CLEVELAND, Ohio – Besieged on all sides by unprecedented competition in terms of quality and quantity, the traditional broadcast networks aren’t just struggling to define their place in an ever-expanding TV universe. They are fighting for a future that sees them occupying any place at all – a place that is relevant, profitable and sustainable.
It’s a tall order, and an understandable sense of fear is evident in the fall lineups revealed by the networks over the last few days. Their plans for the 2019-20 season betray more than a slight degree of caution as they move uncertainly into a TV-Tommorowland where a few streaming services and cable channels have claimed the high ground with most of the medium’s most-innovative, most-acclaimed and most-discussed programming.
We’ve gone well beyond the point where the networks no longer field TV’s finest shows. We’ve reached the point where the audience no longer expects them to field these shows.
And yet, the reports of their demise do tend to arrive with a heavy dose of exaggeration. For the moment, they remain big players in the programming game. More than 500 scripted shows – dramas and comedies or some mix of both – will appear across all platforms during the upcoming season, and more than one in five of them will be on the networks.
That’s a vast amount of the TV territory, but, of course, it’s also a vast amount of territory to defend. And the fall lineups do find the networks playing defense.
Start with the number of shows ordered for the fall: a mere 16 (nine dramas and seven comedies). That’s down from 22 new shows last fall. To put that in some perspective, consider that the networks also fielded 22 new falls series in 1977, but there were just three of them at the time (ABC, CBS and NBC).
Exploding viewing options and cost have had a great deal to do with this increased caution. The average cost for a half-hour comedy series pilot is about $2 million. The average cost for an hour drama pilot is $5.5 million. Faced with these realities, the networks ordered about 65 pilots for consideration. With 21 more new programs sitting on the bench for midseason (12 dramas, eight comedies and one reality show), we’ll be seeing more than half of those concepts go to series.
There was a time when the networks ordered a lot more pilots for consideration. There was a time when they attacked the fall a good deal more aggressively. That time was before viewers seeking daring and unconventional drama and comedy turned to programmers like HBO, FX, AMC, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.
So what’s a broadcast network to do? In recent years, they’ve tried more heart-tugging, life-affirming dramas like NBC’s “This Is Us” and CBS’ “God Friended Me.” Shows that stressed family, friendships and multiculturalism attracted devoted followings. It was an effective strategy that paid off, so expect to see more of that next season.
The networks also tried revivals and reboots, thinking that casts and characters already familiar to the audience would be welcome back, giving them a marketing edge. That proved more hit and miss, so, even with shows like CBS’ “Magnum, P.I.” and ABC’s “The Conners” back in the fall, the reboot mania seems to have at least temporarily cooled a bit.
But that doesn’t mean the networks have given on playing the familiarity card. Indeed, one of the most noticeable trends in these 2019-20 plans is the return of stars from hits shows of seasons past.
In many cases, you’re seeing prime-time veterans going back to the very network where they scored big hits. Bay Village native Patricia Heaton, for instance, is returning to CBS, where she won Emmys for playing Debra Barone on “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
Heaton, who last year wrapped up a long ABC run on “The Middle,” co-stars with Kyle MacLachlan in “Carol’s Second Act,” a comedy that will air 9:30 p.m. Thursday nights. She plays Carol Kenney, who, after raising her children, getting divorced and retiring from teaching, pursues her dream of becoming a doctor.
She’s not the only former CBS comedy star going home. Billy Gardell (“Mike & Molly”) will star in the fall comedy “Bob Loves Abishola,” which gets the 9:30 pm. Monday time slot. He plays a middle-aged compression sock businessman who falls for his cardiac nurse, Nigerian immigrant Abishola’s (Folake Olowofoyeku) while recovering from a heart attack.
NBC also is welcoming home stars from its past hits. Bradley Whitford (“The West Wing”) has the lead role in “Perfect Harmony,” a comedy that will air at 8:30 p.m. Thursdays. He plays Arthur Cochran, a former Princeton music professor who takes over a small-town church choir.
Jimmy Smits (“L.A. Law”) has one of the lead roles in NBC’s “Bluff City Law” (10 p.m. Mondays), a drama about a father-daughter legal team. Russell Hornsby (“Grimm”) stars in “Lincoln,” a midseason drama based on the Jeffrey Deaver novel “The Bone Collector” (made into a 1999 film with Denzel Washington). And Steven Weber (“Wings”) is among the stars of “Indebted,” an NBC midseason comedy also featuring Fran Drescher (“The Nanny”).
Other familiar faces you’ll spot next season:
Cobie Smulders (“How I Met Your Mother”) is the star of the ABC drama “Stumptown” (10 p.m. Wednesdays), based on the series of graphic novels. She plays Dex Parios, a strong, assertive, sharp-witted army veteran using her military intelligence skills as a private investigator in Portland, Oregon.
Kal Penn (“House”) has the lead role in “Sunnyside” (9:30 p.m. Thursdays), an NBC comedy about a disgraced New York City councilman turned champion for a diverse group of hopefuls.
Walton Goggins (“The Shield,” “Justified”) has top billing in “The Unicorn” (8:30 p.m. Thursdays), a CBS comedy about Wade, a widower with a tight-knit group of friends who realize he’s a hot commodity on the dating scene.
Michael Sheen (“Masters of Sex”) co-stars with Tom Payne in “Prodigal Son” (9 p.m. Mondays), a Fox crime drama about a New York criminal psychologist whose father is a notorious serial killer.
Sarah Wayne Callies (“Prison Break,” ‘The Walking Dead”) and Tom Everett Scott (“Southland,” “Z Nation”) star in NBC’s “Council of Dads,” a heartwarming midseason drama written and produced by Tony Phelan, who grew up in Cleveland Heights, and his wife, Joan Rater.
Edie Falco (“The Sopranos,” “Nurse Jackie”) has the title role in “Tommy,” the midseason drama Abigail “Tommy” Thomas, a former high-ranking NYPD officer who becomes the first female chief of police for Los Angeles.
Will Sasso (“MADtv”) and Jane Curtin (“3rd Rock from the Sun”) are among the stars in “United We Fall,” an ABC midseason family comedy.
Amy Poehler (“Parks and Recreation”) and Ty Burrell (“Modern Family”) provide voices for characters in “Duncanville,” an animated comedy Fox will premiere at midseason.
Gerald McRaney (“Simon & Simon,” “Deadwood”) and Kim Cattrall star in “Filthy Rich,” a Fox midseason drama about a Southern Gothic family.
John Slattery (“Mad Men”) has top billing “neXt,” a Fox midseason thriller about the emergence of a deadly, rogue artificial intelligence.
Other notable trends you may notice:
Series with heroic women as lead characters: In addition to “Tommy” on CBS and “Stumptown” on ABC, the newcomers include: ABC’s “Emergence” (10 p.m. Tuesdays), a drama starring Allison Tolman as a police chief who takes in a young child she finds near the site of a mysterious accident; CBS’ “All Rise” (9 p.m. Mondays), a legal drama with Simone Missick as a Los Angele judge; and two CW rookies: “Batwoman” (8 p.m. Sundays) and “Nancy Drew” (9 p.m. Wednesdays).
And yet another way of banking on the familiarity factor, spin-offs: ABC’s “mixed-ish” (9 p.m. Tuesdays) from “black-ish” and the CW’s midseason drama staring Lucy Hale, “Katy Keene” from “Riverdale.”