As the COVID-19 crisis enters its second month in the U.S., broadcast networks have been scrambling to fill the programming slots left open by the cancellation of live sports and create lineups that will be attractive to consumers stuck at home who are looking for entertainment options.
Meanwhile, they’re trying to plan for what will happen if the Hollywood production shutdown continues for months, which will deplete their stock of original programming and could send viewers to other outlets in search of content.
At the center of this perfect storm is the broadcast schedulers, who are juggling all these tasks as their try to steer their respective networks through the pandemic. They have always held one of the industry’s most important jobs, but with bigger stakes than ever thanks to the novel coronavirus, the fate of the entire network is in their hands. “This job has never been more important—and more stressful,” as one put it.
In addition to keeping audiences happy, schedulers also have to make decisions that will help calm nervous buyers who are unsure what kind of shows their clients will be advertising on. “If production has halted everywhere, what the heck are we going to run in, once this slew of programming runs out?” one buyer recently told Adweek. “Do they bring back movies? Do they create stuff digitally?”
While some of their cable counterparts have addressed coronavirus-related production issues by delaying several of spring’s biggest series until later in the year—including Season 4 of FX’s Fargo and AMC’s latest Walking Dead spinoff, World Beyond—the broadcast schedulers don’t have that luxury, as they are trying to lure viewers now and take advantage of the opportunity to reverse years of linear ratings declines now that TV usage is on the rise with so many Americans sheltering in place.
A scheduler’s job is to expect the unexpected, but none of them had planned for a pandemic that would shut down production potentially for several months. “We always try to have contingency plans and map out multiple scenarios, but nobody foresaw this. This is unprecedented,” said Kevin Levy, evp of program planning, scheduling and acquisitions for The CW.
Assembling a network schedule is like putting together a puzzle: determining how viewers will react to the shows and maximizing audience flow to get the highest ratings, while simultaneously planning for both the short and long term. But with no concrete idea of when production will resume, schedulers find themselves in an unfamiliar position.
“The biggest struggle in scheduling now is you have no idea what pieces of the puzzle you have. And every day, a piece falls off the table, or somebody pulls one out and puts it on the table,” said Andy Kubitz, evp of programming strategy at ABC Entertainment. “So right now, your long-term strategy is about two months and the short-term strategy is the next two days.”
Many of them have devised multiple schedules, depending on the week or month that production will be able to resume. Planning for a pandemic may be new to schedulers, but devising a variety of different scheduling scenarios is par for the course.
“That’s the nature of scheduling in general. I’ve got sheets of scenarios and schedules for many years in advance,” said Noriko Kelley, evp of programming planning and scheduling at CBS Entertainment.
They’ve been hard at work revamping their respective schedules ever since sports events were canceled three-and-a-half weeks ago as the COVID-19 crisis ramped up, when the World Heath Organization classified it as a pandemic.
CBS immediately had to find replacement programming for its March Madness games after that tournament was canceled (the network aired repeats of its primetime shows through the end of March), and other live shows were postponed like The Academy of Country Music Awards, which had been scheduled to air last Sunday (in its place, the network broadcast a two-hour ACM music special).