Everything old is new again on network television, and without apology.
As the TV industry rushes into the future with streaming services, traditional broadcasters unveiled 2021-22 schedules that rely heavily on familiar series brands and reboots of decades-old shows.
There’s even a two-fer based on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” the Las Vegas-set forensics drama that dazzled viewers when it arrived in 2000. Get ready for “CSI: Vegas,” a CBS remake complete with original stars William Petersen and Jorja Fox and, in a sign of diversity progress, Black actor Paula Newsome as the lead investigator.
The annual network tradition of wooing potential ad buyers with lavish New York City presentations of upcoming shows and their stars was reduced by COVID to a virtual presentation for the second year.
But a deeper disruption came with the announcement that Discovery and WarnerMedia plan to merge, adding yet another media behemoth with streaming services — Discovery+ and HBO Max — to the fray that began with Netflix.
The broadcast networks aren’t merely on the sidelines. Most are aligned with streaming services through their corporate owners, such as Disney’s ABC and Disney+, which means they’re both competing and cooperating.
The strategy to double-down on standard network fare comes as lavish streamed shows including “The Crown” draw critical acclaim, Emmy Awards and subscribers. But it’s ad dollars that the networks need, and they’re uniquely positioned to provide the mass audiences that justify them.
Here are the key takeaways from this week’s announcements by ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC.
Tuning in to some of the broadcast network’s online presentations felt like watching a phone company show off its new collection of landlines. With rotary dialers!
It’s interesting. Maybe even helpful. But it doesn’t reflect the world of today, or tomorrow. Streaming undeniably draws the buzz now — the hot programs that get critical attention or awards, and the format is what business leaders concentrate on.
During the 1995-96 television season, 56% of people watching television in the evening were seeing the live output of network affiliates — primarily CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox. This year, that was down to 26%, according to the Nielsen company.
The always caustic Jimmy Kimmel referred to ABC as “Disney minus.” He torpedoed the network’s show “Big Sky” as “the #1 new drama that no one has ever heard of or seen.”
The unveiling of a new fall schedule at CBS — for two decades generally America’s most-watched television network — used to be the week’s centerpiece. This year it was rushed through, almost an afterthought. Instead, CBS and its Viacom corporate partners emphasized all of the content available on multiple platforms.
“We talk about literally looking at our company holistically, and where these shows end up, where they seem to fit best,” said CBS entertainment chief Kelly Kahl in an interview. “That’s the goal of what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to get the best shows in front of viewers, however they decide to watch.”
Fox Entertainment CEO Charlie Collier sounded almost plaintive in talking to advertisers about his network’s shows: “These are not built for subscribers, they’re built for you, to help your brand.”
That’s as close as you’ll get a television executive to saying they’re making material to be played in between commercials.
It’s a business. And while executives may be on their heels, advertisers committed to some $18.6 billion in spending for commercials last year on broadcast and cable networks after hearing their plans, even with uncertainty caused by the pandemic, according to Media Dynamics, Inc. Ad spending hasn’t dropped the way viewership has, since the programming is still among the few opportunities to reach a large audience.
So while the rise of streaming makes this feel like a business in transition, it’s not entirely clear what lies ahead.
WANT FRIES WITH THAT?
The term “franchise” applies to the fast-food industry and to TV, with some networks making the adaptable series formats it describes as a central part of their schedules.
A key producer is Dick Wolf, whose series will fill nine prime-time hours on two networks this fall: The new “Law & Order: For the Defense” is joining long-running “Law & Order: SVU” and recently introduced “Law & Order: Organized Crime” on NBC, which already airs Wolf’s three “Chicago”-set dramas, and CBS is adding “FBI: International” to make it a trio of his “FBI” shows.
CBS is expanding its “NCIS” family (from another producer) with a Hawaii-set newcomer added to the franchise that includes the original series starring Mark Harmon and “NCIS: Los Angeles.”
“If you look at what is working these days on broadcast television, it’s impossible to escape that franchises help you on several levels,” said CBS executive Kahl. A brand name helps launch a series and viewers like to watch franchise shows — and thus the commercials — as they air, he said, adding, “our bread and butter is still selling ad time.”
The shows also do surprisingly well on streaming. There are 350-plus episodes of durable “NCIS” on Netflix, and the show had the second-most minutes streamed in the last week of April against such buzzworthy competition as “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.”
The network plans reflected notable efforts at promoting diversity and social activism, in the year following the murder of George Floyd and the widespread demonstrations afterward.
Fox will televise “Our Kind of People,” a series about upper-middle-class Black professionals who vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. CBS will premiere “The Activist,” a reality show about people looking to bring change in the areas of health, education and the environment.
ABC is remaking its old series, “The Wonder Years,” but this time with a Black cast. It will air a limited series on the life of Mamie Till-Mobley, whose son Emmett Till was lynched in 1955 and became a civil rights icon. Its new series “Queen” features singers Eve and Brandy in a story about a 1990s hip-hop act getting back together.
ABC’s parent Disney Corp. is starting the Onyx Collective, an effort at promoting the work of diverse creators. And the NatGeo network made note that it was donating to a group that promotes Black scientists studying sharks.
“We believe people want to watch shows that give voice and value to those who’ve been left out or gone unheard,” Fox’s Collier said at a news conference.
Unsurprisingly, Kimmel had a more acidic take.
“We don’t know what to do right now,” he said. “We’re so desperate, we’ve had to resort to doing the right thing.”