“Just Keep The Lights On”: Inside Network TV’s Fall Strike Plan

The Golden Bachelor; Yellowstone. Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photos: ABC; Paramount

Network TV has spent the last decade struggling to stay relevant in the midst of the streaming tsunami. But as the new TV season officially gets underway Monday, broadcasters will now find themselves battling to simply stay afloat: Because their corporate owners have been unable to reach a settlement with striking writers and actors, the usual parade of new and returning comedies and dramas that traditionally kicks off the fall has mostly been canceled. Instead, the Big Four will try to hold on to what’s left of their dwindling (though still sizable) core audience with patchwork lineups heavy on reality competitions and game shows, along with a handful of scripted series imported from Canada and other English-speaking countries. As one network insider puts it, “The goal is going to be just to keep the lights on as best you can.”

This isn’t the first time the networks have had to grapple with an autumn apocalypse. The summer 1980 SAG/AFTRA strikes weren’t settled until October, which meant big hits like Laverne & Shirley, Charlie’s Angels and M*A*S*H* didn’t start their new seasons until mid-November. Similarly, the WGA walkout of 1988 — settled in early August — meant your grandma was waiting until the end of November for Matlock to return (though thankfully many shows were back by mid-October). But things are already much worse this time: Even if both strikes were somehow settled next week — almost surely impossible — most industry insiders believe the amount of lead time needed to write new episodes and get shows back into production, along with the networks’ general aversion to launching new shows in December, means we’re looking at January as the earliest start date for a pared-down half-season of network hits. So while it’s still quite possible we’ll get a traditional winter and spring 2024 TV calendar, fall TV as we’ve known it for 75 years has already been canceled.

And yet, in another sign of the diminished role of broadcast TV in the entertainment ecosphere, this grim reality isn’t causing the same outward signs of panic in Hollywood you might have seen even 20 years ago. Streamers like Netflix, Max, and Prime Video obviously aren’t in the network business at all, and (at least for now) still have shows stockpiled for the fall. And at companies which do have broadcast networks in their portfolio (Disney, Fox, NBCUniversal, and Paramount GlobalWhile), that part of their business simply isn’t as important as it used to be. So while the people who still toil at the Big Four day-to-know know how grim the next few months could get, their bosses higher up the corporate food chain are far more focused on figuring out how to make their struggling streaming platforms profitable. It’s not that they don’t care about network TV at all; they’re just busy putting out even bigger fires.

Still, there are signs the big wigs at legacy companies are starting to come to grips with the dangers of going into the fall with very little-to-no new scripted fare. Disney, for example, this week decided to risk the wrath of its cable affiliate partners when it announced that most of ESPN’s Monday Night Football schedule would be simulcast on ABC. That’s not something you do unless you’re worried about how far the Alphabet network’s ad sales numbers might be down absent a primetime NFL jolt. Earlier this month, we also saw Fox decide to delay the new season of game show I Can See Your Voice and replace it with encore episodes of Lone Star: 9-1-1. It might seem odd to pull an original unscripted series in favor of reruns, but Fox literally has no other live-action scripted series on its slate this fall. The repeats will likely do about as well (or maybe even better) than the game show, and more importantly, will keep the network’s biggest scripted hit in the public eye until it (maybe) returns early in 2024.

These schedule shuffles also underscore that, even if ratings expectations for the fall have been adjusted (way) down, the execs charged with programming and scheduling the broadcast nets remain as competitive as ever and are hoping to, at the very least, minimize the expected Nielsen carnage. “It’s going to be a difficult fall for everyone, but they really do have to try to make lemonade out of the lemons they have,” one industry veteran says. Beyond trying to keep viewership from falling too far over the next few months, the other big goal is simply to keep people in the primetime network ecosystem, period. “The long-term damage is if people don’t come back,” the network insider says, adding that while further audience erosion is a real possibility, he still believes there’s “a resiliency to network TV” that will allow it to continue to put up a fight once a deal with the WGA and SAG gets done.

That might sound overly optimistic, and perhaps it is. And yet it’s worth noting that a rerun of the 2018 pilot for Yellowstone drew more than six million viewers this Sunday on CBS. It obviously had a huge lead-in from the NFL and 60 Minutes, and the advantage of being quite literally the most-watched franchise on linear TV right now. For all their many, many woes, networks still have the ability to aggregate huge audiences with the right programs, and they still collectively account for nearly half of all U.S. TV viewing that takes place weekly. The absence of hit scripted shows will cause real pain for broadcasters and will certainly push more viewers to break their network TV habits and more fully embrace streaming. But odds are, this fall won’t be a completely fatal blow for the medium.

While the strike is denying all the networks new episodes of their scripted hits, each of the Big Four is taking a very different approach to adapting to the fall’s reality. With apologies to the CW, whose first-run content often draws fewer viewers than reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond on TV Land, here’s how each of the four major networks is hoping to weather the storm ahead.

ABC: All unscripted, all the time — and Monday Night Football

Last May, the Disney-owned network announced a fall lineup which anticipated no new scripted shows but at least contained one big returning hit, albeit in reruns: Two weekly encore episodes of Abbott Elementary were slotted for the 9 p.m. Wednesday hour. But ABC has since switched course, and will instead go without any scripted series content in the fall, even in rerun form. Instead, the network is hoping the addition of Monday Night Football games will lure in so many viewers — and advertisers — it will make up for the lack of scripted shows. “The NFL covers a multitude of sins,” an exec at a rival broadcaster quips.

As for the rest of the week, ABC will lean heavily on game shows (celeb editions of Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, Press Your Luck, and $100,000 Pyramid) and its big unscripted franchises. On Thursdays, ABC will make a run for the roses with a full night of Bachelor Nation programming: The AARP-friendly Golden Bachelor will start off the night at 8 and be followed by the sexcapades of Bachelor in Paradise. Because it’s the first big spin-off of the franchise in a bit, and actually has the audacity to acknowledge people over 60 exist (and are horny), there’s a very good chance Golden Bachelor puts up decent (and maybe even big) numbers when it premieres next week. It’s smart of ABC execs to realize that older people still watch network TV and like to see themselves represented on reality shows, too. What’s less certain is whether audiences stick around once the curiosity factor wears out, and whether the show’s format works when participants are not the mentally immature, made-for-reality-TV Youngs who generally populate these shows. ABC had also planned on having Dancing With the Stars return from its one-season exile on Disney+ next week, but dogged WGA picketers prompted some talent to pull out (for now) and barring some new development, the show won’t go on as planned. Odds are, the network will find some way to get the series on its schedule by next month, either because the WGA reaches a deal or the network proceeds with non-SAG talent.

On paper, ABC’s schedule is sad as hell for anyone who expects network TV to be all about comedies and dramas first, even if there’s clearly an important role for unscripted. That said, the Alphabet network has been smart in picking out its most premium unscripted shows (including Wheel and Jeopardy!) for the fall, and Golden Bachelor feels like the kind of show which could end up becoming a breakout hit, particularly given the lack of huge scripted competition. Having Monday Night Football and (maybe, eventually?) Dancing With the Stars at the start of the week also gives ABC two big tentpoles in which to promote the rest of the week’s lineup. So while this lineup is a bit depressing, it probably won’t be a disaster — and in the best case scenario, ABC expands the Bachelor franchise with a new hit.

CBS: Synergy reigns supreme

Those aforementioned Yellowstone numbers this past Sunday no doubt have Eye execs hopeful their MacGyver-ed fall lineup can do okay, and given how reliable the network’s audience has been over the years, that hope isn’t totally misplaced. Repurposing programming is a big theme for CBS this fall, beyond the borrowing of Paramount Network’s smash hit. A show that was headed for Paramount+, NCIS: Sydney, has been redirected to the Eye’s Tuesday night lineup, while season five of SEAL Team — the former CBS drama which jumped to P+ — will get a broadcast window on Thursdays in November. Meanwhile, the first two episodes of the new Frasier sequel will air on CBS before the show permanently settles in on P+. And early seasons of the U.K. version of Ghosts (which inspired CBS’s hit remake) will haunt Thursday nights in the fall, along with reruns of the American edition of the franchise.

CBS is also helping fans of its scripted shows ease the withdrawal pains they’re feeling given it’s been over four months since they last had original episodes to watch. In addition to Ghosts encores, reruns of Blue Bloods, FBI, NCIS, and Young Sheldon will all be part of the weekly mixNetwork reruns don’t draw as many viewers as they once did now that folks can stream on demand, but CBS’s shows perform a bit better in repeats than other networks. (And as NBC once reminded audiences in the 1990s, “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you.”) So while they won’t do anywhere near the numbers first-run programming would, it wouldn’t be surprising if these repeats still pull in respectable ratings. Survivor and the remaining weeks of Big Brother also figure to give CBS more than a few eyeballs, as will primetime editions of The Price is Right and Let’s Make a Deal. Less likely to connect are some of the new unscripted shows CBS is planning, like Buddy Games and Lotería Loca. Overall, the Eye should be able to power through the next few months well enough, even if year-to-year Nielsen comparisons probably won’t be pretty.

NBC: Strike? What strike?

Give former NBCUniversal content chief Susan Rovner big points for thinking ahead: Perhaps knowing a strike was likely, she and team wisely moved up production schedules for several shows and held episodes of others back so that NBC would be prepared if production in Hollywood shut down. It did, and the Peacock network is ready: It will have fresh episodes of five scripted shows this fall: three returning series (Quantum LeapMagnum P.I., and Transplant) and — shocked face emoji — two newcomers (The Irrational and Found). NBC is even treating its newbies like potential hits rather than strike burnoffs, scheduling both behind episodes of The Voice. And because Dick Wolf must get paid (even if only in residuals), reruns of his Chicago and Law & Order franchises will air for an hour on Wednesday and Thursdays, respectively. Throw in staples like Sunday Night Football  and Dateline, and that’s pretty much it: No stunts, no gimmicks, no oddball new reality or gameshow concepts filling time.

Obviously what’s missing is pretty big: Six hours of first-run content from the aforementioned Wolf series. The Chicago shows give NBC the most-watched night on TV, and their absence will surely be felt in the network’s overall numbers. But this lineup looks and feels like a pretty typical network TV content mix, with scripted, reality, news and game shows. It might not be Must-See TV, but if the other networks are serving up store brand lemonade this fall, NBC is rocking the Country Time that tastes like good old-fashioned fall TV. 

Fox: Reality domination with a Sunday toon-up

First, the good news for fans of Fox: Animated shows are produced so far in advance, so The Simpsons, Family Guy, and Bob’s Burgers will all be back on Sunday nights as usual. There’s even a new show from Dan Harmon called Krapopolis. And if you’re into the network’s reality staples like The Masked Singer and Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen/Kitchen Nightmares shoutfest, then those will be there, too. All should continue to do fine for the network, which in recent years has pared down to just a couple of live-action scripted shows every quarter and overall operates with smaller budgets and adjusted expectations.

But not having any new scripted programming will still sting. Those aforementioned 9-1-1: Lone Star reruns started this Tuesday and the results were … the opposite of Yellowstone. Only 892,000 viewers showed up for the encore, which even for Fox in 2023 isn’t great. Worse, the season premiere of lead-in Name that Tune barely got one million viewers and had a demo rating half of its already meh numbers from January.

Odds are also against the new unscripted series Fox is rolling out next week, Snake Oil: As one industry insider notes, it’s very rare these days that new reality shows which aren’t part of an existing franchise manage to connect when they launch in the fall. Perhaps the lack of big scripted competition will help, but it faces an uphill road. Overall, Fox will probably be OK, since as noted, it is already running lean these days. But getting audiences to tune in outside of Sunday is going to be a very tough challenge for the network.

“Just Keep The Lights On”: Network TV’s Fall Strike Plan