Chief among the concerns of affiliates at the broadcast networks’ upfront presentations last week was what was being slotted at 10 p.m. (or 9 for the Fox affils). Having hits there makes a world of difference in the local news ratings that follow. One of ABC’s aspiring 10 o’clock newcomers for fall is Designated Survivor starring Kiefer Sutherland (above).
In a meeting room deep within the posh Encore hotel in Las Vegas during the NAB Show last month, ABC’s recently installed programming chief Channing Dungey faced an affiliate board that was none too happy about the third hour of prime time leading into their late newscasts this season.
From the outset of the season last September, the time period on at least three days of the week had been plagued with difficulties, including aging series on Monday and Wednesday (Castle and Nashville, respectively), and extreme instability on Tuesday.
On that night, the 10 p.m. hour had become a black hole on ABC — the home of a succession of shows all season long, including two of the season’s biggest flops, Wicked City and Of Kings and Prophets.
Dungey, who had only been in the job of president of ABC Entertainment since February, took heed of the board’s complaints. Last week at its upfront presentation in New York, ABC offered solutions to all three troublesome nights — new shows on Monday (Conviction) and Wednesday (Designated Survivor) and a veteran move-in on Tuesday (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.)
Nashville and Castle were both bounced.
ABC wasn’t the only network to make scheduling fixes in the final hour of primetime, which affiliates count on to carry viewers into their late newscasts. CBS shored up the time period on two nights — Monday and Tuesday — with returning hits, and will introduce a new medical drama Thursday nights at 10.
Once again, NBC will use the 10 p.m. on Monday night to jump-start another new series with The Voice as a lead-in. And on Thursday night, NBC is moving one of its biggest hits — The Blacklist — into the 10 o’clock slot.
Fox will introduce two new shows next fall in the hour before late local news — that’s 9 p.m. in its truncated schedule — on Thursday and Friday.
Following the fall presentations in New York last week, the early line on the late-prime scheduling changes is cautiously optimistic.
“I think we have stronger lead-ins if you look across each of the networks,” said Bill Carroll, SVP and director of content strategy for Katz Television Group. Carroll is particularly encouraged by CBS’s move of Scorpion from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Mondays and NCIS: New Orleans from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Tuesday because they “are two of their top shows,” he said.
And of NBC’s move of The Blacklist from 9 to 10 p.m. on Thursdays, Carroll said: “If I were an affiliate, I’d be thrilled that Blacklist is back at 10 o’clock.”
But it’s the new series about to be tried out in the final hour of primetime — a total of five — that are more difficult to handicap so soon after the upfronts.
From a scheduling standpoint, Carroll thinks Pure Genius, CBS’s new high-tech medical drama going into the 10 p.m. timeslot on Thursday, will face a challenge when it faces off against How to Get Away with Murder on ABC, NFL football on NBC starting in late October and, after that, The Blacklist.
Pure Genius is about a young Silicon Valley tech tycoon who establishes a hospital with “an ultramodern approach to medicine,” according to CBS’s description. USA Today TV critic Robert Bianco reacted skeptically to the portion of Pure Genius that CBS showed at its upfront last Wednesday.
“Take a medical show and layer on top of it every techno-gizmo visual trick you can think of, and what do you get? In the preview, at least, two clichés for the price of one, all delivered with a rather remarkable lack of urgency,” Bianco wrote on Friday.
He was equally skeptical of NBC’s new Monday night drama, Timeless, described by NBC as an “action-adventure series” about an arch-criminal who steals a time machine and then intends to destroy America by going back in time and changing history. Bianco called it one of the “most puzzling” concepts on any of the networks’ fall schedules.
But opinions on this show are mixed. Joe Adalian, TV columnist for New York magazine’s Vulture.com, thinks Timeless has a good chance of doing about as well as its predecessors in the 10 p.m. Monday slot — The Blacklist, which premiered there in 2013, and Blindspot, which premiered in the time period last September. “The Shawn Ryan-produced time-travel thriller Timeless … seems to have some of the same DNA that allowed both Blacklist and last fall’s Blindspot to click in the hour,” Adalian wrote.
The new 10 p.m. entry getting the most positive buzz in the days following the upfronts is Designated Survivor, which is replacing Nashville on Wednesday nights on ABC. The show stars Kiefer Sutherland as a low-level cabinet member who nevertheless suddenly becomes president of the United States after a devastating attack on Washington kills every other government official ahead of him in the line of succession.
“Sutherland dealing with a clear-and-present danger seems like a no-brainer, and the extended scene ABC showed off at its upfront was gripping television,” Adalian wrote.
Bianco named the show the “most promising” of all the shows announced during upfront week. “Sutherland is one of our greatest TV stars, and it will be nice to see him in a role that casts him as a quiet, thoughtful family man who, one assumes, is never called upon to snap anyone’s neck with his legs,” Bianco wrote.
Katz TV’s Carroll was also upbeat about Sutherland’s appeal, but cautioned that the show faces stiff competition. “The big show for [ABC] has got to be Designated Survivor,” he said. “The audience loves Kiefer Sutherland, [but] the challenge they have is they’re going against two shows on CBS and NBC” that are established hits in their time slots — Chicago P.D. on NBC and Code Black on CBS.
ABC’s other new 10 p.m. drama is Conviction, scheduled for Mondays. The show centers on a young female attorney whose father is a former president of the United States and whose mother, the former First Lady, is running for the U.S. Senate. In the show, the former First Daughter gets convicted on a cocaine-possession charge, but avoids jail time by agreeing to work on criminal cases in which wrongful convictions are suspected.
“Based on early trailers, [neither Conviction nor another legal drama, Notorious, that ABC announced last week for Thursdays at 9 p.m.] looks like it’s going to get critics raving or set Twitter on fire,” Adalian wrote.
ABC’s other change is the move of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. into the third hour of primetime on Tuesday nights for its fourth season. The show has been a fixture on Tuesday nights, airing previously at both 8 and 9 p.m. Its prognosis at 10 is uncertain.
“It’s a Disney-owned franchise and they need to find a way to make that work,” Carroll said. “One of the things they said at their upfront was the fact that because it’s going to be in the 10 o’clock hour, it can be darker or edgier than it could at an earlier hour, and that could help reposition the show,” he said.
As for Fox, the network will introduce its new horror series The Exorcist (inspired by the 1973 movie) next fall on Friday at 9 p.m. following Hell’s Kitchen. And it will premiere another drama, Pitch — about a young woman who becomes the first female pitcher in the major leagues — on Thursday at 9 next fall following Rosewood.
All of its other 9 p.m. shows are staying put — Lucifer on Monday nights, Scream Queens on Tuesday and Empire on Wednesday.
Adalian called The Exorcist on Friday night a “smart play.” He noted that the show is meant to reflect the old movie (and its subsequent spinoffs) in name only. “Instead of doing an Exorcist-like thriller, Fox is simply giving its show the benefit of a brand name,” he wrote.
As for Pitch, the decision to premiere this show was made some time after Fox’s upfront presentation last Monday. The news broke last Friday that Pitch, formerly slated as a midseason show, would premiere in the fall, delaying the final 13 episodes of Bones until midseason.
When she introduced a clip from Pitch at the Fox upfront, Dana Walden — co-chairman and co-CEO (along with Gary Newman) of Fox Television Group — said she cried when saw the pilot. While the clip revealed a show with plenty of heart, no tears were glimpsed running down the cheeks of anyone in the audience at Fox’s upfront in Manhattan.
For the put-upon affiliates of ABC, the moves being made at 10 o’clock are giving them hope. “I’m actually encouraged by what I saw [at ABC’s upfront] because we have talked to Channing a number of times about the 10 o’clock concerns that affiliates have,” ABC Affiliate Board of Governors Chairman Emily Barr, CEO of Graham Media, told TVNewsCheck in a phone interview while she walked down Fifth Avenue following one of the upfronts last week. “I think what we saw at the upfront was a concerted effort to address those issues. Time will tell.”