For The Future Survival Of Broadcast TV, Scheduling Needs To Change:

In the last number of years it seems like all the “cool kids” love everything on cable. Yeah man, cable is where it’s at. While cable has stepped up to the plate in a big way in the last decade plus, I still think there is much to be said for broadcast television where tons of good work is being done and the vast majority of broadcast is still consumed by more viewers than many cable hits.

That said, in this multi media world the one thing broadcast needs to amend is their scheduling. Broadcast TV has a 39 week season (as rated by Nielsen) and its highly impossible to produce more than 24 eps a year (and not hurt the quality of the product as well as drain the already busy lives of the creative teams), so there are gonna be at least 15 weeks of the 9 month TV season when someone’s favorite show will be preempted by an awards show, a special or most likely, a rerun. There are, however, ways to schedule so the breaks aren’t frequent and viewers aren’t left guessing if their favorite show is on or not. (For the sake of this article I am mostly talking about dramas. Comedies aren’t affected as much as dramas. Most comedies tend to be self-contained and generally rerun better.)

Interestingly enough the one network least hurt by reruns – CBS – seems to weather this the best. They seem to schedule big awards shows, specials, nominations specials etc. in those off weeks and for them, procedurals, which make up the bulk of their dramas, rerun very well. The Big Bang Theory reruns get better ratings for them than most comedies get on their original runs on every other net. But even the way they have scheduled The Good Wife is smart. It’s the least procedural drama they have (and perhaps that’s why it’s not as highly rated), but they have scheduled it mostly in blocks. Since March it will have run every week (except for tonight’s ACMs) til its finale April 29th. (In fairness to other nets, CBS has the luxury of The Good Wife sitting out most of May sweeps and most networks don’t have that option for hit dramas which makes scheduling more challenging. The ACMs and the reality shows replacing The Good Wife in May will be higher rated, so win/win for CBS).

The one network whose dramas rerun the worst is ABC. They are mostly of a serialized or soapy nature and since the storyline continues week to week, it’s not the kind of show you can pop into at anytime. Hence they rerun poorly. ABC drama fans are passionate. When there’s a Scandal or Nashville rerun, the fans are vocal. Well they’re pissed, but they’re vocal about their pissed offness. This in a way is good for a network. It means the show elicits that much appreciation and passion that fans are annoyed when it goes on a hiatus. This is not a new phenomenon. Even when there were only 3 networks in the 80s, mega smash Dynasty repeated horribly, for the same reason. What is new, however, is the media world we now live in. A world where AMC, HBO, Showtime and even The History Channel and PBS bring their big guns to Sunday night. A world where even Netflix is producing original shows that people are talking about. This is a world where 80s scheduling of big network serialized dramas no longer works.

I’ll be more specific: Take tonight for example: AMC has the much heralded 2 hour season premiere of Mad Men. HBO has week 2 of season 3 of Game of Thrones which garnered an 18-49 number last week that would have been appreciated on any broadcast net. CBS has the ACMs live award show, sure to bring in eyeballs. ABC has reruns of Once Upon A Time, Revenge and Red Widow. Yes you heard correctly – a Red Widow rerun. The drama that is not even performing well in originals (it got a 1.0 last week) is being re-run on important Sunday night. A much rejected drama that has aired 6 out of their 8 eps already will now be on a 3 week hiatus (including 2 weeks of reruns) before their finals 2 eps are saved for May sweeps.

First thought: Since ABC is in reruns anyway, why not just run the final 2 Red Widow eps tonight from 9-11 and use that slot for shows that will garner a higher rating in May (even Shark Tank reruns would). At the very least, the few fans of Red Widow will see their entire show run uninterrupted and it’s not like a 1.0 is gonna be any less than a Revenge rerun will get. I also appreciate that ABC is trying to dress up their drama reruns by airing what they are calling “enhanced” eps (essentially a “pop up video” version of them with facts on the screen). Ultimately it’s still a rerun and last weeks “enhanced” episode of OUAT got a very low .6 and a new Revenge had to build itself out of that and got their second to lowest number ever (1.5). It’s likely that ABC from 8-11 tonight won’t get more than a .6 altogether. I get that advertisers prefer  even a low rated rerun of any scripted show than a higher rated reality show (though I don’t understand why). I also understand it’s an opportunity for a network to amortize costs on expensive dramas. But on an important night, when there is huge competition everywhere, this is complete surrender.

More importantly, I don’t understand wasting episodes of these hit dramas in February against big events like the Grammys (after weeks of being off), only to have 3-4 weeks of reruns heading into May sweeps. To the Programmers and Schedulers: Your audience has many more options on Sunday night. Options that run consecutively with no breaks. In this climate, it makes zero sense to schedule new episodes in Feb only to be pummeled (Revenge got a series low 1.4 the night it was against The Grammys after a 3 weeks hiatus) and then when you are on a roll with new episodes you just shut down for a month in April.

Once Upon A Time had a 3.1 in January. Its last batch of episodes were a full point lower. Part of this frankly just doesn’t make sense. How does a show lose a full point in 2 months? I’m guessing that part of it is due to DST returning and hurting 8p hour shows a bit. But I will also assume part of it stems from erratic scheduling that makes this show less than appointment television for fans, since they don’t know when it’s on. When you’re a 3 network media world, its less of an issue. When you’re Sunday night in 2013, you need to amend how you do things.

I don’t think network schedulers have it easy. They have to juggle many departments, trying to appease them all, especially sales. Broadcast networks, unlike cable, don’t have the luxury of only programming shows on Sunday night and can schedule a few 13 weeks shows to round out the year. They have to schedule 52 weeks, 7 days a week and appease their advertisers as well (unlike some of those cool premium channels). They have affiliates expressing unhappiness regularly . But here’s the thing. Affiliates may demand fresh episodes of dramas for the 2 Sundays in February. But is it so important to be new and get series lows and damage what in the fall was a dominant show in the timeslot? Wouldn’t a better option be to take off Jan and Feb against those big events (after multiple weeks of pre-emptions),  and then run your seasons uninterrupted in the fall and Spring (you know kind of like how AMC did with The Walking Dead, even though they likely didn’t need to for such a behemoth).

I’m surprised that even if they can sell a night of drama reruns in this day and age why a network would want to. Speaking again directly to ABC: Why would you train your viewers to go to the competition? Like I said above, there’s Mad Men and Games of Thrones now. There’s Shameless. By putting an “out to lunch” sign on your door for 3 weeks you give your audience an opportunity to go somewhere else and when you’re ready to come back for May sweeps, some of them likely won’t join you. Yes it’s a DVR world but for some it’s “out of sight, out of mind”. Recent ratings attest to this.

At the very least, in the short-term: Stunt! You have a huge hit show on Friday night, Shark Tank, which got its second highest numbers ever this past week. It reruns incredibly well. It brings in an upscale audience. Your dramas are off this week. Why don’t you schedule a Shark Tank marathon from 8-11 featuring 3 much heralded reruns of the show? Not only will it bring in numbers likely a full point higher than what reruns of the dramas get, but it will possibly attract new fans that aren’t near a TV on the lower viewed Friday night and might have never seen the show. Above all else, it keeps your lights on and you remain competitive and it helps your weekly ratings average. (I bet a ST Marathon would do well enough that the 10p rerun might even beat an original ep of The Apprentice. That fact would be seized by some members of the media looking for juicy headlines and give you lots of PR for your network and emerging hit show, all on a night of reruns!)

ABC schedulers have faced other challenges beyond their control. Nashville‘s scheduling clearly was impacted by such an intricate drama’s challenge to produce eps on time in their freshmen season. (I’m assuming the music sequences have added extra days to each episode’s production). They are only delivering 21 eps this season instead of the standard 22. (Networks are in the habit of asking for more eps of a series, not expecting to deal with getting less than a full 22). So it creates extra challenges in scheduling. I think instead of more reruns, they have to get more creative. I think they should highlight what makes that drama unique. There’s a great weekly feature on called Nashville: On the Record. It spotlights the actual songwriters from one of that weeks original songs. They perform the song, talk about the origins, then Callie Khouri talks about why it was chosen for the show and cuts to how it was performed on the show. I think ABC could have culled together a number of these for a special. Is it an original ep? No. But is it way better than a rerun? Absolutely. It keeps fans of the show engaged and provides fresh, unique and interesting content. I remember when I was growing up, the show Fame used to air concerts of the shows cast on tour in lieu of reruns some weeks. The Nashville cast performed at a club this week. That could have been filmed for an hour to take place for one of the upcoming reruns.

Scandal is on a creative and ratings roll and is somewhat less impacted by a 3 week break. You know a show has hit a nerve when “3 weeks” trends on twitter after the promo for the next ep says it’s airing in 3 weeks. Scandal is currently on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. Surely there will be some people reading that article that have never seen the show and might be intrigued. With a rerun already scheduled this week, I think ABC should re-air the pilot and in promos highlight the EW cover and the shows impact and sell it as  “see how it all began”. It might give people who have never seen it the opportunity to sample and even regular viewers might be more inclined to watch the pilot again from a year ago over a rerun of an episode that aired a month ago. Networks have to get creative now. I don’t think it’s easy by any means. But I think it’s necessary.

Next year, the entire month of February will be taken up by the Super Bowl and the Olympics. It would be insane to schedule new shows against that and I doubt ABC would. It’s finally an opportunity to take off Jan and Feb. Your viewers should know that their fave Sunday dramas will air mostly uninterrupted in the fall and uninterrupted from the weeks after the Oscars until their May finales. There’s zero reason to schedule any other way. This season stands as proof.

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4 Responses to For The Future Survival Of Broadcast TV, Scheduling Needs To Change:

  1. In the know... says:

    Nashville’s 21 episode order was decided forever ago and didn’t just happen, TFC just figured it out.

    • bigtvfan says:

      Thanks. In all honesty, I tweeted about the 21 ep order a few weeks ago. I didn’t mean to imply it just happened. I just meant that this is an extra headache for the scheduling dept. for a show that’s had too many stops and starts in its freshman season as its trying to gain momentum. Now after this week’s new ep, it will have another 2 weeks of reruns heading into sweeps after only 3 weeks back which followed 3 weeks of reruns which followed 1 new ep that followed another 1 week break etc… This is not ideal for the show..

  2. Joe Flint says:

    Good idea on the Nashville specials and ST reruns on Sunday.

  3. Pingback: Upfront ’13 Thoughts: ABC | Random Musings from a BigTVfan

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