NEW YORK – For decades, the week in May when television executives revealed what new shows were coming and which old ones were going spoke to the power and influence that ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox had over popular culture.
This past week offered more evidence of how that is diminishing, draped in confusion about the future wrought by the Hollywood writers strike.
The week of schedule presentations, known as “upfronts” because networks are looking for millions of dollars in advertising commitments, have long been star-studded, news-making events.
Johnny Carson announced the end of his late-night run at an NBC upfront. So convinced they had a hit, ABC showed advertisers the entire pilot episode of “Modern Family” one year (the same strategy didn't work as well when NBC tried it with “Joey”). CBS rewarded advertisers with the Who in a private Carnegie Hall concert.
This year the stars stayed home, unwilling to cross picket lines of striking writers outside Manhattan venues. That meant no Jimmy Kimmel, whose annual routine skewering his own industry is always anticipated. He's been doing it since 2002, with a few years off due to the pandemic and his son's illness.
Instead, networks tried to excite advertisers with sports and news stars. Michael Strahan tossed autographed balls into the audience with Rob Gronkowski, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez at Fox's event, and kibitzed with fellow “Good Morning America” host George Stephanopoulos at ABC's.
“With the writers strike and everything, there wasn't a whole lot of excitement about the upfronts this year,” said Alan Wolk, co-founder of TV(R)EV, a media consulting business.
Television's biggest mystery is when viewers will be able to see new mysteries on television.
Networks tried different strategies to deal with uncertainties caused by the strike. Generally, television programs begin preparing new episodes for the fall starting in about a month, but there have been no contract talks since members of the Writers Guild for America went on strike May 2.
CBS and NBC released fall schedules as usual, knowing that shifting gears is a possibility.
“It creates some buzz, it creates some hope,” Wolk said.
Fox, however, didn't bother announcing a schedule. ABC, where an executive privately said it would be “miraculous” if the strike was settled in time to allow business as usual, released a fall schedule that relies almost exclusively on unscripted programming. Reruns of the popular comedy “Abbott Elementary” was the only exception.
NBC has an entire season of episodes of “Found,” a new missing persons drama starring Shanola Hampton, already filmed in advance and ready to debut Thursdays in the fall, and recorded some new episodes of “Quantum Leap.”
But very few new or returning broadcast shows have done the same. If the strike lasts into the summer, look for CBS, for example, to offer expanded versions of shows like “Survivor,” “The Amazing Race” and “Big Brother,” prime-time versions of game shows like “The Price is Right” or “Let's Make a Deal,” and reruns of scripted shows from previous years.
“It's not lost on me that with the strike underway, all eyes are on unscripted,” said Allison Wallach, president of unscripted programming on Fox. Fox has two new game shows, hosted by Jamie Foxx and David Spade, on the docket.
Across the networks, executives put off deciding whether to reject pilots of several proposed new shows or order a full season of episodes, calls that are usually made by May. The future of some current programs — “American Auto,” “Grand Crew” and “Young Rock” on NBC, for example — are up in the air, too.
If the strike lasts through summer, the idea of new shows for television's traditional midseason would be in jeopardy, one executive said.
There are some in the television industry who see ABC's fall schedule as a sign of things to come for broadcast networks.
With television viewers, and media conglomerates, increasingly turning their attention to streaming services, the future for broadcast TV may lie in schedules consisting primarily of live sports, reality games like “The Bachelor,” game shows or news programming.
An ABC executive pushed against that notion, saying scripted series will always be in the mix, and noting that one of the network's big moves this spring was to pick up the drama “9-1-1” after it had been canceled by Fox.
Still, it was hard not to miss the increasing amount of time spent in upfront presentations touting new programming being created for streaming services Peacock and Disney+.
And perhaps the biggest development in upfronts week had nothing to do with the broadcast networks at all. It was the virtual presentation by Netflix, a first. Netflix had never needed to tout their wares to advertisers before but now they do, since it now offers a lower-cost subscription that contains advertising.
Since that option was introduced last fall, more than one-quarter of new subscribers have chosen it, said Greg Peters, co-CEO of Netflix.
“People love Netflix,” Peters said, “which is why we believe advertisers will love Netflix, too.”