Last week, as broadcast networks tried stirring excitement with their lineups for the 2017–18 TV season, a familiar narrative emerged. The new shows, as presented in lengthy pilot trailers, were mostly white, mostly male, and mostly a mix of hilariously hokey and dispiritingly conventional. Given the comparatively ambitious offerings available on cable and streaming, it can be difficult to get excited by what these outlets are coming up with nowadays—just ask the folks trying to sell ads—but at this point the big four broadcasters seem hard-pressed to even feign passion. ABC highlighted another Shonda-like prime-time soap, Fox and ABC had new superhero properties to show off, and CBS, ignoring the recent backlash, once again showed up with a slate of new dramas and comedies free of female leads. (Also prevalent: revivals of ’90s TV favorites.) Unless you’ve been blind to the rapid ratings erosion and continued critical indifference that’s characterized network TV over the past few years, it’s hard to see what about the 2017 upfronts was meant to leave observers feeling optimistic.
The final ratings for the 2016–17 TV season, which officially concluded on Wednesday, also make it hard to understand the impulse to maintain the status quo. The two biggest scripted hourlong series of the year, by a fair margin, were This Is Us and Empire—smartly engineered family dramas always able to raise the stakes, with the former essentially adopting the latter’s path to phenomenon. Their appeal is entwined with their freshness. Whatever their flaws and limitations as broadcast products, This Is Us and Empire weren’t and aren’t like anything else on network TV, shattering illusions about what audiences will tune in for and why. They’re serialized, diverse, and, at their best, addictive soaps. They’re innovative. And they’re easily the biggest broadcast success stories of the last five years.
Overall, networks have begun acknowledging that ratings and ad revenue are no longer primary avenues to success. (CBS, as ever, is the exception: Staples like NCIS, Criminal Minds, and perennial ratings king The Big Bang Theory are still pulling in huge ratings, despite each being at least 10 seasons old.) International appeal and the price services like Netflix and Hulu will pay to add shows to their libraries are significant new barometers—even if some executives are still taking unsustainable anti-digital stances—and the syndication market, traditionally a haven for rote procedurals, is cooling off. Consider those factors jointly and the mandate for creativity seems obvious. Also consider what fared well this past season—with veteran Rhimes shows How to Get Away With Murder and Scandal still making the scripted Top 10 while other former, duller breakouts like The Blacklist and Scorpion fell behind—and it seems essential.
Yet this year’s upfronts once again indicated resistance to the new, a retreat to what worked in the past and what increasingly doesn’t work anymore. The one major change networks made from last year was the sudden turn toward military-themed patriotic fare, from ABC’s The Brave to CBS’s SEAL Team, and (even) further away from “political” content. Valorizing, uncomplicated portraits of American heroism were in high demand, an important trend to consider in light of comments made by network chiefs such as Channing Dungey, who indicated a programming shift in the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory and allegedly turned down a Muslim American family sitcom in favor of courting a more general (i.e., white) audience.
Meanwhile, several pilots believed to be in serious contention were ultimately turned down because of seeming a little too topical. ABC’s Libby & Malcolm, which starred Courtney B. Vance and Felicity Huffman as married political pundits of opposing parties, was retooled and ultimately turned down in part because of its resemblance to a “current environment of political oversaturation in a country that is deeply divided.” CBS considered the well-received Amy Brenneman–led The Get, with executives reportedly concerned about the optics of ordering exclusively male-fronted pilots to series (which they eventually did anyway),but found it wasn’t “an easy sell” as a “timely” journalism drama steeped in “the new political environment.”
It’s not surprising that networks are reluctant to embrace such purportedly contemporary premises. But it’s necessary to grapple with the fact that conventions of broadcast dramatic television are assuming new, troubling political meanings in this climate, and viewers are tuning out. CBS’s high ratings have demonstrated that, notwithstanding the latest ratings trends, there will always be room in the broadcast sphere for crime procedurals, old-fashioned multicams, and well-worn gimmicks. But season after season, audiences are telling networks they want bolder voices and different faces: more This Is Us and less Pure Genius, more Empire and less APB. To ignore that is just bad business.