Fall TV 2023: Networks Scrap Preview Specials As They Face Challenging Season Launch Amid Strikes And Changing Business Models

EXCLUSIVE: For as long as anyone can remember, the broadcast networks have culled together fall preview specials in hopes of drumming up interest in their new sitcoms and dramas. Ratings for these inexpensive one-offs have certainly waned over the past decade, but there was always a decent amount of viewers who tuned into the full-of-promise clip shows that were hosted by network talent.

“We always would put them on and go, ‘Oh, I don’t know if anyone’s going to watch this,’” remembers one longtime scheduling executive. “But then they were watched by like 3 million people. They were never the lowest rated shows of the week, that’s for sure.”

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There will be no such previews this year — another side effect of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes that have already snuffed out any semblance of the fall launch on September 25. And that’s on top of Fox’s strike-related decision to postpone the Primetime Emmy Awards, TV’s most traditional promotional platform, until January.

It’s not the first time the start of a Nielsen TV season has been impacted by a Hollywood labor dispute: In 1980, the fall lineups of ABC, CBS and NBC took a hit after the actors hit the picket lines from July to October. Local and paid political programming helped to fill some gaps at 8 p.m. on nets like CBS and ABC, while movies and unscripted shows like Real People helped to prop up NBC.

But there’s a big difference between what’s happening today versus 43 years ago: while there may have been handwringing over how CBS was forced to delay the premiere of The Dukes of Hazzard spinoff Enos during the 1980 actors strike, no one seems to be batting an eye over how that same network will be plugging holes this fall with reruns of cable hit Yellowstone and UK’s Ghosts as well as originals of the Australian transplant NCIS: Sydney. At least CBS isn’t alone: The CW is relying on Canada’s Sullivan’s Crossing and Germany’s The Swarm to help fill the schedule while NBC brought back Canada’s Transplant to air on Thursdays.

Only NBC has new scripted series in the traditional sense — shows it developed and ordered — with two dramas, Found and The Irrational, originally picked up for the 2022-23 season, that were left on the bench as the prospect of a WGA strike became real in the spring.

“It’s such a different world from even the mid-aughts,” reflects one veteran scheduler. “There’s just so much product that honestly hasn’t been seen, really, that can be moved over to broadcast. Network television in this new ecosystem is not at the top. And to people in everyday life, they’re not sitting there with a checklist of, ‘oh, this is an original broadcast show.’ They’re sitting there and saying, ‘I’ve never seen this. That looks interesting. Let me watch it.'”

Adds another broadcast veteran, more bluntly, “I am not sure people at home really give a sh*t. Other than sports, most people aren’t sitting down every night turning on CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox going, ‘Hey, wonder what’s on tonight?’ “

The worry is that the strikes, coupled with how the media companies are continuing to move resources away from broadcast TV and into streaming, is decimating the scripted business. Declining linear ratings have already led to tighter show budgets, while live sports that bring eyeballs and less expensive reality shows have become the new broadcast focus.

“The networks were weakened to begin with. It’s like they had a sprained ankle,” said the broadcast veteran. “This is taking a baseball bat to their knees. I mean, at bare minimum, it’s probably two months from strike end to getting stuff on the air. Most shows probably have nothing written. So it’s a month to write and a month to shoot to get stuff in the can. If the strike ended tomorrow, and they say ‘oh we’ll try to get something on in January,’ they’re maybe going to air 13 episodes, tops, which isn’t serving your audience. I mean everyday, they’re just teaching people they don’t need broadcast TV.”

Not helping has been the fact that the networks have had to overhaul their original fall schedules because of the strikes and have continued to make tweaks — more than we have ever seen. There were major moves by Fox and the CW last week alone. And the for the first time in its history, CBS’ traditional summer run of Big Brother will extend into November after bowing in August. It’s already the longest season in the show’s 25-year history.

Amid uncertainty over how much original scripted fare will air during the broadcast season, the upfront market has been flat year-over-year, propped up by live sports and digital inventory. It’s been a long and difficult upfront selling cycle, with fewer ad dollars coming in and deals still being negotiated just days before the official start of the season.

Besides live sports, which are set and still attracting big upfront commitments, a large portion of the broadcast lineup, which remains in flux, may have to rely heavily on the scatter market. Advertisers used to flock early to lock in spots in NBC’s Must See TV block, CBS’ The Big Bang Theory and make bets on what they think would be the next breakout comedy or drama.

While veterans like ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy remain juggernauts, commanding strong ad rates, there are no longer coveted comedy or drama time slots on the broadcast schedule. And there may not be entertainment programming on the strike-impacted fall 2023 schedule that will be a must-watch for viewers.

The recent carriage dispute between Disney and Spectrum is a good example. One legacy executive reached by Deadline questioned whether those 15 million subscribers who were impacted by the ongoing battle really cared whether they could no longer watch ABC programming (other than Monday Night Football, of course).

“I think people care that sports is not on, but I don’t think there is a groundswell of, ‘Hey, I need to see those Celebrity Jeopardy episodes,’ ” the executive said.

Fortunately for ABC’s fall launch, a pact was just reached between Disney and Charter. Now all the network has to do is figure out what to air on Tuesdays this fall; as of today, ABC has still not announced what it will air from 8-11 p.m.

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