not give her a three- or four-night primetime residency? Have her host an hour for multiple nights over the course of a week. Let her fill it with supersized Kellyoke, a few SNL-style sketches (maybe Lorne Michaels produces it?), and as many celebrity friends as she can book.

This would not be a cheap idea, and the risk factor would definitely be higher than some of the things I outlined earlier. But imagine this variety show residency airing just before the start of the new season of her show (and NBC’s primetime launch). More than just filling time, NBC would be creating a marketing event around its new season. Seems like a better investment than bus-shelter ads and billboards.

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