TV viewers face a jam-packed January
TV stars are parading through a hotel ballroom in Pasadena for the press this month, trying to persuade an army of reporters that their new winter shows are fascinating, groundbreaking, impossible to ignore.
They better hope the sales pitches stick, because it's getting hard for viewers to keep up. The next couple of months will bring season or series premieres for nearly 300 new shows on broadcast, cable and streaming platforms.
That's right. Three hundred.
"It's crazy," says Billie Gold, an audience research expert and vice president at New York ad firm Carat. "Everyone is now using the first quarter to launch shows."
While January was once a time for networks to devote special attention to midseason launches at a relatively relaxed pace, now it's a frenzied land grab. Take Fox, which on Friday arrived at the TCA TV press tour at the Langham Huntington Hotel to promote its live version of the musical "Grease," scheduled to air Jan. 31.
As a one-off, "Grease" needs all the publicity it can get, but it's competing for shelf space alongside head-spinning competition. Fox also has a splashy new drama, "Lucifer," a crime thriller based on Neil Gaiman's comics (debuting Jan. 25), and then there's FX's "The People v. OJ Simpson," the docudrama from star producer Ryan Murphy (Feb. 2). ABC has the miniseries "Madoff," about the convicted investment scammer Bernard Madoff (Feb. 3).
All this content — a small fraction of the bigger picture — is being unleashed in the days leading to Super Bowl 50 on CBS, which is likely to be the most-watched TV event of the year and possibly set another all-time record.
Feel sympathy, then, for the poor viewers struggling to catch up with Netflix's headline-grabbing, 10-part true-crime series "Making a Murderer," released right before Christmas.
"Television scheduling is now a year-round matter," says Jeffrey McCall, a media studies professor at DePauw University. "The old days of fall premieres and a few midseason replacements are long gone."
As it turns out, streaming services such as Netflix and the ever-popular pastime of NFL games may be conspiring to make January TV schedules a veritable traffic jam.
The popularity of cable and streaming seasons with 10 or 12 episodes is pushing broadcast executives to adopt that model as well. That means slowly moving away from the old method of airing 22-episode seasons and using repeats to fill slow weeks. After giving up miniseries for dead a few years ago, networks are bringing them back with a vengeance in programs such as "Madoff."
But that means more premieres to market to already-overloaded viewers, and limited airtime thanks to football. NFL games rack up big ratings and devour schedules throughout the fall.
"Football is still that one big kahuna," Gold says. "It's on Thursday nights, Monday night, Sundays. You want to take that competition out of there."
That's pushing more and more new series into the coldest months.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, Gold says. January and February typically have the highest percentage of TV usage in American homes, with millions more viewers watching than at other times. July, a prime month for family vacations and outdoor activities, has the lowest household viewing.
But the networks may be overdoing it, according to Tom Nunan, a former network boss who now teaches at UCLA's School of Theater Film and Television. "Sloppy planning" is how he described the current lineups.
Networks "used to know definitively that the schedule would be a little more clear," he says, "and that there'd be a little bit more of an opening for marketing and scheduling folks to make audiences aware of new shows."
But "everybody's using the same playbook now," he adds. "Everyone's using January as a launching point for the second wave of shows."
Given the explosion of TV programming, networks, he says, have "got to be much more opportunistic and clever about when they're launching."
Schedulers, for example, once took it on faith that the best way to launch a half-hour comedy was to put it right after an audience favorite already on the air. But in an era when viewers can easily punch up alternatives on their DVR or Roku box, Nunan says, that old approach guarantees nothing. Better now to run four straight episodes in a row, giving the new series the loudest debut possible.
"Just get the audience anchored into it," he says. "There's just so much noise that, unless you do some really unorthodox moves, you're going to get run over."
That helps explain the value of a show like "Making a Murderer" — programming that sparks so much discussion and word-of-mouth recommendation that it hardly needs a promotional press conference in a hotel ballroom.
"Because there's 300 new shows launching, something has to catch on," Gold says. "People have to start tweeting about it, or critics have to say something about it, and then people watch."