Every year in May, the annual upfront presentations take place in New York City, where the broadcast television networks unveil their schedules for the upcoming television season. The upfronts reveal which shows have been cancelled and which shows will be returning, but more importantly, they are used by the networks to preview their slate of new shows that will be debuting in the fall. On average, up to two dozen new shows will be competing for viewers, and therefore from that point on, the marketing machine goes into overdrive. The summer months become littered with previews, trailers, ads, and exclusives for the various new offerings, and each network does their best to convince viewers to change the channel in their favour. The competition is fierce, and the marketing schemes are often wide ranging and far reaching, but come September, all that matters is a series of reports known as the overnight ratings. Brutal? Yes, but I’ve always been fascinated by the process.
Although a smattering of new and returning shows have already made their debut earlier this month, the third week in September traditionally marks the start of a new television season, and the rollout of new and returning shows begins in earnest. This means that tonight is the night that the fun begins. It used to be that television shows could start out with soft numbers and were then allowed to gradually grow into their audience. Unfortunately, in today’s network television landscape, those days are long gone, and a show has to either put up a big number right out of the gate, or risk being yanked after only a handful of episodes have aired.
This is why the overnight ratings numbers are so important, and it means that for anyone who follows the television industry closely, the next couple of weeks are the ones to watch. As you’ve probably guessed by now, I fall squarely into this category, and these coming weeks are my favourite time of the year in terms of television. For the next couple of weeks, I will pore over the overnight ratings every morning, and from those numbers, I will try to guess what the future holds for new and returning shows alike. After all of the summer’s full throttle marketing blitzes, it fascinates me to see which campaigns worked and which shows will strike a chord with viewers, but equally interesting are the shows that barely register a blip before being unceremoniously pulled off the schedule. Television, more so than film, can act as a real time barometer of our collective conscious, and watching which shows are selected or rejected every fall is as good a commentary as any on what our society currently values.
Which brings us back to tonight. Tonight marks the beginning of a new television season, and over the next month, nearly 20 new shows will debut and compete for viewers and ratings. While many people, quite rightly, complain that the current ratings system is an antiquated and outdated form of measurement in today’s digital world, a better system has yet to materialize, and that is why for the next couple of weeks, myself, along with many nervous television executives, will be watching those ratings very closely. Some shows will be hits, some will flop, and some will balance precariously on the bubble between the two, and I love watching and waiting to see where everything lands. While there may be almost 20 new shows out there, ready to entertain me, the daily release of the overnight numbers is the real show.