Over the past two months or so, broadcast, cable and digital outfits have been presenting their wares to advertisers and media buyers, with the big culmination in New York City this week. Buyers saw presentations from Disney, WarnerMedia, NBCUniversal, The CW and Univision, among others.
Before we get into it, here are some numbers: The five major broadcast networks — ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and The CW ordered the same number of series this year, 36, as they did last year, and those were pretty evenly split among comedy and drama. Renewals also were basically the same, with just one more in 2019 than in 2018.
Broadcast networks, however, cancelled far less shows — 26 this year compared to last year’s 40. And Disney, which now owns Twentieth Century Fox Television and Fox 21 Television along with ABC TV Studios, produces the most shows, with nearly 70 series across 16 broadcast, cable and digital platforms, according to Variety. (Although Greg Berlanti is practically a studio unto himself, with 18 scripted series being produced out of his company at WarnerMedia.)
Still, the broadcast networks were no longer the center of most of these presentations. Instead, the newly formed mega-media companies chose to present to advertisers the entirety of their offerings, focusing on reach and scale. The days of the branded channel could indeed be numbered.
Below are the five things we took away from this week of presentations and parties that we think will have lasting ramifications on the TV industry:
1) Consolidation is real.
Of course, we knew intellectually that Disney had bought Fox and that AT&T had bought Warner Bros. But it didn’t seem to really hit home until upfronts when instead of doing presentations about ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and The CW, companies did combined upfronts, featuring several networks in one offering.
There are pros and cons to that, many of which we’re already beginning to feel. One big question is what happens to diversity of ideas, content and programming when so many important outlets all fall under one corporate overseer? Disney doesn’t just own ABC, ESPN, FX, Nat Geo, Freeform, and the Disney cable networks — plus Disney+ and, ostensibly, Hulu — it also owns so many key entities that produce for these distribution outlets: Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars, 21st Century Fox Film and Television and more. It’s upfront was so big that it couldn’t just be a presentation, it was an experience. It’s a similar situation over at AT&T-owned WarnerMedia.
The Hollywood Reporter’s Lesley Goldberg makes a good point about this: What is the value of channel brands in this world? Does it matter how FX differentiates itself from AMC or how TNT and TBS distinguish themselves if all of that programming is predominantly going to live on Hulu or WarnerMedia’s streaming services?
2) Streaming is the future.
Disney unveiled its plans for Disney+ a few weeks before upfronts, but the announcement that Disney also will entirely control Hulu sent a little shockwave through the industry right as the week was kicking off.
That means Disney will own two major streaming outlets with Hulu and the addition of Disney+. WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal both plan to come online with their services later this year, as does Apple TV+.
All of these services join existing offerings, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. At what point do these services start being offered as a bundle — for example, being able to pay a set monthly price for all of the major services? That seems like a reality that will come to fruition in the relatively near-term.
3) Fox stands alone.
Now that it’s shed most of its assets, including its TV studio, it seems hard to imagine that Fox will really be able to play with the giants that are now assembling on the field.
Fox executives argue that its new nimbleness will be to its advantage as it moves into sports, live events, unscripted and, still, some scripted programing. And this year, eight of its nine new series orders were co-productions, according to The Hollywood Reporter, so obviously Fox plans to try to stay in that game to the degree that it is able.
But when these major streaming offerings all emerge, how will Fox compete?
4) What does this mean for Netflix?
This was one of the few weeks of the year that we barely heard a word about the streaming service that started it all. But it’s hard, nigh impossible, to see what is happening in the world of TV, and not wonder how Netflix is going to weather it.
Two of Netflix’s most watched series are, anecdotally, Friends and The Office. Friends, along with all of The CW’s series, which also are popular on Netflix, are returning to WarnerMedia and expected to be part of that company’s streaming offering. The Office is returning to NBCUniversal, which also is plotting its own streaming service. And Disney also is in the process of pulling back all of its programming — and most specifically, its Marvel-produced TV series and movies — from Netflix.
For its part, Netflix has seen this coming. In 2015, the service shocked Hollywood by declaring that it would spend $5 billion, and that quickly turned into $6 billion, on original programming. Turns out, that was merely the start. In 2018, it spent $12 billion on content and plans to up that to nearly $18 billion this year.
The big advantage Netflix has is a head start. Netflix is the only streaming service right now that has a truly global footprint: it’s available in 190 countries and has 130 million subscribers. It will take even Disney a minute to catch up to that.
Over the course of its history, Netflix has swerved at just the right time and managed to avoid — and even benefit from — the shifting trade winds. But with competition for talent and programming at an all-time high (we passed peak TV a long time ago, John Landgraf), it will be interesting to see what arrows Netflix has left in its quiver.
5) Linear TV’s ability to offer a communal experience remains unrivaled and uniquely valuable.
The last thing didn’t happen so much at upfronts as during upfronts: HBO’s Game of Thrones aired its very controversial penultimate episode, and CBS’ The Big Bang Theory broadcast its two-part series finale. Both episodes saw live-plus-same-day audiences of around 18 million viewers, and those numbers will only grow in the coming days.
Ratings for linear television are down in a very fragmented environment, sure, but what the end of these two blockbuster shows reveals is that people will still show up at a predetermined time to watch TV’s biggest events. They also show up for things like the Oscars, the Super Bowl and the Olympics. And thus far, that collective viewing experience is something that streaming services cannot replicate.
Game of Thrones debuted in 2011, and will end its run as the world’s biggest and most popular TV show (no matter what ultimately happens to Daenerys Targaryen); The Big Bang Theory in 2007 and grew into TV’s biggest comedy. The departure of both these series reveals the cost of the move to on-demand viewing: there are no longer many shows that we watch and discuss together. That’s the particular joy (and heartache) of Game of Thrones for so many — spending the following week dissecting the episode and predicting what’s coming next.
While the importance of channel brands fade and viewership largely moves to streaming, linear networks are still uniquely positioned to offer programs specifically designed to attract large audiences.
This is a point that Fox, being now the only major broadcast network not supported by either a studio or streaming service, leaned heavily on during its presentation. And Fox is right, in a way: Being able to stream all episodes of a TV season offers its own pleasures, but it’s often a solitary experience. That said, without the kind of multiplatform support the mega companies now have, it’s going to be hard for Fox to generate enough marketing across its linear platforms (Fox, Fox Sports, Fox News) to drive viewership — unless it’s for things like the NFL or the Super Bowl, which is why it’s been doing its best to load up on such programming.
Still, watching shows together and enjoying them as a cultural experience is at the core of what makes linear TV — and specifically broadcast — valuable. And not just from a cultural point of view, but from a bottom-line, return-on-investment point of view. Consider what Game of Thrones and The Big Bang Theory, respectively, have meant to the companies that produced and distributed them: In both cases, it’s at least a ten-figure number.
As media companies only continue to expand, that ability to deliver hugely popular shows to the masses is an aspect of TV they must strive to preserve.