During a week in Manhattan, Simon Shaps wonders if reviving old shows is enough to reignite US network television
There is something borderline voyeuristic about being in New York for the annual Upfronts, the week-long jamboree when the US networks present their shiny new schedules to advertisers.
I am not here to attend the Upfronts but – like the NYU graduation ceremony I watch in Yankee Stadium (my daughter is there somewhere among the 16,000 members of the Class of 2016) – it is obvious that Americans do these big events better than anyone else.
The scale of the networks’ annual Manhattan party, the parade of celebrities and the lavishness of the hospitality, though, cannot disguise the malaise that is affecting network TV in the US. The advertising dollars continue to roll in, but the conversation has shifted elsewhere.
The headline in The New York Times is: “Laying a big bet on nostalgia, TV revisits its past in hopes of securing its future”. Prison Break, 24 and Gilmore Girls are all to be revived, although it is also announced that ABC’s boldly revived The Muppets is to be axed.
It is as if the flood of revivals is a way of duping the audience into thinking that the on-demand revolution never happened. And that familiar titles from the past will reverse audience decline and get families to gather round the television, as they used to do.
David Madden, President of Entertainment at Fox, is quoted in The New York Times: “We are not saying we are out of the original-idea business.”
Of course, the revival game is not limited to the major networks. Manhattan is plastered with posters for A&E’s remake of the 1977 mega-hit Roots, which launched at the end of May, on Memorial Day.
It is a big swing for A&E. The original series was watched by around 130 million people. Getting more than 10% of that audience today would probably count as success.
On a sunny day, I head over to 30 Rock (NBC’s Rockefeller Plaza HQ) to have lunch with Deborah Turness, President of NBC News.
It seems a long way from her days at ITN in Gray’s Inn Road, where we last met. Deborah seems in her element here.
Ratings have improved since she arrived and she is approaching the task of creating new revenue streams from her output with huge appetite.
Equally important, Deborah herself is no longer the story, as she was for several months when Nightly News anchor Brian Williams was suspended for six months for fabricating a story.
Williams is now back on air at MSNBC, and NBC’s decision to replace him with Lester Holt, the US’s first African-American network evening-news anchor, has helped NBC News to top the ratings.
My final meeting of the week involves a visit – for the very first time – to the News Corp Building on Avenue of the Americas.
Having passed the 45-storey tower many times over the years, I am not sure why I have never been inside before now. Quite possibly, nobody ever invited me.
This time, I am meeting a couple of super-smart “scouts”, who are looking for books to feed Fox’s film studios. They get excited about one title, whose author I have got to know over the past year or so. Perhaps I will be invited back.
For more years than I can remember, I have been addicted to my daily fix of the overnight ratings. As I get on a plane at JFK, I take a quick look at the previous night’s numbers.
One story stands out: the audience of close to 1 million that watched BT’s coverage of the Europa League final on YouTube. While the traditional TV networks roll out their revivals – aka “reboots” – the future shape of television is becoming clearer.
Simon Shaps is the founder of Simon Shaps Ltd.