Inside the Scheduling Wars: Why TV Lineups Still Matter
The second-season return of Smash on Feb. 5 was always going to be a tough sell. But ABC's decision to schedule a last-minute special Tuesday-night edition of The Bachelor against it helped to crush NBC's musical drama, which attracted just 4.5 million viewers. Meanwhile, Sean Lowe and his roses brought in 7.9 million.
In this age of time-shifted and on-demand viewing, TV network scheduling seems like an antiquated idea. Yet as the networks fight over smaller pieces of the Nielsen ratings pie, scheduling — and the strategy behind how and when programs run — continues to play a critical role.
The difference from years past is that now, broadcast executives have to factor in everything from cable competition to when and how viewers might catch a show (be it in real time, online or on DVR). "It's gone from a game of chess to a game of three-dimensional chess," says Jeff Bader, NBC's president of program planning, strategy and research.
Adds Fox executive vice president of scheduling Dan Harrison: "It really is a challenging business when you're trying to build your slice of the pie and at any given moment you may be competing against reruns of your own show on a big cable network, or DVR usage, or somebody watching TV while using a tablet. Scheduling still matters. It may look different, it may feel different, but it's still important. "
The heads of scheduling at the broadcast networks are all friendly with one another, and frequently chat on Twitter. But given the opportunity, they don't hesitate to demolish an opponent. In the case of The Bachelor, ABC had an extra episode of the dating reality competition in its arsenal and was looking for a good spot to deploy it.
Luckily for ABC, the network had an open slot on Feb. 5, since comedy Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 had just been canceled, Happy Endings wasn't scheduled that night and the premiere of Body of Proof had been pushed back to Feb. 19. The Bachelor has been on the rise this winter among young women, and ABC couldn't resist throwing an obstacle Smash's way.
"Doing this inside the February sweeps seemed like a win, in which we'd increase our time-period average and blunt a network that is more our competition than others," says Andy Kubitz, ABC's executive vice president of program planning and scheduling. Smash also faced off against original episodes of CBS' NCIS: Los Angeles and Vegas and new installments of New Girl and The Mindy Project on Fox.
Of course, NBC knows the game and has played it, too. The Peacock network's move last fall to schedule an extra episode of The Voice opposite the premiere of Fox's The X Factor has been credited with helping slow the momentum of Simon Cowell's show. The Voice brought in 10.9 million viewers; The X Factor had 7.7 million.
The change incurred the wrath of Fox executives. "It was slightly on the cheesy side," Fox Entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly has said. "It went in the file for later reference." In fact, says Harrison, "The job of a scheduler is we're elephants. We never forget."
Harrison is a firm believer in counterprogramming, particularly when a special event attracts a larger overall audience. He points to PBS' decision to air an original episode of Downton Abbey opposite the Super Bowl. "PBS didn't roll over, and still managed to get an audience that wasn't going to watch the Super Bowl," he says. "It's important to offer something different from a big event but can still serve your brand."
That's especially true now with DVRs, as viewers can watch at least two shows airing at the same time. On Sunday, Feb. 10, AMC's The Walking Dead attracted a series-best 12.3 million viewers, even against CBS' coverage of the Grammy Awards, which averaged 30.7 million viewers in the 9/8c hour directly opposite it.
"The big events on TV are always going to be there," says Kubitz. "You have to be aware of them and strategize against them. Big premieres, big event programming."
Counterprogramming is just a one part of the scheduler's job, however. Finding the best slot for a show, regardless of what other networks are doing, remains key even if a large chunk of viewers no longer watch primetime in a linear fashion.
"Scheduling is still the most important thing in launching a hit," Bader says. "People don't think that scheduling matters because of DVRs. But more than half the homes in the country don't have DVRs, so when you look at shows on television, they still get half their audience from their lead-in. If you put the right thing on you can still galvanize a huge audience on broadcast. That's the holy grail we're always aiming for."
Bader knows this firsthand, as NBC's Revolution became one of this season's few new hits thanks to its plum timeslot after The Voice. On the flip side, Smash wasn't helped by a weak lead-in, Betty White's Second Annual 90th Birthday Special.
Economics also inform most decisions; business deals may impact where and when a show must air. That includes product placement that must be timed properly for sponsors.
"There's a lot more of trying to determine how to get the best return on your investment," Kubitz says. "The need to maximize every dollar in our schedule creates a lot of tension to program differently. The big thing now is that it's more than just a schedule. The title of scheduler is evolving to 'content strategist.'"
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