The Upfronts post-game show

Ratings don’t seem to matter much as ad buyers remained committed to primetime TV

This season, the television business has had its share of negative headlines: notably declining ratings for many shows, especially in the key 18-49 demo.

But this isn’t deterring buyers from investing their advertising in primetime TV. And nowhere more this was evident than last week as they swarmed the upfront presentations in New York for each of the five broadcast networks.

Why? For one, television’s reach – continues to be unparalleled compared to the web, and marketers don’t have to worry about their ads being placed in or near offensive content, as the broadcast nets pointed out repeatedly. Another reason is many primetime shows – including veterans The Big Bang Theory, Grey’s Anatomy, The Simpsons and reality stalwarts Dancing With The StarsThe Bachelor, and Survivor have very loyal audiences (ask Turner, who felt the wrath of viewers whenever Big Bang reruns are pre-empted at the last-minute for sports overruns.) Automotive and telecoms (AT&T, Verizon, etc.) continue to fuel these trends as they pour a lot into primetime and local spot advertising.

Which means yes, more Jan from Toyota and “Paul” from Sprint than we want to.

Plus, other areas of television continue to be strong, including local news as more and more stations are adding hours – including WGN-TV, who recently launched an hour-long 6 p.m. newscast. The recent acquisition of Tribune Media by Sinclair Broadcasting is also another signal to advertisers the commitment being made to over-the-air television – including primetime.

And while viewers are indeed bailing out of primetime for time-shifting, online viewing, streaming services – and even the cable news networks, there is still a significant number of viewers who prefer watching their programs “live” as it’s being transmitted by the networks, though they are older in number. And of course, it doesn’t hurt to have sports in your arsenal, despite declining ratings for some leagues, including the NFL. Those programs serve as a strong promotional platform for what the networks have to offer.

With that said, here’s what yours truly observed during the upfronts:

Wednesday Night Rivalry. We’re not talking about NBCSN airing a Chicago Blackhawks-St. Louis Blues game: It’s the first hour of primetime that’s going to feature a heated battle this fall between four popular shows: CBS’ Survivor, NBC’s The Blacklist, Fox’s Empire and CW’s Riverdale. While counter-programming is less strident in the DVR era, networks believe there is room for more than one hit in the same time slot – even four. NBCSN’s tagline for its Wednesday night hockey telecasts is “the night you love to hate”. It’s now because you have to DVR all these shows!

Thursday Night Rivalry. Led by NBC’s hit drama This Is Us being relocated opposite ABC’s Scandal, NBC is reviving its “Must-See TV” brand opposite ABC’s TGIT block. But is there anything “must-see” about this? (other than This Is Us.) If there’s anything “must-see”, is CBS’ Thursday lineup led by The Big Bang Theory (in terms of ratings, at least.)

Cable news becoming more competitive in prime. Yours truly has noticed – cable news ratings have often matched or even surpassed the entertainment fare on the broadcast networks. Given the continuing White House drama is drawing viewers to cable news – particularly in primetime, the broadcast networks have lost ground. As I pointed out before, Lucious Lyon’s antics are no match for Donald Trump’s.

Getting the band back together. The success of The X-Files and Fuller House during the 2015-16 season led to each of the networks trotting out a whole bunch of reboots – some more thought out better than others. The reason? Familiar names are an easier sell to advertisers – especially the biggest one, American Idol. But are audiences – especially millennials – willing to watch?

Multi-cam sitcoms continue to falter. The broadcast networks continue to scale back on shows filmed in front of studio audiences as outside of reboots, there were one, maybe two new sitcom projects picked up as series. Even CBS has scaled back on multi-cams. Yours truly will have more on this in a later post.

Fridays are still relevant. While the days of TGIF are long gone (note no sitcoms are scheduled on this night for the first time in recent memory), not everyone can afford to go out and splurge $50 on drinks at the local bar celebrating the start of the weekend. With that said, it’s nice the broadcast networks continue to invest in the evening, preventing it from becoming the next Saturday. But the term “Friday Night Death Slot” still has some punch: ABC’s Once Upon A Time and and Marvel’s Inhumans are scheduled for Friday, then in late November, gives away to Agents Of Shield, in what is likely its final season – a move that should have been made two years ago. This proves sci-fi and fantasy still have a place on this night.

The takeaway from all this is if you are looking for risk-taking, innovating programming – continue with cable or streaming services. When the most-talked fall show is one that last aired ten years ago, you know there is a problem. Network television lacks creativity, but ad buyers don’t care, as long as they continue to shove Jan, Flo, and Paul in our faces, to sell cars with red bows on top, and telling us how bad the competitor’s cell phone service is. Yours truly understands the times we are in, and people are looking for “comfort food”. But you know what? A steady diet of hamburgers and hot dogs isn’t good for you, and neither are these prime-time lineups.

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