ABC has renewed 15 series for the 2016-17 season, locking in almost 70 percent of its schedule for next season. NBC has locked in eight shows, plus its “Sunday Night Football” package, for next year as well, so more than half of its fall schedule is set.
FOX has also made several renewal announcements, and if recent history is a guide, CBS and possibly The CW will follow suit well before 2016-17 schedules are unveiled in May. ABC was going against recent trends with its early renewals; for the past several years, the news has come days before its May upfront presentation to advertisers.
The tactic has its advantages: It’s a signal to viewers that some of their favorite shows will be back, and to the people that make those shows that they can rest easy and calibrate the endings of the current season to flow into the next one, if they wish. It likely also provides a clearer picture for networks about what they actually need going into the teeth of pilot season.
In bleak times (or #EndTimes, as some of TV Twitter labels it) for broadcast TV, however, there may be something else to the idea networks renewing half or more of their schedules. Call it dancing with the ones that brought you, the devil you know or whatever, but the networks have a pretty good idea of what the shows they’ve renewed will do in the ratings next year. All the testing in the world won’t tell them whether a pilot is destined for big numbers.
TV by the Numbers doesn’t have access to the conference rooms and offices where scheduling and renewal decisions play out. From the outside, it looks like some “Moneyball”-style approaches have started to seep into the thinking behind the broadcasters’ decisions.
It’s why shows like “Minority Report” and “Blood & Oil” got to play out their full runs this fall where two or five or 10 years ago they wouldn’t have made it to Halloween. A 0.8 same-day rating in adults 18-49 is lousy (at least that’s still true), but it’s probably better than the “Bones” or “Shark Tank” reruns FOX and ABC would have to throw in to replace a canceled show would have done.
Similarly, the shows the broadcasters have renewed so far represent, for the most part, the best building blocks the networks have going into next season.
Of the 15 shows ABC renewed on Thursday, maybe two would be any kind of surprise. “Agents of SHIELD” doesn’t have big numbers, but it’s a Disney-owned property headed toward the magic four seasons for streaming and syndication, as well as a cog in the larger Marvel universe. “Quantico” had a not-very-pretty downward slide after a solid first few episodes in the fall, but it’s still right near the network average for scripted shows and overperforms in delayed viewing (and is also owned by ABC Studios).
There has often been a grass-is-greener mentality when it comes to new shows, the idea that a network is just one show away from truly knocking it out of the park. That doesn’t happen. Even in the days when broadcast TV was behemoth, it was a rare occurrence.
“Empire” turned FOX around in the winter of 2015 and gave it a big boost in the fall as well, but how often does that really happen? Prior to “Empire” you’d have to go back several years, if not a decade or so, to find a new series that could legitimately be called a network-defining hit. Even a modest upgrade isn’t guaranteed — ask fans of “Forever” about that, and then ask ABC if it wouldn’t mind reliable low-1s week to week on Tuesday nights this season.
Networks like to tout stability to advertisers, but it’s not just a selling point anymore. It may be the best path to survival.