Assessing the Upfronts

The Upfronts are over and now we can sift through the tonnage and try and find the trends that will mark the 2006-07 television season.

A growing trend that got solidified was the block scheduling approach. Over the years, prime time dramas have suffered serious erosion in ratings when episodes were rerun. The series with continued stories such as ER suffered even worse than the stand-alone shows such as the myriad Law & Orders. As a result, as summer rolled around, most of those shows were the ones to vanish, as the networks trotted out various summer replacement series. The sitcoms, of course, stayed – for good or ill.

The networks, though, paid for the right to multiple airings of a single episode as part of their license fee. Let’s say they paid $1 million an episode for Surface — that gave them the right to at least two showings during the season. Now, with dramatic rerun ratings down, they’re reluctant to go that route. Instead, they have been unloading the reruns to cable affiliates (in the case of NBC, over to Bravo) so the rerun would occur within a week of the original broadcast.

However, as premium and basic cable channels grew stronger with their own series, they helped rewrite the rules and shift viewing habits. Shows from The Sopranos to Battlestar Galactica run no more than 13 episodes for what is considered a season. The real reason behind these shorter seasons remains financial but a side effect is that viewers of continued stories have gotten reacclimated to a steady dose of programming. For thirteen weeks you know you’re getting the full season without interruption.

Over in Europe, that’s been the norm for decades, as noted by the incredibly short seasons, as few as six episodes, for shows like Fawlty Towers or Footballers Wives.

Over the last season or two, the networks have figured out that stretching 22-24 episodes across a 35 week season (however that’s calculated) has strained the patience of viewers. No sooner do you reach an incredible cliffhanger on Lost than you have to wait three or six weeks before another episode aired. And then there’d be another break.

Fox made that work to their advantage when they delayed the launch of 24 last season, allowing them to run it uninterrupted from January through May. This year, they repeated the trick and tried a variation by showing half of Prison Break in the fall and the second half in the spring.

Now, series after series has been announced as going to the block approach next season. Old veterans like ER will run about half its shows through the fall, then take a 13 week hiatus (allowing NBC to trot out and sample their crime drama The Black Donnelleys). The show will have a cliffhanger of sorts so you’ll actually be looking for it to return, uninterrupted of course, in the spring. This approach has also been announced for shows on just about every network.

I applaud this approach since it does a few things. First, it makes television more immediate and compelling. By not offering reruns on air (but via downloads, streaming and carrier pigeon), the viewer actually gets more programming choices.

The other trend is that series are looking for ways to extend their brands. There’s now proprietary material available only on the season DVD sets, webisodes, web sites, snippets for cell phones and more to come. NBC apparently insisted that every series next year have something “extra” for viewers to find somewhere beyond the time slot.

As witnessed by the just-launched Lost Experience, if done right, it can be engaging and very entertaining. However, if you’re a TV junkie like me, you don’t necessarily have time to seek out each extra so suddenly you feel like you’ve missed out on part of the fun.

On the other hand, we all need to keep sight of cable remaining in only 80% of American homes and DVR penetration is at 7%, but rapidly growing. That leaves millions of Americans who won’t ever be able to enjoy the full sensory overload the networks and producers are anticipating.

What about the shows themselves? Dunno. Some look great (Studio 60’s clip was very promising), some have solid casts, some look like more of the same. It’s nice to see favorite actors like Greg Grunberg and Victor Garber land safely from the end of Alias.

And of course there remain series conflicts for my viewing pleasure. Tuesdays at 9 with House and <.i>Veronica Mars and Thursdays at 9 with Grey’s Anatomy vs. Studio 60. Deb will process the information throughout the summer and indicate what interests her and since it’ll be just the tow of us come fall, we can watch as our schedule allows.