ABC Scheduling Chief on the Network’s Strike-Proof Fall Schedule  

Welcome to the 214th episode of TV’s Top 5,  ’s TV podcast.

Every week, hosts Lesley Goldberg (West Coast TV editor) and Daniel Fienberg (chief TV critic) break down the latest TV news with context from the business and critical sides, welcome showrunners, executives and other guests, and provide a critical guide of what to watch (or skip, as the case may be).

This week, we’re joined by Ari Goldman, the senior vp content strategy and scheduling at ABC Entertainment, who opens up about how the ongoing writers strike impacted ABC’s fall schedule. Goldman is not at all involved with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, so the following interview focuses on what he is involved with: ABC’s schedule. Before moving to ABC a year ago, Goldman spent a decade at NBCUniversal in the ratings and research department. The veteran strategy exec also spent time with Fox and started his career on Late Night With Conan O’Brien.

Other topics discussed in this week’s TV’s Top 5 include Headlines of the week (SAG-AFTRA calls on members for a strike authorization vote, Archer ending, new scripted and unscripted fare); a full look at upfronts and the broadcast networks’ respective schedules and what remains on the bubble; and Dan’s Critic’s Corner, during which he reviews IFC’s SisterS, Apple’s High Desert, Freevee’s Primo and Acorn TV’s Happy Valley, among others.

But first, read on for a condensed portion of our interview with Goldman.

CBS and NBC unveiled “dream scenario” fall schedules in which they had their collective heads in the sand regarding the larger impact of the writers strike, and Fox didn’t announce a schedule at all for the second year in a row. ABC, meanwhile, took a realistic approach. What were those conversations like internally about setting this schedule that features all unscripted fare and repeats of Abbott Elementary?

We’ve been preparing for the possibility of a strike for months. We started having weekly checkpoints around January. We knew this was our very realistic possibility that come May we would be in this situation. CBS, NBC and Fox don’t have the same bench of alternative shows that we have at ABC. When I look at the schedule we announced for fall, we’re leading off at 8 p.m. coming out of the affiliate hour with really proven track record performers. Dancing With the Stars is going to be a fantastic lead-in for The Golden Bachelor and across the week with Celebrity Jeopardy!, Judge Steve Harvey, Celebrity Wheel and Shark Tank fit well with our affiliates — many of whom have Wheel of Fortune directly leading into primetime. We knew that this would be attention-grabbing that we were doing this. But we really want to take a realistic approach because we know that this situation is very difficult.

ABC’s overall slate is almost 50-50 with scripted and unscripted, with a pair of the former still on the bubble and five pilots still to be determined. That seems like a different balance than what we’ve seen from ABC in recent years.

Not to mention additional alternative development that’s already in our back pocket. It’s definitely a robust mix.

Is the plan still to launch the fall schedule in the third week of September, which is historically dubbed Premiere Week?

The official Nielsen start this year is Sept. 25, and we would be targeting most of our shows somewhere in that vicinity. I wouldn’t say that’s an official start date for all of our shows. But I think we’re looking at roughly that time period for us, give or take a week or two. And we do have a number of NFL games to start the season in concert with ESPN and, toward the end of the fall, as well on Monday night.

What kind of feedback has this schedule gotten from ad buyers and affiliates? The schedule wasn’t even part of Disney’s formal upfront presentation…

We just had our affiliate meeting [Wednesday], and they appreciated the honesty that we put forth with the schedule. We have the broad base appealing shows at 8 p.m. We’re giving the affiliates what they need at 10 p.m., where we have a lot of noise with The Golden Batchelor. I feel really confident that the affiliates have been positive and sales is appreciative that they’re not going to have to go and sell a schedule that won’t deliver. They’re realistic. They’re going into the market with a schedule that will be seen by the millions that watch ABC this fall. We, obviously, would love to have a content mix that represents the full depth of our portfolio, and I am hopeful that we’ll get there sooner than later. But we’ll get there.

How quickly are you guys prepared to pivot if the strike ends July 1 somehow? Is there a chance there could be original scripted programming on ABC in the fall?

I wouldn’t rule that out necessarily. For a new show to get up and running and turned around with the care and attention we want to put into those shows, I don’t think we would be in the position to rush a new series on the scripted side. We’re surrounded by games on Monday nights in the fall, we have Thanksgiving breaks, we have Christmas breaks … it starts to get a bit choppy in the fall to think about launching a new show and then coming off for a few weeks before coming back on. That was already something that we were putting off the table months ago, in terms of launching a new scripted under these circumstances. I wouldn’t rule out returning series in some capacity if we were fortunate enough to resolve [the strike] as soon as you describe.

And how about on the other side of the equation? What is the drop-dead point where midseason — think January launches — ceases to be a home for scripted programming, if the strike goes on longer?

It’s going to be show by show. We are getting differing production calendars. Some might get up and running faster, and we’ll lean in where appropriate. Toward the end of the summer, we’ll have a strong sense of the reality of midseason. With this fall scheduled, we have not depleted our arsenal. I’ve seen the commentary online about the schedule; we have not tapped into the full depth and breadth of the Disney portfolio. We certainly have an amazing news team at ABC that has a lot of high-performing content, but we would love to be able to come back at a time of year that is robust for broadcast and high usage and surrounded by great tentpoles that we have to market.

The strategy sounds very similar to how broadcasters came out of the production shutdown during the quarantine stages of the pandemic just a few years ago.

Absolutely. Part of our strike contingencies talks included looking at our summer schedule, if we shift certain things into the fall. We have largely left our summer intact after pushing Press Your Luck into the fall. There are definitely parallels to the COVID situation and a lot of uncertainty as to when things would return to a sense of normalcy, but the hope is it’s sooner than later.

Were there conversations about repurposing popular Star Wars and Marvel shows on Disney+ and bringing those to ABC in the fall? I’d imagine those would probably rate higher than a new episode of Celebrity Jeopardy!

I disagree with that last part [about Celebrity Jeopardy!]. We tried Mandalorian earlier this year, and it worked out nicely for us on Friday night. Celebrity Jeopardy! is a force. Let’s not diminish the No. 1 live performer on our schedule last season. But, certainly, we’ve had conversations, and we will continue to have conversations about the Disney portfolio. There are things we have to work through — the format of the shows that are not designed for broadcast. We have a certain duration that we have to try to accommodate our ad load. And there are standards and practices concerns that we have to address. Everything is on the table.

NBC kept writers rooms open through hiatus until the strike to get a jump on scripts for next season. Did ABC do that?

No. We talked about what we could get ahead of at ABC, and I think our determination was, it just didn’t make as much sense for us. There was a sense that the writers being involved throughout production was a value to the shows. When the time comes, we’d rather have the writers in the process in a more organic fashion.

Realistically speaking, whenever the strike is over, how fast could originals like Grey’s Anatomy or Abbott Elementary be back on the air?

I would expect it’s at least a two- to three-month process. The multicamera comedies — The Conners, for instance — would be one that can get back up and running with a bit more speed than Grey’s and Station 19. If the strike were to resolve in a timely enough fashion for us to get back this fall, I would be eyeing the Wednesday comedies as a pretty organic choice to return. Those would be at the tip of the spear of the leading edge of coming back to the schedule, but every show will be different and every network is going to have a different set of circumstances to work with.

What was the strategy around making Abbott Elementary the only scripted show in repeats in the fall?

ABC has built such a behavior of viewing, and it’s hard to establish new behaviors. With linear viewing in this day and age, people are watching the way they want to. That said, there was still a remaining behavior on Wednesday nights for ABC’s comedies. … Keeping that presence of comedy that’s been built for over a decade on ABC was important. Abbott Elementary is a defining show in this landscape. I don’t think there’s a more critically acclaimed series in all of television, inclusive of streaming. Having that on the air as a representation of our brand, in a time period that has a behavior, reunited with the lead-in it had in season one and in the surroundings of another hopefully fruitful Emmy season, was a no-brainer for us.

Comedy Home Economics and The Rookie: Feds as well as five of ABC’s six pilots are still on the bubble. How much of the delayed decisions on these can be attributed to the strike?

We want to keep some flexibility and keep our options open as much as we can for the remainder of the season. The strike has definitely had an impact on the speed at which we’re going to be making some of these choices. But it’s not an indictment on either of these shows. It comes down to the individual needs of the schedule. … We’ll see what our precise needs are. We have a certain limited runway of weeks, depending on when the strike resolves. We have a lot of sports on our schedule as well going into next summer. So, everything is TBD. We’re fans of both of these shows, so I wouldn’t read too much into the lack of decision-making at this point.

ABC, like other networks, has shifted to year-round development. That helped NBC have three brand-new, homegrown scripted series for the fall. Do ABC’s five remaining pilots roll over to Pilot Season 2024?
That’s certainly on the table. We’re seeing what makes the most sense for each fiscal year. We want to make sure that the shows get the proper attention to be as strong as they can be.

If you talk about TV schedules these days, you hear a lot of, “Do time slots even matter at all in 2023?” What can you tell us about the value those things still have? And the audience to whom they have value?

I think the value is misunderstood, especially if only assessed at that kind of live-same-day level. If you look at some of the successes we’ve had leaning into the live flow that we’re able to manufacture, it helped Will Trent to launch out of a Rookie/Rookie: Feds crossover and hold on to 80 percent of that audience live. When we had Vanna White spin the wheel last week in primetime at 9 p.m., we had our most-watched Wednesday night outside of the award shows in about three years. That’s dovetailing with the great influx of audience from Jeopardy Masters. We have a lot of game shows, and we were proud of them. Scheduling absolutely matters. If you’re looking at the retention of a show based on the overnights, that’s a misleading representation of performance. The streamers see the value in adjacencies with times of year and days of the week, just as well as the linear networks do.

For much more from Goldman about ABC’s strategy, listen to the full interview in this week’s TV’s Top 5 podcast.

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