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The fall of the fall TV lineup

Networks switch from “must-see TV” to “watch when you want”

A scene from Sistas BET

The fall of the fall TV lineup

Americans have relied on television for entertainment during pandemic-induced isolation, but networks and studios may have trouble offering them something new to watch this fall. Most studios ceased production of scripted programming because of the coronavirus. Flare-ups in California and Georgia, two of the top states for filming TV shows, have caused producers to question the safety of resuming work. Disputes with unions over COVID-19 testing also have plagued some efforts to restart.

Netflix doesn’t expect to resume filming on any of its projects until 2021, but traditional TV networks don’t have the same flexibility of a streaming platform. They need new shows ready for September.

In the 1950s, the major TV networks began to introduce new programming every fall to coincide with the rollout of the automobile industry’s new model year. Car manufacturers paid premium dollars to advertise during a network’s new season. The fall lineup became an American tradition, and for decades networks announced their upcoming slates of programs during the summer to maximize their ability to sell airtime to advertising agencies. The model looks like a relic in a world of streaming technology, but it has persisted because it continues to make money for the networks. But the pandemic threatens to put an end to the fall TV tradition for good.

Most new shows are still on hold. Some production companies have started using “bubbles” to restart filming with everyone involved in the project isolating together. Deadline reported that Tyler Perry was the first major producer to finish a scripted series under COVID-19 protocols. His Atlanta studio recently completed a full season of Sistas, which airs on BET, thanks to Perry’s 30-page pandemic plan. But expensive bubbles are cost-prohibitive for large productions. Animated series and reality television have proved easier to produce, and some networks such as The CW are filling gaps in the lineup by buying finished content instead of producing their own.

Much of television’s fall schedule revolves around football. Last year, advertising dollars during NFL games made up more than 20 percent of NBC’s ad revenue for the entire year, The Washington Post reported, citing the research firm MoffettNathanson. CBS counted on the NFL for 25 percent of its ad revenue, not counting what it earned for Super Bowl commercials in February, and the NFL made up 40 percent of Fox’s advertising take. After canceling its preseason, the NFL plans to start regular season play on Sept. 10, but it is still working out numerous details of how it will keep players, employees, and fans safe. College football, which also generates millions of dollars for the networks, looks like it might cancel the 2020 season. The Big Ten Conference voted on Tuesday to postpone its fall football season and possibly play in the spring.

All the uncertainty might force the networks to change their way of thinking. NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell recently told shareholders that the media conglomerate is restructuring its TV division and will shift resources to streaming. “It is said that crises tend to accelerate and exacerbate trends, and that is certainly true in the television business,” he said.

NBCUniversal has canceled some of its traditional shows such as E! News, which had aired for 29 years. It also is exploring a new business model that blurs the line between the television and movie industries.

In April, Shell bragged that the financial success of Trolls World Tour on premium video on demand pointed to the way of the future. With cinemas closed, the company released the film on streaming platforms first. But AMC Theatres announced it would boycott Universal Pictures’ offerings if the studio continued to bypass or shorten the traditional theatrical window.

In the past few months, the two companies have patched things up, with AMC agreeing to a theatrical window of 17 days for most Universal films in exchange for a cut of the premium video on demand profits.

The idea is catching on: Disney’s Mulan was originally scheduled for release in March, but after multiple postponements, the studio announced it would release the film on its Disney+ platform on Sept. 4.

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Collin Garbarino

Collin is WORLD’s arts and culture editor. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Louisiana State University and resides with his wife and four children in Sugar Land, Texas.



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