We are headed into what may be the most surreal couple of weeks yet in the TV business during the coronavirus pandemic. The broadcast networks are expected to step up their renewals for next season while also making some straight-to-series orders to (mostly) unproduced pilots.
But, as the COVID-19-related Hollywood shutdown is approaching the two-month mark, there are more cuts looming. Creators and producers, who normally sit by the phone this time of year, anxiously waiting to find out whether their pilot has been picked up or whether their show has been renewed, may be dreading calls from their studios even more this time because it could be the news that their overall deal has been terminated. The force majeure ax is expected to start falling soon, with dozens of writer and non-writing producer pacts possibly suspended or killed.
Network and studio executives also may find themselves in an awkward position, making and/or delivering pickup and renewal decisions while dealing with pay cuts and furloughs at their own companies. Cost-cutting at the big media congloms is expected to continue and expand to more companies starting as early as next week.
Amid a pandemic, a production shutdown for all live-action series and stay-at-home orders, network executives have still been doing scheduling meetings as they normally would this time of year, albeit via video conferencing. As Deadline has reported, the grounding of all broadcast pilots has been expected to benefit bubble series as networks are considered more likely to stick with a modest performer that has established following than to take a chance on a pilot that has not been filmed and tested.
As a result, the definition of a bubble show is changing this year, with the broadcast nets possibly renewing the majority of their current scripted lineups, or at least more shows than they would normally do. To paraphrase the famous Oprah Winfrey giveaway catchphrase, we may get into a situation of “you get a renewal, you get a renewal, everyone gets a renewal.”
Still, pickups in recent years have been an arduous process, with the broadcast networks pushing for license fee reduction on bubble shows every spring. This year, even with borderline performers made more appealing by the production shutdown, I hear the efforts by the networks to bring down license fees are as strong as ever, likely motivated by the shrinking ad market as companies have cut TV ad spending in the face of the coronavirus-related severe economic downturn.
Also complicating renewal negotiations this year is the uncertainty over when TV production could resume, which would determine when the 2020-21 broadcast season can start. It appears likely that it would be delayed. (And that is without factoring in a potential writers strike-related work stoppage.) Because all the variables, I hear the sizes of episodic orders are in flux even more than usual this year.
With all that caveat, the networks will still set some sort of (hopeful) fall schedules. There also will be some sort of virtual presentations for advertisers that will replace the traditional glitzy in-person upfront showcases.
NBCUniversal is first on May 11, the same date it had previously planned for its annual upfront. Dubbed a “One Industry Update,” it still promises to “unveil new offerings, and more,” according to the company’s announcement earlier today.
Before the pandemic hit last month, NBC gave massive three-year renewals to its strongest drama series from Universal TV: the Chicago franchise, Law & Order: SVU and New Amsterdam. It also has two seasons left on This Is Us’ renewal and has picked up drama The Blacklist and comedies Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Superstore for next season.
With several series coming to an end this season, including The Good Place, Blindspot and Will & Grace, NBC has only a handful of scripted series on the bubble. The list includes Manifest, Good Girls and a few freshmen, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Lincoln Rhyme: Hunt for the Bone Collector, Perfect Harmony and Indebted.
Manifest, which comes from Warner Bros TV, has done a decent job and ranks among NBC’s higher-rated series, so, like was the case with the WBTV-produced Blindspot, it will come down to whether a deal can be made. Good Girls is produced by NBC sibling Universal TV. From the get-go, it has been a strong digital performer and a modest linear TV one, which remains the case, The show has a following and a lucrative deal with Netflix, which has helped its renewal chances before and will likely do it again.
Like its Sunday companion Good Girls, newbie Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist has excelled on digital while not significantly moving the needle on linear. The musical dramedy has a rabid fan base and strong support at NBC. The only complicating factor is the show’s ownership; it comes from an outside studio, Lionsgate TV, as the leading entity, which impacts how much NBC can monetize the show’s digital prowess. Of the others, Lincoln has drawn a sizable crowd on Friday and is looking promising, Perfect Harmony is heavily on the bubble while Indebted does not look very likely at the moment. (Freshmen Bluff City Law and Sunnyside are not expected to return.)
The CW in January gave early renewal to 13 scripted series, including freshmen Batwoman and Nancy Drew. The network has only one series currently on the bubble, Riverdale spinoff Katy Keene. It got off to a sluggish linear ratings start — but so did Riverdale, before exploding in Season 2. Like the mothership series, Katy Keene is doing well on digital, and has pedigree. While on the bubble, with no decision expected very soon, I hear the newbie is being seriously considered for renewal in the current challenging situation.
Fox has renewed its flagship dramas 9-1-1 and 9-1-1: Lone Star as well as its entire animation lineup, with freshmen Bless the Harts and Duncanville joining the three established franchises, The Simpsons, Family Guy and Bob’s Burgers, which all have episode orders through next season.
Beyond that, dramas The Resident and Prodigal Son and veteran comedy Last Man Standing are likely to come back, I hear. Freshman live-action comedy Outmatched is not looking very good, while fellow newbies Almost Family and Deputy have been canceled, and veteran Empire ended its run (with a slight chance at a proper finale).
For now, ABC only has Grey’s Anatomy, spinoff Station 19 and The Good Doctor set for next season. The Conners is fully expected to get a renewal after the main cast signed on for another season. The network’s veteran comedy series, Black-ish and The Goldbergs, are considered a lock to return. Offshoots Mixed-ish and Schooled also are looking good, along with freshman Stumptown, sophomores A Million Little Things and The Rookie, and utility player American Housewife.
Comedies Bless This Mess and Single Parents, which have been on the bubble, are being helped by the current situation, with a possibility for at least one — and potentially both –coming back. New midseason drama For Life also has seen its chances grow considerably over the last few weeks, boosted by digital numbers and the network’s faith in the creative. On shaky ground is genre drama Emergence, which did not connect with audiences during its fall run. Ending this season are three long-running ABC series: Modern Family, Fresh Off the Boat and How to Get Away With Murder.
CBS only has Chuck Lorre comedies Young Sheldon and Mom and Michelle and Robert King’s freshman drama Evil renewed for next season. The network typically gives its reliable franchises early pickups but this season is atypical as it included major corporate changes at CBS’ parent company, which remerged with Viacom, leading to some delayed decisions. The network also has been persistent in its efforts to renegotiate license fee agreements at a lower price point, which makes for a longer renewal process and could potentially lead to cancellations based on financial reasons.
CBS’ top drama franchises, NCIS and FBI, popular dramas Blue Bloods and Bull and comedies The Neighborhood and Bob Hearts Abishola are all expected to come back.
Friday entries Magnum P.I. and MacGyver also are on solid ground, especially with the night’s anchor, Hawaii Five-0, coming to an end. Meanwhile, S.W.A.T. and SEAL Team are in the thick of renewal consideration, with at least one likely to return.
Midseason sitcom Broke has been a somewhat unexpected breakout and looks promising early on, though the network will likely wait to see whether its numbers will hold up.
Of the other CBS freshmen, drama All Rise and comedy The Unicorn are looking good, while Carol’s Second Act and Tommy are heavily on the bubble, helped by the star power of their leads, Patricia Heaton and Edie Falco, respectively. The Matt LeBlanc comedy Man with a Plan is proving to be a reliable utility player as a midseason replacement with solid viewership numbers, which could earn it another renewal.
In addition to Hawaii Five-0, veterans Madam Secretary and Criminal Minds and sophomore God Friended Me are ending their runs this season.
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