Every May, the TV networks announce their fall schedules to advertisers at an event called the upfronts. They aim to sell their new shows to ad buyers at the highest possible price, while the ad buyers try to stay skeptical. It's an antiquated ritual that, nonetheless, is enormously important to the business of TV, and we'll be there all week.
ABC had a really rough 2015-'16 season. The network saw plenty of long-running hits bleed viewership all over the place. The ratings for its fairy tale drama Once Upon a Time, for example, fell from nearly 6 million viewers for the season premiere to barely over 4 million for the finale — and this is a show that pulled in well over 10 million viewers at its height.
ABC underwent a major change in leadership as president Paul Lee exited (he was replaced by Channing Dungey). And it canceled so many shows, including long-running stalwarts like Nashville and Castle and the once much-buzzed-about The Muppets.
Yet if you look at the network's new schedule, it's not all that different from the one that made the 2015-'16 season so difficult. Why is that? Well, because even though ABC has serious trouble spots, it knows that changing things too much could make them even worse.
Here are five things to know about the network's plans for fall.
1) The appearance of stability is everything
Both Fox and ABC are coming off tough years, yet both networks are doing their very best to set up fall schedules that change surprisingly little, making it clear they view stability as the next big thing. And there's plenty of wisdom in that idea. If you've got an audience that watches one of your shows live — even if that audience is a small one — why would you risk losing them by moving the show?
This concept applies to all shows, big and small. Fox should probably move Empire to 8 pm, so it could lead into another show at 9. But the network is loath to do so, because moving Empire might sacrifice some of its audience, and every viewer counts.
That's especially true for ABC, which has several issues to deal with that have nothing to do with sinking ratings.
For one thing, it won't have Scandal in the fall, due to star Kerry Washington's pregnancy, and though the show has lost substantial portions of its viewership since its peak, it's still one of the network's top performers. That means Notorious, a completely new show, is going to step into the normal Scandal slot of 9 pm on Thursdays, and ABC is going to have to spend lots of time getting viewers used to the idea of it.
Thus, many of ABC's other nights — including Sunday, which has been spiraling for months now — are virtually unchanged, or changed only in cosmetic fashion. In an age when there's so much TV and viewers are able to watch it however they want, there isn't much room to experiment. Even if "stable" means "really bad ratings," you still know what you're going to get. That's not nothing.
2) ABC is betting comedy will be its savior
This is actually really smart. Last season, ABC aired two hours of comedy on Wednesday, one hour on Tuesday, and one hour on Friday. For 2016-'17 it's keeping the Wednesday and Friday blocks and adding an hour to Tuesday, but shifting the stable The Middle to Tuesday nights. This means it only has to promote one new comedy on both Tuesdays (American Housewife) and Wednesdays (Speechless) and no new comedies on Fridays.
What's more, as a comeback strategy, this makes sense. Even though most of the network's drama lineup has collapsed, its family comedies tend to do pretty well, and shows like Fresh Off the Boat and The Goldbergs have proved they can hold their own (which is why both are now leading their respective hours, instead of hanging in the more comfortable half-hour slot).
Meanwhile, the network's comedy development team is strong and has put some real effort into finding new ways to enliven the seemingly staid format. Looking ahead, ABC seems most excited about Speechless, a series about a family living with a special-needs child. Not all of ABC's new comedies are quite as promising — American Housewife looks like television's umpteenth variation on the tired "She just doesn't fit in in the suburbs!" premise — but it's not for a lack of trying.
The network also has a pair of higher-concept shows — one about, uh, a woman who still sees her imaginary friend, and one about a talking dog — on deck for midseason, so if family comedy crashes and burns, at least there will be weird, magical beings.
But I would wager this succeeds, more or less. Dungey has bet that if ABC returns to its greatest glory, comedy will be what brings it back. And given the evidence from this season, that's not a bad assumption to make.
3) ABC is really into diversity, even in tough times
ABC didn't just have Dungey (the first black woman to be a broadcast network president) touch on diversity during her remarks at its upfront presentation. Nor did it rely on Quantico star Priyanka Chopra (who served as an informal master of ceremonies for the event) to be the face of its ongoing commitment.
No, it had Disney-ABC Television Group president Ben Sherwood — about as stereotypical a white-guy suit as you could imagine — stand up in front of advertisers and proclaim the network's dedication to making sure its wares reflect the face of America.
Now, to some degree, this is just smart business. ABC seemed like it was in a good place as recently as 2014-'15, largely thanks to embracing shows with diverse leads like Scandal and Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat. It would be sort of silly to abandon the strategy wholesale after one hard year.
But it's also the kind of sell that the network needs to keep making to advertisers, who are notoriously skittish about stepping away from of targeting the demographics they're most used to targeting.
That ABC put diversity front and center, while continuing to put its money where its mouth is by programing shows that feature female and nonwhite leads, suggests it's more devoted to these ideals than its companion networks.
4) Hey, did you know Grey's Anatomy is still huge?
Okay, "huge" is a bit of a misnomer. But after 12 seasons on the air, the stalwart medical drama is once again ABC's biggest drama, thanks to the fading of Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder.
In fact, I wonder if ABC would have had more luck moving Grey's to 9 pm while Scandal paused to accommodate Washington's pregnancy, while putting, say, Fresh Off the Boat and The Real O'Neals in the 8 pm hour. That would create a bit of a comedy pile-up on Thursdays at 8 (with both CBS and NBC also airing comedies in that time period), but ABC's would at least be family comedies (unlike CBS or NBC's offerings), ones that could easily decamp to another night when Scandal returned in the winter.
But, again, ABC decided to bet on Notorious (which is not from Shonda Rhimes, for what it's worth) in the Scandal slot. Maybe that's a better idea. But I still might have given Grey's a whirl.
5) Designated Survivor looks pretty damn good
ABC won a bidding war for the new drama pilot when its script — with Kiefer Sutherland attached to star — was shopped around earlier in the year. And when the network presented much of the pilot's opening act at its upfront, it became clear why.
The show blends an irresistible premise — a random Cabinet secretary becomes president after a bomb takes out nearly every member of the US government at the State of the Union address — with a role Sutherland will be able to play in his sleep, in that it features plenty of yelling.
But I'll admit I was pretty sucked in by what ABC showed of the series. Obviously the pilot could stink, and the show's premise will be tough to sustain; Designated Survivor will almost inevitably become another "inner workings of the US government" show in an era when we have a surprising number of them. But I'm in to watch the Kief rebuild the government with his bare hands and the strength of his shouty voice for at least a season or two.