10 PM: Primetime’s Prime Time

A strong performing lead-in to local late news is crucial to stations’ success. This fall, there are big changes, including the NFL, coming at 10 o’clock.

Under their collective breaths: “Yikes.” That was the reaction from some NBC and ABC affiliates when informed that Scandal and The Blacklist — two of the biggest 10 p.m. hits (on NBC Mondays and ABC Thursdays, respectively) — would be pulled out of their ratings-winning slots for the upcoming season.

Mesmerizing performances — from Scandal’s Kerry Washington as a sassy D.C. fixer and Blacklist’s James Spader as a criminal mastermind turned FBI informant — have turned those two series into appointment viewing.

If those upcoming moves weren’t enough to make ABC and NBC affiliates antsy, word that CBS had landed rights to air the perennial ratings juggernaut, NFL football, Thursdays in primetime did the rest.

Why so jittery? Top-rated lead-ins are crucial in driving viewers to late newscasts on which most stations bank and in maintaining stations’ overall financial health. They are “still the linchpin around which everything else revolves, affecting strength across all dayparts,” said longtime TV business analyst Jack Myers.

“I can’t point to any single factor that is as important as that lead-in to the success of news,” said Rob Hubbard, CEO of Hubbard Broadcasting. (Because Fox airs local news at 10 p.m., an analysis of its lead-in programming is not included in this story.)

Late news is already troubled. Stations in toto are bleeding viewers almost across the board, with the 11 p.m. slots declining 7% and the 10 p.m. period losing 0.2% across all sweeps from 2012 to 2013, according to Nielsen.

BRAND CONNECTIONS

Thus, a strong 10 p.m. lead-in is ever more crucial to keep the ballast in such choppy waters, since newscasts as a whole bring in as much as 40%-45% of stations’ overall ad revenue, according to researcher and consultancy BIA/Kelsey. The firm expects stations to rake in $20 billion this year, and of that, between $8 billion and $9 billion will come from advertising spent on newscasts.

Station executives opined that their late newscasts account, variously, for between 25% and 40% of all local news revenue, meaning, if the $8 billion figure is used, a total of between $2 billion and $3.2 billion.

THE SCHEDULING SHIFTS

Little wonder, then, that CBS’s NFL games are causing some angst.  The network is also adding to the lead-in mix newcomers Stalker on Wednesdays and CSI:Cyber on Sundays as well as mainstay NCIS:Los Angeles to Mondays.

For its part, ABC is counter-programming the NFL games on Thursday with a trio of hours from powerhouse showrunner Shonda Rhimes to keep its schedule competitive all night long: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and — in the key lead-in position at 10 — How to Get Away with Murder, which stars Viola Davis.

On Tuesday at 10, ABC is adding Forever, which the network’s affiliate relations SVP John Rouse terms a “promising procedural,” similar to Castle and boasting one of the stars from the Fantastic Four movies, Ioan Gruffuld.

To counter the NFL games, NBC will field The Biggest Loser, two new sitcoms and Parenthood on Thursdays.

Blacklist will continue airing at 10 p.m. Mondays through the second week in November, but then goes on hiatus. It will be replaced by the newcomer State of Affairs. The series toplines Katherine Heigl and boasts Ed Bernero  (Criminal Minds) as showrunner.

At midseason, when the football games are through, Blacklist will reemerge at 9 p.m. on Thursdays to butt heads with ABC’s Scandal. Parenthood will come off the schedule, and the new drama Allegiance will replace it at 10 p.m. on Thursdays.

Bill Carroll, director of programming at the rep firm Katz Media, said he sees a lot of churn reflected on the fall schedules. “Some 40% of the series are new entries, and several incumbents are shifting from night to night or from time period to time period. There’s not a lot of stability in primetime this go-round.”

Carroll said that the ratings differential between the top three affiliates in large markets in the 10:30-11 p.m. frame this past season was “incredibly small,” CBS with a 12% share, ABC with 9% and NBC with 8% in total households. A strong (or weak) lead-in could tip the balance one way or another.

THE CRITICS WEIGH IN

“The network that’s best positioned [at 10 o’clock] is CBS,” said Marc Berman, editor-in-chief of TV Media Insights.  “It’s not perfect, but they’re better positioned.”

“The good news is, off the bat, they have four established shows at 10 o’clock,” Berman said. He includes Ele­mentary into the mix, as it takes on a Thursday 10 p.m. slot after the NFL broadcasts end.

The only question mark for Berman: Stalker. “It’s not perfect,” he said. ”Stalker may not do well.” 

Joe Adalian, West Coast editor of Vulture.com, who writes frequently about TV schedules and ratings, is bullish on CBS’s 10 p.m. shows, too.  “CBS affiliates have to be very, very happy after a couple of years of absolutely dying at 10 o’clock on Mondays [with, in recent seasons, Hawaii Five-O, which is moving to Fridays],” he said.  “They now have NCIS: L.A. [on Mondays], which is a big upgrade .…  And football will be massive for CBS affiliates.”

Adalian believes there’s room for ABC’s lineup to succeed as well, despite the powerhouse NFL on CBS.  “While Thursday Night Football will almost certainly be huge, there’s probably some room for some female-skewing shows.”

“If you’re a local [ABC] station and you’ve really been enjoying having Scandal [at 10] as this powerhouse, you have to hope that the next new show from [Scandal producer] Shonda Rhimes, How to Get Away With Murder, can do as well,” said Adalian.

But he does have some doubts. “I’ve seen the pilot,” he said of Murder.  “I think it’s really good.  Is it going to do as well as Scandal?  History suggests no, because few shows that follow a big hit instantly do as well.”

Adalian also is skeptical about NBC’s decision to move Blacklist out of the 10 p.m. slot on Mondays come November — to be replaced by the new State of Affairs. “When it moves to Thursday nights [at 9] …  once again affiliates will not win,” Adalian said.

The networks’ primetime strategy seems to be going down well with the critics that matter most at this point — the affiliates.

Michael Devlin, chairman of the ABC affiliate board and GM of WFAA Dallas, said that he and others on the board have seen How to Get Away With Murder. “I’d say the network made a fairly sound argument in support of its decision.”

Despite the disappearance of Blacklist at 10 after midseason, few NBC affiliates are complaining. NBC was No. 1 in most demos this past season, the first such top performance since 2003-04, according to Nielsen data.

NBC affiliate board chairman Jim Conschafter actually defended the strategy behind shifting Blacklist to 9 and scheduling new drama Allegiance at 10 on Thursdays. “Would affiliates like to have James Spader at 10 leading into local news? Yes, but what they need more is a return to dominance Thursday nights. This is a gutsy competitive move that we support, and we think will pay off.”

Conschafter said affiliate relations are good, and NBC President of Domestic Distribution Ed Swindler agreed: “We now have a close level of communication with the affiliates and are very cognizant of flowing the audience through the night. I think transparency is the key thing.”

Both Conschafter and Swindler pointed to another plus for local stations’ late newscasts: their lead-outs, specifically the buzz that Jimmy Fallon (and, to be fair, Jimmy Kimmel on ABC) is bringing to latenight comedy.

Needless to say, given CBS’s decade-long primetime winning streak, its affiliates sound less nervous than their counterparts elsewhere. Steve Hammel, the GM of WRAL Raleigh, N.C., a CBS affiliate belonging to Capitol Broadcasting, is among those who noted they felt the pinch when the network experienced a fall-off in performance this past year. “Lead-ins are always a concern, but I’m upbeat about the fall, [given that] we’re associated with a network that can boast such a strong track record,” he said.

“OK, yes, there’s been slippage this past season; it’s a worry,” said CBS affiliate board chairman Michael Fiorile, who heads Dispatch Broadcast Group, the owner of CBS affiliate WBNS Columbus, Ohio.

But, he said, affiliates are excited about the NFL football coup, even if there’s the potential for overruns into newscasts or for difficulty in launching series that night eight weeks into the season.

Fiorile said that the board would “weigh in” with CBS brass once the eight-week football experiment is over to express their views about renewing the deal for a second year.

As for the other shifts in CBS’s own primetime jigsaw puzzle, Fiorile was cautiously optimistic: “Whatever happens with the latest moves, we’ll be talking about them in November at our next official get-together.

“Any affiliate will tell you they’d prefer seven stable hits at 10 p.m., one every night, but we understand the network has to try out new things.”

COUNTER-BALANCING ACT

For all the emphasis on lead-ins (and to a much lesser extent lead-outs) most station execs said they have shifted their day-to-day concerns. Having lost, per Katz’s Carroll, some 30% of live viewership over the last decade to competition from cable networks and other forms of media, stations are ever more bent on controlling what they can control and obsessing less about what they can’t.

“Bottom line, we simply can’t control our lead-ins, but we can focus on creating relevant content and leveraging our digital platforms,” said Sinclair Broadcast Group’s VP of news Scott Livingston, who is responsible for information programming on 167 stations in 77 markets.

Mike Stutz, the corporate news director for News Press & Gazette’s 45 affils and the GM of subsidiary, Gulf-California Broadcast Co., put the accent on the need to promote the lead-ins that are particularly strong, such as ABC’s Castle and CBS’s Person of Interest, but not to use them as crutches.

“Our key,” Stutz explained, “is enterprise reporting, about issues our competitors are not covering. And when we have a big local story that’s our own, we try to promote and to air it on a night when we have one of our stronger lead-ins.”

Newsrooms at Scripps’ 21 stations reflect the point. “We’ve known for a while all these changes in the landscape were coming,” said Scripps VP of News Sean McLaughlin, who had stints at stations in Tulsa, Okla., and at Meredith’s CBS affil KMOV St. Louis before joining the Cincinnati-based group in March.

“Lead-ins aside, we have to be more tactical, more inventive, in what we do. We can’t just repackage stale news or rely on weather and traffic reports. There’s a heightened expectation from viewers. Even our anchors are out on the street; no one’s just sitting at their desks.”

This story originally appeared in TVNewsCheck’s Executive Outlook, a quarterly print publication devoted to the future of broadcasting. Subscribe here.


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