Network Upfronts Report: Six Things We Learned About the State of Broadcast TV

Elias Stein

It’s upfronts week in New York City, that magical, blinkered time of year when every new show is a potential hit and every paycheck-to-paycheck actor has access to a company Town Car. From Monday to Wednesday, the big four broadcast networks unveiled their 2015-16 schedules to much pomp and very little circumstance: While sizzle reels and hype flood the Internet, it’s worth remembering that no one outside of corporate boardrooms has actually seen any of these shows. That being the case, I’ve foresworn any type of roundup or review, because, really, who knows? Instead, here are six takeaways about the state of broadcast television as well as a bettor’s guide to what might work and what likely won’t in the months ahead. Though the future is not looking particularly promising — maybe don’t put in that pool just yet, Mark-Paul Gosselaar! — upfronts week is the one time of year when everyone involved can feel like a winner. Except maybe those Town Car drivers.

1. Want Excitement? Wait Until Next Year.

In 2014, I called the new crop of broadcast shows the most dispiriting I’d seen in my time as a television critic. It was a grim, unpalatable sludge of boilerplate procedurals, rancid comedies, and whatever the hell Bad Judge was. Even the high points were essentially B-pluses, both creatively and financially. How to Get Away With Murder is fine, but its chief result was demonstrating that Shonda Rhimes — already one of TV’s most successful and powerful producers — was a very successful and powerful producer. (That’ll only become more true in 2016 when The Catch, the latest from the Shondaland hit factory, debuts.) Black-ish is a very good family comedy and its all-black cast helped end a ridiculous drought,1 but the biggest lesson the industry took from its success was that ABC’s2 execs had been fools not to put a family comedy in the plum post–Modern Family slot earlier. (Both Murder and Black-ish have been renewed for a second season.) For the bulk of this decade, the big four broadcast networks — ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox — had mostly been in the business of rearranging the deck chairs on their own well-appointed Titanics. And in the fall of 2014, that business seemed to be booming.

Then Empire happened and everything changed faster than you could say “Bye, Felicia.” I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the impact the Fox drama’s gargantuan, historical ratings had on an otherwise moribund year. And I’m not even talking about the show’s addictive Pop Rocks crackle, which flouts logic as aggressively as Cookie flaunts couture and treats story the way an open flame treats gasoline. After years of major networks slap-fighting over slices of audience pie that seemed to diminish every month, one had suddenly stumbled into a fan base that was young, vibrant, engaged, and — this is the crazy part — growing. It was the equivalent of California suddenly finding an untapped reservoir just south of Sacramento. Actually, scratch that: A better comparison would be Dennis, the beeper king of 30 Rock, stumbling across a hospital that hadn’t gotten the word about cell phones. In the face of an all-out assault from cable and streaming options, broadcast TV has spent years trying to keep the bottom from falling out. Now, in a flash, the ceiling was gone.

But here’s the thing: Empire premiered in January, when nearly all the major decisions for the 2015-16 development season had already been made. Because the big four networks have refused to budge from their wildly wasteful and inefficient pilot process, there simply wasn’t time to pivot or take advantage of what Taraji hath wrought. And so those looking for a raft of delirious, potentially deranged soap operas or sneaky-smart celebrations of African American culture will be sorely disappointed. Empire’s children — be they pallid rip-offs or spiritual successors — won’t debut until next fall at the earliest. That is one of the reasons why the new series being trotted out to advertisers this week feel so exhausted. If last season’s fall freshmen were shrugs, this year’s are deep, embattled sighs. There are few obvious misses, but because of the lack of Empire-size swings, there are also no obvious paradigm-shifting hits, which is a shame for advertisers and audiences alike. (And if you’re a comedy fan, you can feel free to rewrite these past few paragraphs by subbing in Last Man on Earth.)

2. There Are No New Empires. But TV Will Look More Like Empire.

OK, so it wasn’t entirely too late for the broadcast networks to react to Empire. Though (nearly) all of the scripts had been selected by late January, not all of the casting had been completed. And so this new season may well prove to be the most diverse in history — at least in front of the camera. This is promising and long overdue. For too long, TV has just rubber-stamped the same familiar faces, and it’s enlivening to see others get a chance to shine. Fox’s Rosewood, for example, appears to be the network’s umpteenth attempt to recapture a crushed-up-Oxycontin sprinkling of that old House M.D. magic: It’s about a brilliant, unconventional pathologist who diagnoses how people died but can’t get a handle on how he should live. But here’s the twist: Dr. Rosewood is played by Morris Chestnut (Boyz n the Hood), and his partner/foil/love interest is played by Jaina Lee Ortiz. Having a diverse cast in roles usually filled out by gruff Ken and buffed Barbie doesn’t mean Rosewood will be good, of course. But it does make it more interesting. (And it helps that the pilot was helmed by Richard Shepard, a Girls contributor and the director of the hugely underappreciated flick The Matador.)

There’s a similar dynamic at play in ABC’s promising Quantico, which is both ridiculously on-brand — it’s essentially Grey’s Agency — and refreshing. The lead role is Alex Weaver, a tough, sexy, young trainee. The person cast in the role is Priyanka Chopra, a tough, sexy, young Indian actress. That Alex Weaver — truly, the Wonder Bread of character names — could be played by the best actress, not just the best actress that looks like Ellen Pompeo, is a sign that the network just might have been paying attention to Shonda Rhimes after all. Or at least Shonda Rhimes in the years since she cast Ellen Pompeo.

The thing to remember here is that while opening up TV to new faces is important, bringing in new voices is critical. ABC is also debuting Uncle Buck, a retread of a 26-year-old John Candy movie that was, briefly, also a television series. The very funny comedian Mike Epps plays the new Buck, and I’m thrilled to have him on TV. But if we’re being honest, I’d be happier — and a whole lot more optimistic — if Epps were playing a character based on his own life or someone’s true emotional experience, not classing up a fraying piece of intellectual property that had been gathering dust in the Universal TV vault. The real lesson of Empire isn’t what it looked like, it’s how it spoke — and who it spoke to.

3. NBC Is No Longer a Laughing Matter

Bob Greenblatt has been in charge of NBC for just over four years, and during that time I have expended an inordinate number of words wondering just what, exactly, he’s doing. Two years ago, it seemed the joke was on me, as Greenblatt — through a savvy mixture of sports, singing, and Spader — somehow flew the weakened peacock into first place among all broadcast networks. Now you’d be hard-pressed to find any jokes at all: Instead of finding new hits, NBC did nothing but take them last year, as everything from comic-book adaptations to live musicals fizzled out. Judging by what he announced onstage this week, Greenblatt is likely to get clobbered again — and this time quite possibly for good.

I won’t go as far as to suggest that NBC is intentionally tanking, but something clearly isn’t right. Greenblatt’s obsession with razzle-dazzle — a Neil Patrick Harris variety show, tickling the ivories for Dolly Parton — and mayonnaise-sandwich blandness (Chicago Med joins Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., and, inevitably, one assumes, Chicago DMV) has sucked the life out of the network just when it had supposedly gotten its groove back. Heartbreaker, starring The Slap’s Melissa George as a heart surgeon who can’t fix her own, looks like a parody of itself. Its placement on the schedule is a bigger mystery than Laura. And The Player, about a renegade security bro, seems mostly like an excuse for Comcast to get some value out of the Wesley Snipes Bot the company bought at auction in 2006. (The lone exception? Blindspot, starring Thor’s Jaimie Alexander. More on that below.)

But the real problem is with comedy. Which is to say: NBC doesn’t have any. Like, at all. Once the go-to place for smart laughs, the network has allowed its brand and legacy to wither away into nothing under Greenblatt’s watch. This fall, NBC will have but two comedies on its air, both buried on Friday nights: the pleasant but inessential Undateable (switching to a live format because razzle-dazzle) and the truly hideous People Are Talking. On tap for midseason: Superstore, a “hilarious workplace comedy” (their words) that appears mostly notable for the hostage-video face Ben Feldman is making in the promotional art; and a reboot of the utterly forgettable 26-year-old sitcom Coach, for reasons that are as mystifying as they are depressing. It’s ridiculous that the home of Saturday Night Live, a network responsible for everything from Cheers and Friends to 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, has stooped so low. But it’s also foolish. As choices proliferate, network identities matter more than ever. Being known for making smart comedy is a lot more valuable in the long run than making Dolly Parton blush.

'Heroes Reborn'

Christos Kalohoridis/NBC ‘Heroes Reborn’

4. There’s Comfort in Familiarity

The most interesting-looking shows of the fall are also the most familiar. NBC is rebooting Heroes as Heroes Reborn, just five years after the original sputtered away in a cloud of disappointment and cheerleader flair. A year removed from inexplicably canceling the perfectly good Almost Human, Fox appears to have recycled many of its ideas (not to mention its sets) for Minority Report, a gorgeous-looking sci-fi series that has all the advantages that come from sharing a title and continuity with a 13-year-old Tom Cruise flick. (Fox also has The X-Files returning in January as a six-part event series, but unlike most of the titles in this category, that has absolutely every reason to be good. In other words: I want to believe.)

With the help of The Big Bang Theory producer Bill Prady, ABC is resurrecting The Muppets, this time as a mockumentary-styled single-camera comedy. (Not gonna lie, I’m quietly hopeful about this one.) And while CBS has made recycling into a successful brand — this year it’s Criminal Minds’s turn to get a silly-sounding spinoff, Criminal Minds: Breaking Borders, about Gary Sinise saving people overseas — it has rarely looked as desperate as it does in 2015. This fall, Supergirl will air on Monday nights, taking the place of a longstanding hour of comedies, and Limitless (based on the middling Bradley Cooper flick — and featuring Bradley Cooper in a “recurring” role!) will air on Tuesdays. On tap for midseason? A small-screen version of Rush Hour, helpfully scrubbed of Chris Tucker, Jackie Chan, and any conceivable purpose. Remember how TV “beat” movies by providing original content instead of the same old reheated leftovers? Yeah, neither does anyone else.

5. The Big-Tent True Believers Have All Left the Building

It’s no secret that cable and streaming services offer more creative freedom and opportunity to writers than the big four networks. But it used to be the case that a few lone holdouts remained committed to the idea that the biggest possible audience is a worthy goal for any enterprise — and that the biggest possible paycheck is a nice side effect of that commitment. But now those big-tent true believers seem to have lost faith. After striking out on three straight ambitious misses — Lone Star for Fox, Awake for NBC, and Mind Games for ABC — Kyle “Kamikaze” Killen finally got the message and packed his kit for the more receptive climes of cable. Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, the hands-down best joke writers in the business, are unlikely to return to broadcast anytime soon, not after Fox and ABC passed on Cabot College and Family Fortune, respectively, and NBC fobbed off the brilliant Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix.

I don’t mean to denigrate the highly professional, well-compensated scribblers who have figured out a way to crack the broadcast code — I, for one, welcome our new Greg Berlanti overlords. But while there is assuredly an art and a science to making a successful big-tent show, there ought to also be at least a little bit of risk. As outlined above, Empire was simply too big and too bold to fail. That’s a lot different than being too safe and too timid to ever truly stand out.

Fox ‘Scream Queens’

6. Come Back, Kevin Reilly! All Is Forgiven!

Though I like and admire the guy, I’m not going to say that everything former Fox boss Kevin Reilly touched turned to gold. (Dads, like all of history’s great abominations, needs to be remembered so its lessons can never be repeated.) But the thing about Reilly is that during his tenure at the top, he was at least trying. A resurgent Fox has Reilly to thank for Empire, Gotham, and Last Man on Earth. But the thank-yous will have to be sent across town to Turner Broadcasting, where Reilly landed after being unceremoniously fired last spring.

In his absence, new Fox toppers Gary Waldman and Dana Newman — who continued on in their roles as cochairs of Fox Television Group — have done their best to power-wash any remaining Reilly-isms from the network. That has affected not just the schedule, where The Mindy Project was an inevitable casualty of Reilly’s departure (the Mindy Kaling–Reilly relationship stretched back to his time at NBC; since NBC studios made her show, canning it was a no-brainer3), but the long-term strategic thinking as well. Out are surprising comedies, and in are things like Grandfathered, in which John Stamos shares the screen with a baby. Out are ambitious, international misfires like Gracepoint, and in are … a lot of shows that look like Sleepy Hollow. (Minority Report and Lucifer both pair magical dudes with no-nonsense lady cops.) Only Scream Queens, a comedy-horror anthology from the omnipresent Ryan Murphy, appears to have an unfamiliar and unexpected spark. I’m not saying Fox needed Reilly in order to stay afloat. I’m saying the broadcast networks needed someone like him to stay interesting.

Most Promising Freshmen

Blindspot (NBC): A heavily tattooed amnesiac unzips herself from a totebag in the middle of Times Square. Set amid her ink is the name of a square-jawed commando. Together, they just might save the world. (Or invest in some laser-removal equipment.) A conspiracy that takes its cues from Memento and its whiz-bang insanity from the DSM-5 seems like just the ticket for a network that’s bet everything on the broad back (and broad-brimmed hat) of James Spader and The Blacklist. It doesn’t hurt that the trailer looks like a ton of fun.

It’s worth noting how influential The Blacklist has been across the board. Like House before it, the show found a new way to do the standard, case-of-the-week procedural — and not only that, it came packed with an overarching conspiracy that echoed Lost but without any of the wobbly time-travely bits. As with everything else in this column, I have no clue if Blindspot (which hails from Martin Gero, the writer-director of Young People Fucking, and the inescapable Berlanti) will actually be any good. But it does appear to be entertaining, and that’s not a small thing.

The Grinder (Fox): Look, getting one of these things right isn’t rocket science. All it takes is a good cast, a strong premise, and some people behind the scenes who more or less know what they’re doing. In this case, it’s Rob Lowe starring as a humbled TV star reunited with his small-town Idaho family, which includes William Devane as his father and Fred Savage as his schlumpy brother. (I think the strange genes in this family once inspired a movie.) The jokes come courtesy of the guys who wrote The D Train, and the oversight comes from the guys responsible for New Girl, including director Jake Kasdan. The trailer made me laugh more than most network sitcoms did all year. This is the lone new comedy that appears to have it figured out right from the start.

Biggest WTFs

I want to single out the awfulness of NBC’s People Are Talking once again or maybe the canned corniness of ABC’s Dr. Ken (Cristela died for this?). But those are just trailers. Anything can happen between now and the fall. So instead I’m most confused about ABC, a network that seems to have it figured out for six nights of the week — including reliable Mondays, intriguing Tuesdays, family Wednesdays, and Shondaland Thursdays — and then goes bananas on the day of rest. What is up with this new Sunday night? On an evening best known for smart, sudsy counterprogramming to the testosterone on display on the gridiron and on cable, ABC is now letting the soap rinse away at 8:59 when Once Upon a Time ends. The 9 p.m. hour is now filled by Oil, a preposterous-looking drama about Nate from Gossip Girl going up against Don Johnson in the newly discovered black gold fields of North Dakota. At 10 p.m. is the even worse-looking Of Kings and Prophets, which appears to be a highly unkosher and ham-fisted attempt to combine the solemnity of History Channel’s The Bible with the blood and boobs of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Ray Winstone, so grotty and menacing in The Departed, appears to have woken up on set and been forced to play King Saul, while Oliver Rix, as the humble David, looks like he came straight from the runways of Milan.

Again, both of these shows could end up surprising me. But the bigger concern is that they look likely to confuse audiences, especially those accustomed to the kicky highs of Revenge. In a year when the broadcast networks appear to have written off the possibility of attracting new viewers, the worst thing you can possibly do is chase anyone else away.

Filed Under: TV, shonda rhimes, black-ish, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, Modern Family, empire, Morris Chestnut, Jaina Lee Ortiz, Quantico, Priyanka Chopra, Uncle Buck, Mike Epps, wesley snipes, Bob Greenblatt, neil patrick harris, Minority Report, heroes reborn, The Muppets, supergirl, Limitless, Netflix, Scream Queens, Ryan Murphy, rob lowe, Fred Savage

Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

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