Each fall, as the days grow shorter, the weather cools and kids return to classrooms, millions of Americans look to TV to keep them entertained. For nearly seven decades, broadcast TV networks have used the season to launch new shows in the hope they become enduring hits — and to bring back fresh episodes of returning programs after the long summer hiatus.
But like virtually every facet of American life, broadcast TV is going to look quite different when the 2020 season kicks off in late September. Thanks to the still-raging COVID-19 pandemic, production of scripted television remains largely shut down in most of the country, making it impossible for broadcast networks to premiere most of their new shows on schedule.
Facing the reality that they will not have new live-action sitcoms or dramas to air until at least November, ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and the CW are getting creative this fall. Until widespread production can safely resume, the networks are plugging holes as they have in the past — with quickly produced reality TV and game shows. They’re also relying on previously shown content acquired from streaming services, cable networks and international broadcasters. In other words: They’re airing reruns.
Though strikes and national emergencies have disrupted the industry in the past — the 2001 fall season was delayed slightly after the 9/11 attacks, for instance — the current situation, as uncertain as it was unexpected, has little precedent in the history of television. Ironically, it comes at what might have been a fruitful period for the medium, as millions of Americans are staying home and consuming more TV than usual.
“It’s not a typical fall for us or anyone by that means,” says Noriko Kelley, executive vice president of program planning and scheduling at CBS. The consistently top-rated network, known for its multi-cam sitcoms and crime procedurals is borrowing “Star Trek: Discovery” from its streaming service CBS All Access as well as “One Day at a Time,” which originated on Netflix before moving to the ViacomCBS-owned cable network Pop, to help complete its fall lineup.
The question is: How much will it even matter to viewers? In an era when flipping on the TV set to tune into network prime time is just one of many ways to consume shows — many of which will wind up on a streaming service operated by a parent company — audiences may not know, or particularly care, that what they’re watching was originally broadcast elsewhere.
For at least the last 20 years — since “Survivor” became a summer blockbuster for CBS in 2000 — networks have moved toward year-round programming to compete with cable channels and, more recently, streaming services, that offer audiences seemingly inexhaustible content 12 months a year. Once a dead zone of reruns, summer is now stuffed with reality competitions and event series.
It has also become increasingly common for networks to wait until midseason — beginning in January — to launch noteworthy new shows. More and more, viewers watch TV on their own schedule: Audiences for some prime-time dramas, including the ABC hit “The Good Doctor,” nearly double once time-shifted viewing is factored in. In a move seen as a symbolic blow to real-time consumption of television, the New York Times recently announced that it would cease publishing a daily TV grid in its local print edition. (The Los Angeles Times’ prime-time TV grid is on hiatus during the pandemic but available online.)
“We’re not just competing in the landscape of broadcast television. We are competing for an audience’s leisure time,” says Dan Harrison, executive vice president of program planning and content strategy at Fox Entertainment. “It’s very important for all broadcast networks to be in that year-round programming space.”
Yet despite the dramatic shifts in viewer habits, the industry still operates according to a calendar that dates back to the Eisenhower administration and has as much to do with advertising as entertainment. Much like election day — held on a Tuesday in November to accommodate rural voters who had to travel days to the polls — the fall TV season is an antiquated tradition established in a different era, the rationale for which doesn’t apply to modern life.
In its infancy, television followed the rhythms established by radio, which introduced new shows in the fall. This also allowed networks to capitalize on revenue from automakers advertising their latest model year of cars. The emerging tradition was quickly formalized by print media: In 1953, TV Guide published its first fall preview.
For many years, the start of the fall season was determined not by the networks but by a legendarily crusty Variety reporter named Bob Knight who was known for deep-dive analysis of the Nielsen ratings. After Knight left the publication without an heir apparent in the early ’90s, an ABC executive frantically called Brian Lowry, then a young TV reporter (now a media critic for CNN) to ask when the season started. Since that snafu, Nielsen, the audience measurement company, has consulted with the networks to set the season’s official start date, typically the third week in September.
Arbitrary though it may be, the fall start of the TV season is nevertheless entrenched: In the late winter and early spring, networks produce a dozen or more pilots apiece, then order a handful to series. In mid-May, they preview upcoming programming to advertisers at splashy presentations in New York known as upfronts. Media buyers gorge on free drinks, pose for selfies with sitcom stars and decide where to spend their ad dollars. Once the new shows have premiered in the fall, the development process begins all over again. The circle of life continues.
“The fall season is an artifact of the way time is sold on broadcast and basic cable. Everybody goes crazy making pilots at the same time, everybody goes to New York, announces the schedules, comes back, and then the negotiations begin. That’s what’s been driving it,” says Preston Beckman, who ran scheduling at NBC in the “Must-See TV” era, later worked at Fox and shares his unvarnished takes on the TV business via his Twitter persona, @MaskedScheduler. Many TV executives and creatives “are addicted to the process,” he adds. “Even if you explain to them why the way it’s done makes no sense. They’re just addicted. As often as we’ve tried to change it, it still comes back to ‘We have to announce a fall schedule.’”
This year has been particularly interesting, he adds, because, “in spite of everything that’s going on, all four networks eventually announced a fall schedule. Whether those schedules will ever happen, I don’t know.”
Some in the industry have tried to streamline this expensive, cumbersome process but have met resistance. When he was president of entertainment at Fox in 2014, Kevin Reilly boldly announced that the network was abandoning pilot season. “The broadcast development system was built in a different era and is highly inefficient,” he said at the time. Four months later, he was out at Fox.
But the pandemic may finally lead broadcast TV to rethink its model.
In the initial months of the crisis, TV viewership across all platforms surged before leveling off in summer. Harrison expects it will rise again in fall, as it typically does: “There are certain times of year when, due to the nature of life and all those old-fashioned concepts like the school year and daylight, there is a higher viewing level.”
The effect of pandemic-driven production delays varies from network to network. Fox was already known for its stable of animated comedies and unscripted shows, which can be safely made under pandemic guidelines. It’s filling out its schedule with series shown elsewhere, such as “L.A.’s Finest” and “Cosmos: Possible Worlds.”
The current crisis is “absolutely unprecedented” in terms of its effect on programming, says Fox executive Harrison. “I’ve lived through writers strikes and 9/11, and this just doesn’t compare.”
NBC, which lost hundreds of hours of programming this summer when the Olympics were postponed, is in a tougher position. Anticipating the return of signature series like “This Is Us” in November, it is using “Transplant,” a medical drama imported from Canada, and unscripted shows like “American Ninja Warrior” to fill in the gap.
ABC, meanwhile, has nothing on its fall schedule so far but unscripted shows, including a season of “The Bachelorette” produced in a bubble to prevent COVID-19 transmission.
The CW announced in May that it was postponing its new season until January and that it would be using acquired shows in fall. As production resumes, it has an advantage in that a number of its shows are made in Canada, where the virus has been contained more effectively.
Production on a few broadcast shows is underway in New York, Los Angeles and Vancouver, Canada, with more scheduled to start up in the next few weeks.
“Right now, it’s very arduous. But as every new show goes into production under this situation, they learn better protocols. I think we are getting better at dealing with it,” says Jeff Bader, president of program planning, strategy and research at NBC Entertainment. “But we all just need this to stop. It’s very, very hard.”
Executives at multiple networks say they are already planning for various contingencies and banking backup programming in case the virus surges again — or in the nightmare scenario that the NFL, which airs on NBC, CBS and FOX and is a huge source of ad revenue — has to shut down.
“I am not counting any chickens,” says Harrison.
Whatever happens this fall, the pandemic has exposed lingering flaws in the old model and may accelerate long-term changes in the business. As media companies restructure to focus on streaming and legacy networks are absorbed into ever-growing conglomerates, the traditional TV calendar — with fall as its focal point — will grow only more obsolete.
“We are in a world now where people understand that where we schedule a show is just the starting line,” says Bader.