Knowing Your Audience: The Networks' Comfort Zones + What Happens When They Stray From Them

Many say that one of the main ways of making your business a success is to know your audience. All five broadcast networks have different audiences in general, so what happens when the network caters to that audience and when they stray from it? Keep reading to find out.

Comfort Zone: family comedies

Although ABC doesn't really have a particular genre of dramas that they are known for (it's more a mix of procedurals and serials), one thing ABC does know is that their audience loves family comedies. This was first demonstrated by the success of Modern Family in 2009, as well as The Middle, which also launched in 2009 but took a little while longer to be deemed a true success. In the 2013-14 season, they saw promise in The Goldbergs, which excelled as the show aired between the two aforementioned ones on Wednesdays starting in the 2014-15 season. That season also brought us Black-ish, one of the most successful shows to air after Modern Family, and Fresh Off The Boat, which defied the odds of earning an easy renewal despite having to start off Tuesdays. In the 2015-16 season, ABC kept mostly to this family comedy brand, adding on multi-cam Dr. Ken as well as Tuesday entry The Real O'Neals. While the latter didn't do that well in the ratings, it still got a renewal, and the former is the first show ever to have aired after Last Man Standing and been renewed for another season.

Of course, there have been some misfires in the family comedy department for ABC. Poorly-named Trophy Wife was an instant flop that still managed a full season, while The Neighbors did mediocre after The Middle and crashed on Friday in its second season when paired with multi-cam Last Man Standing.

What Happens When They Stray
This season, the one time they strayed from family comedy was with The Muppets, which took on a more adult tone and while sampled well, completed crashed in the following weeks. They even retooled the show, with then-President Paul Lee saying they were going to make it more family-friendly. It was too little too late by then, but it's clearly evident that he and ABC knows that their audience wants family comedies. If they wanted The Muppets to be a workplace comedy, they could go over to NBC. More on that later.

What's Next?
In the upcoming fall, ABC went for mostly family comedies. Making the fall schedule were American Housewife, which is about an imperfect mother trying to fit into a perfect town (sound familiar much?); and Speechless, about a special needs child and his family. Not so much in the spring, where they have Downward Dog, about a talking dog and his take on life with his owner; as well as Imaginary Mary, about a woman who finds herself into a family and is guided by her old imaginary friend.

They picked two or three family comedies (depending on the execution of Imaginary Mary and how much it focuses on the whole family), and now the question is if they picked up the right ones. Like last season, there seems to be zero early buzz for these new comedies, which is never a good sign. In the 2014-15 season, both Blackish and Fresh Off The Boat were surrounded by hype that none of the above shows are receiving thus far. Time will tell.


Comfort Zones: crime/cop/medical procedurals, multi-cam comedies

CBS is by far the king of crime procedurals. They've made 3 NCISs, 3 Criminal Minds, and 4 CSIs. They also have procedurals such as Hawaii 5-0, Elementary, and Blue Bloods. While some of them do just OK in the ratings, they are always reliably steady and do great in reruns. Furthermore, they provide CBS will a lot of backend revenue, as they own or partially own all their dramas and can sell them into (usually) successful syndication deals. Just like with ABC and their family comedies, not all of CBS's crime procedurals do well, but it is definitely still their safe zone.

On the comedy front, CBS typically find success in multi-cam sitcoms, which also tend to fare much better in syndication than single-cams. Coincidence? I think not. The Big Bang Theory has done wonders for them, while 2 Broke Girls and Mike & Molly are and were also solid players that are in heavy syndication rotation (though they won't be making that backend revenue). Mom will soon join the syndication crew, and new classics like Two and a Half Men and How I Met Your Mother are still very popular both online and in syndication. 

What Happens When They Stray
Of course, they don't only do cop procedurals. This season, they went a little bit outside the box with Limitless, based on a movie from last decade. While it did OK, CBS decided to cancel it. Many speculate that the network did not like the more serialized nature it took, and were not invested in it long-term considering that in general serialized shows make far less money in syndication and are tougher sells than procedurals. They also got rid of Person of Interest, which in addition to being non-owned was also a more serialized show. And perhaps their most infamous risk this season was with superhero drama Supergirl. It did OK in the ratings, but was produced but Warner Brothers and did not give CBS the young skew that had hoped for. Off to The CW you go, Supergirl. It was most likely getting renewed on one network or another, but CBS clearly didn't see a reason to invest in it long-term.

In the comedy genre, CBS has tried a fair deal of single-cam comedies to see if they can find any success stories. The renewal of Life in Pieces marks the first time CBS has renewed a single-cam in God knows when. Not only do they tend not to do as well in syndication, but they also prove to be incompatible with the rest of CBS's line-up. In recent years, they have tried shows such as one-and-done The Crazy Ones, as well as the experimental Angel from Hell, which got pulled from the schedule early despite respectable numbers. It seems clear that overall, CBS not only wants a show that will do well for them in the short term, but will also make money for them in the long-term as well. While Angel from Hell's ratings weren't bad per say, imagine the ratings after four seasons and either a nonexistent or mediocre syndication deal. 

What's Next?
CBS has zero surprises on their new schedule. They're remaking movies Training Day and MacGyver to bring more name-brands to the network. They've picked up Michael Weatherly (on NCIS) procedural Bull, as well as procedurals Doubt, Ransom, and medical procedural Pure Genius. They're bringing on Kevin James, Matt LeBlanc, and Joel McHale on board to star in three new multi-cam sitcoms. Not a single serialized show or single-cam comedy in sight. 

The CW

Comfort Zone: superhero dramas

For years, The CW has been known for its soapy, young female dramas and dramedies. Not anymore. They are becoming the Berlanti superhero network, with The Flash, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow, and now Supergirl and Riverdale. All of them film in Vancouver to help with production costs. The first three listed, which are veterans on The CW, all do relatively well in the ratings for the 10-hour network, with The Flash actually very competitive with the Big 4 in its time slot. 

What Happens When They Stray
Since they still have to fill up 10 hours in their schedule, they also have plenty of shows outside of the superhero genre. However, bar Supernatural (from the pre-CW days), none of them have exactly been ratings successes, even for The CW's standards. Dramadies Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin both get frankly terrible ratings, despite critics applauding the performances of the lead actresses. The 100 has a cult following but nothing special. Both of Julie Plec's vampire shows are dying a slow death on Fridays, while Reign has never been much of a success. And to combine their past craze (vampire shows) with their current one (superhero shows), they turned to DC Comics to create iZombie, which is doing OK but has very weak retention out of The Flash.

What's Next?
With the addition of Riverdale and CBS's Supergirl, two of The CW's four new shows will be superhero shows. It appears that The CW knows that its audience likes superhero shows, though Mark Pedowitz has claimed that they don't plan on having the entire network overtaken by the genre. Though they know their main audience, they also are providing other options, perhaps to draw in new kinds of viewers.


Comfort Zones: high-concept comedies, limited episode count dramas, young-skewing shows in general

FOX right now definitely has the most off-brand comedies. They have three returning animated shows in The Simpsons, Family Guy, and Bob's Burgers, which are also the only three animated shows on broadcast television. They are also bringing back The Last Man On Earth, a serialized half-hour that continues to defy the sitcom trope by combining dark matter with humor. And with none of them are watched live by the masses, all four of them do great in the M18-34 demo, one that most shows have an incredibly hard time hating. It's been reported that as little as 30-40% of the audiences of Bob's Burgers and The Last Man On Earth actually watch the show live, with around the same amount streaming the episode at a later date. These shows are not renewed because of stellar viewer figures; they're all flops in terms of total viewers, even The Simpsons at 61% of the league average. But considering The Simpsons is also at 236% of the league average in the M18-34 demographic, I'd say there's reason for it to stick around (among many others).

With dramas, FOX tends to do more limited episode count shows than the other networks. In recent years, they've tried with The Following, Sleepy Hollow, Almost Human, Empire, Scream Queens, and others. In fact, Gotham was originally supposed to be limited too. The first two shows listed here were breakout hits in their first season, crashed in their second season, and crashed again in their third season. These shows tend to have short-term success as they are heavily serialized, but FOX is able to make streaming deals involving the shows. Even on the comedy side they have a limited episode show in The Last Man On Earth.

What Happens When They Stray
FOX also has some on-brand comedies, and usually they are not as popular as the "off brand" ones. New Girl does well, but it's another one that is sticking around for its younger skew. This season, they premiered 4 new comedies, one of which was on brand for being off brand (follow?). All four were flops, with the majority of episodes of all of them being fractional, and with the exception of maybe Bordertown, didn't have that young skew as some other shows. Brooklyn 9-9 is sticking around as well, a workplace comedy produced by NBC Universal that airs on FOX. The show and the network don't really mesh too well, so it could be understandable why it doesn't do so great in the ratings.

On the drama side, FOX will not give up on trying to find the next big procedural. Bones has been alive forever, though they're finally retiring it in this upcoming season (until Bones: Live Another Day in February of 2024). Rosewood is an example of them trying, and when it doesn't air on the same night as Empire, the ratings are rather disastrous, and it receives very little boost beyond its Live + Same Day ratings. They've tried flops such as Backstrom as well. While sometimes procedurals do fine on FOX, FOX is no CBS when it comes to that genre, and they don't get the attention that a lot of these serialized, limited episode count dramas do.

What's Next?
FOX appears to be trying to please its audience while also trying to draw in new viewers by programming a mix of high-concept comedies and limited episode count dramas with more broad comedies and procedurals. They appear high on partly-animated Son of Zorn and gave Scream Queens a fall time slot. They also slotted Pitch for the fall, which looks to be their latest attempt at keeping the W18-34 demographic engaged. There will probably be masses of people complaining that they didn't pair it with Empire as a fellow heavily female-skewing drama, the show is very on-brand for FOX and can use Empire and Scream Queens as promotional tools given the expected overlapping audience. Also on-brand for them will be Lee Daniels' new drama Pitch, as well as Lord Miller Productions' Making History.

When talking about FOX and broad offerings, they still have plenty of them. Considering that they want a live audience watching commercials in addition to shows with solid streaming deals, they've picked up several cop procedurals, including Lethal Weapon, APB, and Shots Fired. Perhaps they are taking a page out of CBS's successful book on how to run a network. With comedy, they have The Mick, which appears to be broad and looking to appeal to a more casual audience.


Comfort Zones: workplace comedies and Dick Wolf

If any network other than CBS makes it painfully obvious that they know their audience and are focuses on catering specifically to them, it's NBC. Sure, you can't say his name on television, but Dick Wolf now has SEVEN NBC shows to his name in the upcoming season. Chicago Fire, Chicago PD, and Chicago Med will all be returning, as will Law & Order: SVU. They've also ordered Chicago Justice, anthology Law & Order: True Crime, and Law & Order: You the Jury. He currently has more presence at a single network than any other of the current greats, and this guy has been around doing wonders for NBC since 1990. There are nine hours of drama programmed on NBC's fall schedule, four of which will be dedicated to Dick Wolf. They are also expected to be the highest-rated veteran scripted shows on their schedule. On the comedy side, workplace comedies are what click for them.

What Happens When They Stray
NBC has had tremendous trouble in the comedy department these past several years, and I think I know why: they've stopped with the workplace comedies. The Office did amazing for almost a decade, Parks and Recreation followed in its footsteps, though didn't have as much of a first-run ratings presence, and 30 Rock was a critical darling that also stuck around for a while. When The Office went off the air, they invested in a sitcom based on a movie focused on a boy and his relationship to his grown neighbor, one where a bunch of standup comedians stand in the setting of a bar for 22 minutes to tell multi-cam standup jokes, and too many romantic comedies to count. Then they try a workplace comedy with Superstore, and all of a sudden they have their first comedy success in years. There was nothing bad per say about the other shows they tried, it's just not what NBC's audience was really looking for. 

For dramas, NBC actually has had some luck outside of Dick Wolf, though most of those shows got a season or so of exposure out of The Voice. The Blacklist performs OK, though nowhere near its early potential, while Grimm had done well on Fridays for years but is showing its age now. They also have Shades of Blue, which many consider a success at consistent 1.0s, though in its favor it did have a terrible time slot, unless we count people who watched American Idol on FOX beforehand and just had to see Jennifer Lopez be an American Idol judge one minute and a mom cop the next. But that can't be said for everything. The Mysteries of Laura was a save-face renewal that overachieved in its second season and still got canceled, and shows like The Player, Game of Silence, Allegiance, State of Affairs, etc just have not been working. Neither have most shows when moved away from The Voice, like Smash and Revolution. 

What's Next?
In this upcoming season, NBC is heavily focusing on catering to its current audience. As mentioned above, they picked up three new Dick Wolf dramas. They also picked up a spinoff of The Blacklist, their most successful non-Wolf drama at this time. And it seems they figured out that there is still an audience waiting for NBC to make more workplace comedies, as shown through the pickups of Powerless, Great News, and Trial & Error. The latter seems in concept somewhat in vein of The Grinder, though I think this kind of show has more of a chance of success on NBC. Why? They're the king of workplace comedies, they do them right and their audience likes it. Great News could get a second season if it does decently due to Tina Fey and NBC's lack of comedy success in general in recent seasons. The only one I'm doubting right now is Powerless, though maybe some DC fans will come check it out if their Berlanti show isn't counter-programmed on The CW (though as seen above, is a really slim chance). What is interesting though is that they are giving both post-Voice time slots to more off brand shows in Timeless and This is Us. The latter has gotten early buzz and could perhaps take off like many thought Parenthood would, while Timeless is kind of lacking right now. Something tells me it won't last a whole season in that Monday time slot. This schedule actually reminds me of ABC's from a couple seasons back (2013-14), where on-brand shows were picked up but were losing out on the priority time slots to a failed CBS pilot and other off-brand shows. It should be interesting to see how NBC does. They certain picked up the right shows, though I would have to see a midseason schedule before I could really determine if they'll take off or if they'll have to try again next season.

Final Thoughts

Thanks everyone for reading. What do you think about my commentary? Agree or disagree? Leave your thoughts and comments in the comment section below!

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