Tonight marks the beginning of the 2018-19 broadcast season. Years ago, it would’ve been a big event, marking the end of four months of repeats and the return of originals to TV. For the networks, it was a make-or-break time as the overnight ratings during premiere week determined whether their new series were hits or flops.

Those days are long gone. With a slew of scripted shows being released steadily year-round by cable and streaming networks, there is far less anticipation for the crop of new and returning broadcast series. Meanwhile, overnight ratings tell only a fraction of the story as the popularity of delayed and online viewing continues to grow.

While these are issues that have been building for years, this summer marked unprecedented upheaval at the broadcast networks.

Les Moonves
Michael Buckner/Shutterstock

The top executives at the Big 4 networks who unveiled the fall lineups at the upfronts in May are either not there or on the way out as their product rolls out: CBS CEO Les Moonves recently stepped down following a slew of allegations of sexual misconduct; NBC chairman Robert Greenblatt is finalizing a deal to leave the network; Fox TV Group chairman and CEO Dana Walden is headed to Disney-ABC as part of Disney’s acquisition of Fox assets; and Ben Sherwood, co-chairman of Disney Media Networks, is preparing to exit after that deal is completed.

The unprecedented executive turmoil has been a distraction for the networks’ leadership at a time they should be solely focused on a successful fall launch. It’s impossible for that not to have an impact at a time when stakes are higher than ever for broadcast as it fights to remain relevant against rising cable and streaming challengers. Just last week, at the Primetime Emmy Awards that are carried by the Big 4 broadcast networks, they failed to win a single award in the main comedy, drama and limited series categories, and also conceded the reality competition category for just the second time.

The executive shakeup already is impacting pitch-buying for next season, with some writers and producers reluctant to sell to broadcast right now. As one leading producer put it, “The lack of leadership put in the nail coffin of broadcast TV.”

That may be an exaggeration, but broadcast networks are truly at a crossroads amid industry consolidation and a profound shift toward a direct-to-consumer model even among traditional Hollywood companies like ABC owner Disney.

Roseanne
ABC

Amid the tremendous pressure to produce hits, which are getting ever more elusive, the broadcasters were hit with a double whammy this summer: Of the two most-watched highly rated shows on network TV last season, one, ABC’s Roseanne, was canceled over a controversy involving star Roseanne Barr, and the other, CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, said it will be ending its run after efforts to get another season failed. 

Meanwhile, Fox is going through a major transformation into New Fox, loading up on football and wresting in primetime and switching from an all-single-camera to all-multi-camera comedy lineup, including the Last Man Standing revival.

As Fox is getting a makeover, ABC lost its No. 1 series, and CBS is about to lose its No. 1 series, here are some questions heading into the new broadcast season.

  1. Will ABC’s spinoff The Conners recapture the ratings magic of Roseanne?
  2. Will nostalgia and the 24-7 Trump news cycle boost CBS’ Murphy Brown revival or it would it be dented by political fatigue?
  3. Will viewers again flock to feel-good, emotional and melodramatic hourlong series the way they did the last two seasons with NBC’s This Is Us and ABC’s The Good Doctor? There are several offerings in that milieu this year including CBS’ God Friended Me, ABC’s A Million Little Things and NBC’s New Amsterdam.
  4. How will New Fox fare in its transitional year, with a programming mix that features dramas like Empire, with its flamboyant hip-hop family, and comedies like Last Man Standing, featuring a conservative protagonist who supports traditional American values?
  5. Will the reboot craze peak this season in a saturated field that includes five new revivals on broadcast TV alone: Murphy Brown and Magnum P.I. on CBS, Last Man Standing on Fox and Charmed and Roswell on the CW?
  6. After claiming bragging rights for the 52-week season, will reigning 18-49 demo champ NBC be able to successfully challenge longtime total viewers title holder CBS for the regular 2018-2019 season? CBS lost Thursday Night Football but has the final season of Big Bang Theory, which is expected to draw big numbers, starting with its premiere tonight.