Inside the 5 Broadcast Network Chiefs’ Plans for the Fall TV Season

Including their biggest challenges and what they do better than Netflix

Networks' top new shows: A Million Little Things (ABC), Manifest (NBC), Charmed (The CW), Murphy Brown (CBS) and Last Man Standing (Fox)
Photo Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Sources: Charmed: Jordon Nuttall/The CW; A Million Little Things/ABC/Jack Rowand; Murphy Brown: Jojo Whilden/CBS; Last Man Standing: Courtesy Fox; Manifest: Craig Blankenhorn/NBC/Warner Brothers

Last season was another rough one for the five broadcast networks, as only NBC grew its 18-49 audience from the previous season—thanks to the Super Bowl and Winter Olympics—while the other four continued their ratings slides. But they’ll try again to reverse that trend in the 2018-19 TV season, which starts on Monday, Sept. 24.

During the next several weeks, the five broadcasters will roll out 22 new shows (including CBS’ Murphy Brown and Fox’s Last Man Standing revivals, and ABC’s Roseanne Barr-free Roseanne spinoff, The Conners) and 60 returning entertainment series. Adweek sat down with the president at each network to discuss their biggest challenges for the new season, and what broadcast does better than Netflix.

(Editor’s note: The interview with CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl was conducted prior to the Sept. 9 departure of CBS Corp. chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves, which occurred hours after the publication of a second New Yorker story from Ronan Farrow, in which six additional women leveled new sexual assault and harassment allegations against the mogul. Kahl declined to comment on Moonves’ exit for this story.)

Adweek: What is the biggest way your network has improved this fall?
Channing Dungey, president, ABC Entertainment: I feel like we have some real strength at 10 p.m. across the week, and I’m excited about what we’re doing with all-alternative reality programming on Sunday nights. We haven’t tried that before.

Robert Greenblatt, chairman, NBC Entertainment: It’s the same old answer, which is we have some new fall shows that hopefully will break out of the pack. We don’t have that many, but I think they’re very potent.

Kelly Kahl, president, CBS Entertainment: If you look at the inclusiveness of people across our schedule, we’ve made some big strides. We’re not patting ourselves on the back because we still have work to do, but I think we made a good step forward this season.

Mark Pedowitz, president, The CW: It’s our commitment to inclusive representation in our programming. All five of our new series were created by and executive produced by women. And 11 of our 17 scripted series are created by and executive produced by women or people of color. For us it’s a continuation of having programming for the public that is representative of the world around us.

Michael Thorn, president of entertainment, Fox: As we went into scheduling this season, we had a really clear strategy to make our Fridays as important of a night for us as other nights. We went in trying to make Friday night a broadly skewing night of TV, and I think we placed some great bets there.

Finish this sentence: Advertisers will love this season because …
Dungey, ABC: We’re really trying to focus on shows that have broad appeal, that are going to encourage co-viewing and bring families together.

Greenblatt, NBC: We’re getting more innovative than ever with our advertising strategy.

Kahl, CBS: We have broad appeal shows in the classic CBS tradition.

Pedowitz, The CW: Broadcasting is back.

Thorn, Fox: We have some signature Fox, broadly skewing comedies and more importantly, we have two-thirds of our new shows returning, allowing us to be in a strong, stable position.

This fall, what is your toughest challenge?
Dungey, ABC: The number of shows we have to launch.

Greenblatt, NBC: Just remaining in a leadership position, which is where we’ve been for the last several years. We don’t have Thursday Night Football to enhance our performance, which we’ve had for the past two years. So it’s always a challenge to stay where you are, especially when you’re out in front.

Kahl, CBS: Simply getting attention on any one given show, much less all of them. It’s a battlefield out there in terms of getting attention. There’s a lot of shows, and a lot of outlets, all trying to get people’s attention.

Pedowitz, The CW: Launching a new night [of programming] on Sunday is the toughest challenge we have.

Thorn, Fox: Our biggest challenge is our development season this fall, where we’re going out as an independent network [Fox will be among the assets spun off into a company tentatively called New Fox ahead of the Disney-21st Century Fox merger]. I think we have a really good strategy, but we’re a bit of an underdog, and I’m really excited to go out and aggressively develop new shows as this independent network.

Broadcast gets a bad rap from your cable and streaming competitors. What do you think is the best thing about broadcast TV right now?
Dungey, ABC: When you have a great show that connects with people, you can still draw an audience. We saw that last year with The Good Doctor and Roseanne. I do feel like people are still hungry for content on broadcast. The question is just figuring out which ones they are.

Greenblatt, NBC: It’s the only place where you can gather a huge group of people together for a shared experience. That’s what has distinguished broadcast for the last 70 years, and still does. When 12 to 14 million people watch America’s Got Talent in the summer, or more than that watch This Is Us in the fall or spring, that’s an extraordinary cultural achievement.

Kahl, CBS: I still think it’s the ability to do broad appeal shows and be nonapologetic about it. We may not ever be the cool, niche-y show that is winning awards, but we still have one of the few opportunities out there to reach 10, 20 million people. That’s still a kick to us, and to a lot of producers who come here. They may do a show on a streaming service and have no clue how many people are watching. A lot of producers still really like that feedback, and how rewarding it is knowing 20 million people were watching.

Pedowitz, The CW: It’s a free, open platform for everyone to tune into. And it provides quality programming that people seem to forget about, unfortunately.

Thorn, Fox: We offer a platform where you can do creative shows like our shows and tell bold stories, but still reach a big audience. And for our partners, then being able to actually exploit those shows—whether it’s internationally and on other platforms—rather than just making one deal, like say for a streaming service. So we present a creative commercial win, with a lot of business upside.

What does your network do better than Netflix does?
Dungey, ABC: Encourage co-viewing.

Greenblatt, NBC: We bring families and viewers together.

Kahl, CBS: I wouldn’t have said this a few years ago, but I think CBS is becoming a reliable brand and there is an expectation when you turn on CBS of a certain type of show, of a certain high quality. Netflix has a lot of terrific shows, but it’s an awful lot of shows, and what we can do is essentially help people choose.

Pedowitz, The CW: We provide programming within 42 to 44 minutes [of content per episode], instead of an hour.

Thorn, Fox: When you talk about the characters on our network, whether it’s from The Simpsons or Family Guy or Glee or Empire and Bob’s Burgers, we’ve managed to create our own characters that have been and are identified with the fabric of our network. And because of the nature of broadcast, everybody always knows when there’s new episodes. Unlike on a streaming service, which tells you a new show is coming, and then it just disappears into the ether. We keep our shows alive and out in front.

This story first appeared in the September 17, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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