Television is everywhere these days. More channels to distribute it, more screens for watching it, more formats and many more programs to choose among. This abundance is remarkable. About 15 years ago, FX’s John Landgraf started keeping track of how many scripted series launch each calendar year in the U.S. By 2016 we were up to 455 new scripted series, and from Landgraf’s data it seems we are on track to break 500 this year. Most new scripted series from the big networks have at least 13 episodes since that is the minimum needed to get sales traction in the international and SVOD markets, and even the new series created for the streaming video markets tend to have at least eight to ten episodes. So there is an abundant supply of new scripted TV series for viewers to parse. Indeed, amidst so much fragmentation, discovery and sampling can be a challenge.
Traditionally, the fall premiere season was the solution to this problem. The big broadcast networks launched their new shows starting each September with lots of promotion and fanfare. Having carefully tested their pilots, the networks compared each program’s early Nielsen ratings to the internal estimates derived from their pilot testing. Sometimes they made very quick decisions about which series to kill and which to keep. The fall premiere Season was the proving ground that determined the fate of each new series. This cycle felt like a natural extension of the seasonal rhythms of life. As the weather turned cooler and the kids went back to school, people started spending more time indoors with most everybody turning their attention to the new shows. The proverbial office “water cooler” was the site for trading word-of-mouth reviews and tips on which new shows were good. And of course the entertainment press played its part — with everyone from the New York Times to Entertainment Tonight contributing to the buzz and reinforcing the annual rhythms and rituals of the fall premiere season.
So what’s wrong with this picture?
The fall premiere season started losing some relevance with the rise of the cable networks 30 years ago. These then-upstarts found it was difficult to compete with the promotional firepower of the broadcast networks, so they used a counter-programming strategy, releasing their new series in the summer when the broadcasters were mostly showing reruns. This practice started nibbling away at the primacy of the fall premiere season. The rise of social media further eroded the centrality of the fall premiere season by accelerating the importance of word of mouth as a means of new program discovery. Networks became more patient and less prone to cancel new programs since, in many cases, offbeat or niche programs built audiences more slowly but more broadly through mediated word of mouth. And with time-shifting technologies and VOD, viewers could take longer to find the new programs that they liked. Today, the typical new scripted show only captures 50% of its premiere episode audience in its first live presentation; the rest of the audience shows up later. A weak Nielsen rating at opening is not necessarily a death knell for a new program, and social media conversations about new programs happen year-round, not just in the Fall.
The primacy of the fall premiere season took another substantial hit when Neflix started the practice of releasing its new internet-distributed shows (known in the biz as OTT or “over the top”) by putting out all episodes at once. If the show caught on, it became its own cultural phenomenon – its own grist for water cooler (and social media) chatter.
So is the fall premiere season now just a relic of a bygone age? I would not say so. It still is the main way for the broadcast networks to unveil their new scripted shows to their still very substantial audiences. What’s more, the cable networks that once launched their new programs off-cycle have increasingly shifted toward direct competition with the broadcast networks for a share of the public’s attention during the season. And there is little evidence that the viewing public has lost interest in the new shows launched in the fall. Indeed, insiders at the broadcast networks who track awareness of the new shows coming out report that interest in this fall’s crop of new shows remains as high as ever.
On the advertising side, both broadcast and cable networks continue to sell most of their premium ad inventories in the spring upfront markets that are built around the releases in the fall. While some industry analysts have argued that the rise of addressable TV advertising, driven by complex internet-like data integrations, will eventually destroy the upfront ad sales model, it certainly hasn’t happened yet. Despite many dire prognostications, conventional advertising sales in the 2017 upfront market were reported to be very strong. This is noteworthy because the 2017 upfront market included, for the first time, significant offerings of data-based targeted ad inventory that did not conform to the standard age/sex demo guarantees of the conventional upfront. Back in March, NBCU declared its intention to write $1 billion in targeted ad business in 2017. In May three large networks (Turner, Viacom and Fox) announced Open AP to bring a degree of scale and standardization to the data-based targeted advertising inventory they planned to bring to market. All of these companies reported robust sales of their data-based offerings during the upfronts, but none reported softness of their conventional ad sales offerings. This suggests that the new model is not yet cannibalizing the old model – that change to the upfront will come more slowly than some expect.
Bottom line: Even though we have more diverse models for releasing and supporting new TV shows, the fall premiere season remains an important event in the TV industry’s calendar and in the public’s efforts to discover, sample and talk about those new shows.