TV networks hang on to traditions as audiences drop off
The fall 2021 programming lineup sticks to a well-known script
Streaming services such as Netflix have modernized home entertainment in the past decade, but major TV networks still use a business model from the 1960s. Each year in May, the networks hold upfronts week, which consists of lavish, in-person events to lure advertisers into buying airtime “upfront,” before the fall TV season starts. This year, networks are sticking to an old script to convince advertisers to throw more money at fewer viewers.
Last week’s upfronts revealed that live television in the form of sports and song and dance competitions will continue to anchor the networks come fall 2021. Procedural dramas will make up much of the rest of their programming, with many existing franchises getting new series. NBC will add Law & Order: For the Defense to Thursday nights, which also feature two other Law & Order series. Similarly, CBS is adding FBI: International to its two FBI shows on Tuesday nights. CBS will also launch NCIS: Hawaii, keeping its NCIS franchise at three series after canceling NCIS: New Orleans earlier this year. CBS also plans to revive its defunct CSI brand with CSI: Vegas, a new series featuring the old cast of the original CSI, which first premiered in 2000.
Fox will attempt a different take on “more of the same” with The Big Leap, a drama about a fictional reality TV dancing competition. Taking advantage of America’s nostalgia obsession, ABC is rebooting The Wonder Years, but this time the series will feature Don Cheadle narrating the story of an African American family in Alabama during the 1960s.
Even though the traditional networks lose viewers each year, advertisers still spend billions of dollars on the disappearing audience because they haven’t found anywhere else to dump their money. Streaming services have created some of the most popular and inventive shows, but advertisers don’t have as much access to them.
That could be changing. Most networks now have ties to a streaming service, giving them incentives to maximize advertising dollars as well as consumer subscriptions. Some services have begun offering subscriptions at different tiers—higher priced ad-free and lower priced ad-supported. Peacock, NBC’s streaming service, and Hulu offer cheaper ad-supported versions, and starting in June, HBO Max will, too. On-demand streaming services aren’t tied to a television season, so if companies decide to spend their billions on ad-supported content, it might hasten the end of the annual upfronts.
One company, however, isn’t acting excited about the prospect of change. Fox, which owns the ad-supported streaming service Tubi, tried to woo advertisers during its upfronts by reiterating its commitment to the traditional model. It spoofed subscription services and proudly announced it was “100 percent advertiser supported.” Charlie Collier, CEO of Fox Entertainment, told advertisers, “Instead of being all things to all people, Fox is doing fewer things and doing them better,” Deadline reported.