So much of the way the TV industry works seems antiquated, and nowhere is that more evident than the tradition of Premiere Week — that seven-day stretch in late September when the broadcast networks debut new seasons of most of their new and returning fall shows. It’s the start of the TV season, and everyone wants to come out of the gate strong.
So, starting Sept. 19, the Big Four broadcast networks will cram the premieres of around 50 shows into a single week, from Monday through Sunday.
It’s a strategy that might seem impossibly dated in an on-demand age in which audiences choose when and where they watch. No one can possibly watch all of these shows, and just naming them would stretch the mental capacity of even someone who works in the industry. Meanwhile, the number of people watching TV during even this most hallowed of weeks is shrinking — particularly those advertiser-coveted viewers under 35.
So why create intense competition? Why not spread things out?
It turns out, there’s a very good reason why Premiere Week is still a thing. There is a method to the seeming madness and, perhaps counterintuitively, our current on-demand world works in the networks’ favor, allowing viewers to catch up on what they might have missed or heard about belatedly through word-of-mouth. Plus, there’s still big advertising money in Premiere Week. Live viewership is down to skull-clutchingly low levels compared even just to a few years ago, but it’s not gone.
And, says CBS scheduler-in-chief Kelly Kahl, never doubt the power of tradition. People have been conditioned to expect this big bonanza.
“The audience is becoming used to seeing new shows year-round,” Kahl acknowledges. “But the vast majority of people know fall means football, it means school’s back; the leaves are changing, and all the new TV shows come on. Especially for the broadcast networks, that’s something we have that others don’t.”
That audience conditioning began in the early 1960s. ABC, looking to Hoover up more ad dollars from automakers, created the concept of a single Premiere Week in the fall that would help boost car sales at a critical point in the year. The other networks followed suit.
There had been some movement away from crunching everything into a single week in recent years for the broadcasters. For CBS, which also has the added roadblock of five Thursday Night Football games, that means 10 premieres during the first week of the season, while 13 other shows will bow after.
“You want to premiere your shows and give them a nice, long, uninterrupted run,” Kahl says. “That was a little harder to do this year,” with impending presidential debates and other election coverage.
Fox, though, will premiere its entire fall slate — all 16 shows — between Sept. 19 and 25.
Tradition is a compelling argument, but it has nothing on money. While the industry is still undergoing a sea change, much of the money brought in by these shows is sold a few months before in a massive ad cash grab called the upfronts, and advertisers have their own goals they need TV advertising to meet.
“As long as advertising is a major portion of our business, there will be an upfront — and as long as you have an upfront, you’ll have fall premieres,” Kahl says. “It’s simply the rhythm of the TV business.”