'This Is a Save the Company Moment': How TV Schedulers Scrambled Amid the Pandemic to Salvage This Season

Matt Webb Mitovich
·11 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic was barely a week old when Fox moved to enlist L.A.’s Finest — meaning, Spectrum’s Jessica Alba/Gabrielle Union cop drama — to fill one of the programming holes that would inevitably be caused by the swift shutdown of TV and movie productions.

“I knew that it was [originally] developed for broadcast television, it had two stars…. So before the end of March 2020, I was negotiating for it,” Dan Harrison, the EVP of Program Planning and Content Strategy at Fox Entertainment, recalls for TVLine.

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Over the past year, the scheduling chiefs at Fox, The CW, NBC, CBS and ABC have busted out every trick in the book in the name of “keeping the lights on,” and especially during a long stretch where it was unclear when productions might resume (and how slow a trickle of episodes would then follow).

“Rudy Gobert in the NBA tested positive, [Tom] Hanks tested positive, and then everything started to get shut down,” recalls The CW‘s Kevin Levy, EVP of Program Planning, Scheduling and Acquisitions. “That affected our productions very quickly, so there wasn’t a whole lot of time to get your feet under you.”

“I realized, before we started working from home, that something big was coming,” says CBS Entertainment‘s Noriko Kelley, EVP of Program Planning and Scheduling. “People brought up comparisons to the Spanish Flu [in that] this was of a magnitude which many had never seen in their lifetime.”

In other words: With productions abruptly shuttering and the eventual availability of fresh content quite uncertain, “We knew things were going to get tricky,” says Steve Kern, SVP of Program Planning and Scheduling for NBCU Television and Streaming.

One year after the 2019-20 TV season began screeching to an early halt (as episode counts came up short) and 2020-21 became a huge question mark, TVLine invited the network schedulers to revisit their profession’s greatest challenge ever.

FORMING A PLAN OF ATTACK
Lording as they do over a more regimented annual rollout than their cable and streaming peers — gotta have that Premiere Week in the fall, you know! — the broadcast networks’ schedulers adopted similar mantras when braving this strange, pandemic-era world.

“I remember very clearly, saying, ‘This is a Save the Company moment, and we need to be decisive,'” says Fox’s Dan Harrison. “This was different than any crisis we’d been through in our careers” — the 2007-’08 Writers Guild strike included, everyone we spoke to concurred — “and the important lens to look at was that as we use options, we close off options. In other words, you can’t premiere a show twice.”

“My mantra throughout this pandemic has been one that has carried me through my life and professional career: Be fluid and flexible, while having a game plan,” says CBS’ Noriko Kelley. “It was all about great preparation… because every day, week and month are different from the world we previously knew.”

SOMETHING BORROWED, SOMETHING NEW-ISH
From go, broadcasters realized they would have to forge ahead with some of their planned Summer 2020 content, yet hold back at least a few programs to occupy far more valuable fall real estate. Over at Fox, for example, that meant pushing freshmen NEXT and Filthy Rich (which had already been collecting dust for a while) from summer to fall, as well as the next edition of Cosmos. Similarly, ABC interrupted the rollout of new episodes of Press Your Luck, Match Game and Celebrity Family Feud, to instead let Holey Moley and To Tell the Truth keep their summer slate afloat.

Over at CBS, Kelly notes, “Thankfully we were able to extend two summer realty franchises, Big Brother and Love Island, into the fall season,” helping fill the hole left by Survivor (which couldn’t be filmed during the heat of the pandemic). “We were also able to pivot by pushing Amazing Race from spring 2020 into the fall.”

Speaking to Fox’s shifts, Harrison says, “It took a little convincing in mid-March to get people on board the train — and we obviously made certain sacrifices as we moved programs out of the summer, where the ad market was under the most stress — but we decided that people would want ‘comfort food’ in the fall, so we put together a schedule that would premiere in Premiere Week.” (Revealed in mid-May ahead of any rivals’, Fox’s “pandemic-proof” plan was bolstered by two weeknights of live sports, two nights of acquired or postponed programs, and a remotely produced animated Sunday slate.)

Acquired series (such as L.A’s Finest on Fox) further stocked sparse shelves. At NBC, that meant importing the Canadian medical dramas Transplant and Nurses. CBS, meanwhile, not only beamed aboard CBS All Access’ Star Trek: Discovery, Pop TV’s One Day at a Time and Spectrum’s Manhunt: Deadly Games, but pulled from the Paramount film library to revive the Sunday Night Movie, aired primetime (and socially distanced!) editions of The Price Is Right and Let’s Make a Deal, and turned Cedric the Entertainer’s Greatest #AtHome Videos from a one-off special into an 11-episode series.

On the acquired series front, The CW enjoyed a bit of an advantage, seeing as it regularly offers the occasional Canadian charmer a Stateside home. “For us, it was less of a scramble, because we had already been doing that,” says Kevin Levy. “We had the infrastructure in place to make those deals,” including for CBC’s Coroner (“which did really well for us”) and Sky Italy’s Devils (starring Patrick Dempsey). Additionally, The CW last summer aired DC Universe’s one-and-done Swamp Thing and the first of two seasons of CBS All Access’ Tell Me a Story.

ABC, meanwhile, very early on conjured a hit with mid-April’s remotely produced Disney Family Sing-along, which drew big numbers and came at a time when America needed some cheering up; two follow-ups have since aired.

HOLDING OUT FOR (RETURNING) HEROES
When it came to returning favorites that were in assorted stages of limbo as Summer 2020 neared its end, the networks’ attack plan was two-fold: Find out what you have in inventory… and then wait, somewhat patiently, to find out when you might get more of it. On the latter front, schedulers established a far more direct communication chain with the studios that would eventually film new episodes (though at a slower, COVID-safer clip).

The situation with returning shows “was constantly changing, and you had to understand that nobody knew,” remarks The CW’s Levy. “It would seem like, ‘OK, we should be able to have those episodes ready,’ but you can’t take for granted that they will be.” Adding to The CW’s anxiety was the fact that the bulk of its programs film in Vancouver, where any cast had to spend two weeks in quarantine before even setting foot on set. What’s more, “They’re very effects-heavy shows as well,” Levy notes, “and the facilities that do that work were shut down like everything else.”

“We worked with the creative executives to get daily, sometimes hourly updates on what could air and when it’d be available,” says NBC’s Kern. But with the likes of The Voice, This Is Us and #OneChicago’s heavy hitters not trickling back until late October at soonest, “We worked backwards to fill out the ‘fall’ premiere schedule, with alternative series, acquisitions, special and news programming.”

With so much up in the air, the networks had to pick their battles. At Fox, that meant ensuring that some celebrity singers would don masks of a non-N95 variety. “The biggest stress for me — and I was rubbing every four-leaf clover and every rabbit’s foot — was that we had one show that needed to be produced for our fall schedule, and of course it’s our No. 1, most important show, The Masked Singer,” says Fox’s Harrison. “I breathed a deep sigh of relief when production on that started, and a deeper sigh of relief once it finished. We needed to get it on the air.”

While each scheduler is proud of their own decisions made in the heat of Summer 2020, they also aren’t shy about giving kudos to rivals’ smooth moves. Fox’s Harrison, for example, gives CBS props for “leaning into their All Access content, which pays dividends for them as a company,” while NBCU’s Kern singles out “how quickly CBS was able to adjust their schedule when they learned that Survivor wouldn’t be available for the entire season. To replace their Wednesday anchor was impressive.”

And yes, rivals also surprised with their decisions. “Some projects we were bidding on ended up elsewhere…,” shares The CW’s Levy. “It’s always interesting to see, ‘Oh, those guys bought it.’ And some of those choices were unexpected.”

THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW
More than a year later, the scheduling moves being made are a bit more subtle, but they are still there. Fox acquired the Canadian reality series Holmes Family Effect and slotted the America’s Most Wanted revival to plug some holes as the 9-1-1s and its Tuesday dramas entered hiatus to restock inventory. The CW had decided early on to push what would have been Q4 premieres to January 2021, but freshman hit Superman & Lois needed to press pause after five airings to let production catch up. (“We were fortunate that we had Supergirl, a very compatible program, ready to go,” Levy notes.)

But more often than not, it has been a steadier-than-usual sprinkling of reruns — sorry, encores — that have acted as scheduling extender, especially come late winter and early spring. “Basically, the scheduling of repeats was, ‘It is what it is,’ but they were helpful for stability,” concedes NBCU’s Kern. “In most cases, [ad] sales also preferred that we keep our schedule as intact as possible with repeats.” Adds Fox’s Harrison, “The repeats that [we aired] are because we didn’t get quite as many episodes as we hoped.”

LESSONS LEARNED
Everyone we spoke to concurred that many of the lessons learned during the past year only echoed what they knew to be prudent. “We [pivoted] to extreme flexibility, and that is going to be a part of our muscle memory for years to come, Fox’s Harrison observes. NBCU’s Kern, meanwhile, notes that “the pick-up and production of pilots off-cycle” — such as midseason launch Debris and the now-filming La Brea — “is something that has been evolving over the years, and that’s likely to stick as it gives development the ability to slow down and not fight everyone for the same writers, directors and actors at the same time of year.”

What else might “stick” after the dust has settled? ABC found itself scheduling back-to-back seasons of The Bachelorette for the remainder of 2021, per Whitney Holland ABC’s VP of Program Planning and Scheduling; NBC has already announced its plan to air Season 2 of Transplant; The CW’s summertime airing of the British import Killer Camp led the network to greenlight its own U.S. adaptation; and Kelley says that CBS Entertainment “will always continue to look for opportunities to work with other ViacomCBS brands and other CBS divisions.”

THE NEW NORMAL…?
As for the broadcast-TV landscape returning to a greater semblance of “normal,” possibly as soon as this fall….

“That’s the goal,” says The CW’s Levy, CBS’ Kelley is “optimistic,” and NBCU’s Kern is “operating under the assumption that television, especially production and episode deliveries,” will go back to business as usual. Then again, broadcast-TV long before the pandemic was grappling with a world dramatically changed by the proliferation of streaming and on-demand options. So maybe the year gone by has led us to “the new normal,” Fox’s Harrison suggests.

“I hope that people continue to see the value in coming together around [broadcast-TV’s] curated menu of shows” — which, Harrison suggests, is but “a recommendation engine” in today’s day and age. “All of our shows are available on-demand on various platforms, and that’s true for not just us, it’s also true for ABC, CBS, NBC, The CW…,” Fox’s scheduler notes. “There’s a value that we create, and as the business continues to evolve, we will evolve smartly with it.”

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