Repeats, Reality and ‘Yellowstone’: How Network TV Is Marketing Fall Lineups Without Many Scripted Favorites

Here we are, just days away from the start of the 2023-24 television season… and the major networks still aren’t 100% sure what they’re doing. Just last week, several broadcasters scrambled to make even more last minute schedule changes — on top of other recently announced tweaks. The fall lineups that viewers tune into later this month will be remarkably different than the ones first announced in May.

At CBS, the Paramount+ Australia import “NCIS: Sydney” has suddenly landed on our shores, and will run on Monday nights. Fox just decided to push the return of its unscripted music gamer “I Can See Your Voice” to midseason and replace it with “9-1-1: Lone Star” repeats on Tuesdays. The CW made the snap decision to swap its Monday and Thursday slates after ABC had created a last-minute Thursday night “The Golden Bachelor”/”Bachelor in Paradise” one-two punch. And speaking of the Alphabet network… earlier this week, it moved “Dancing with the Stars” to Tuesdays, meaning it still hasn’t announced its Monday night plans beyond the first night of the TV season.

More from Variety

According to Nielsen, the fall TV season officially begins Sept. 25. Normally, the primetime lineups would have been locked months ago, and fall marketing campaigns would already be well underway. Billboards and bus wraps touting new and returning series would be seen all over Los Angeles and around the country. Promos would be filling the airwaves and social media would be flooded with tune-in details. But of course, fall 2023 is not a normal season.

“It just feels like almost every year something gets thrown at us that that is a curveball,” says CBS chief marketing officer Mike Benson, who notes that it wasn’t that long ago we were dealing with pandemic production delays that also led to a jumbled fall. “From a marketing perspective, it’s really not about telling people what they aren’t going to get. It’s more about managing expectations as to what they will get.”

The dual WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes halted production on scripted series this summer — forcing a pivot at the traditional broadcast networks toward fall schedules filled with reality fare, game shows, sports, repeats and acquisitions from various streaming and international sources.

“We still have a fall schedule to promote, so we’re still doing all the things,” says Shannon Ryan, Disney Entertainment Television president of marketing, whose oversight includes ABC. “We’re still creating the key art and we’re cutting the promos, and we’re scheduling the promos, and we’re posting the social assets and we’re baking the media campaigns. We’re still doing the press junkets it’s just with unscripted talent.”

That’s also the view from Fox Entertainment marketing president Darren Schillace, who notes that the September launch is still a go — it’s just very different in the wake of the strikes.

“It’s not like this fall is on hold, it’s just a heavy unscripted skew,” he says. “I use my mom as a focus group. If she’s heard about this strike, everybody has. We’re very clear that everything that we’re promoting this fall new, new, new. You can’t say enough. You have to reinforce these aren’t repeat shows.”

Except for the fact that most of the networks are airing repeats — some more than others. Through a mix of strategic planning and pure luck, NBC heads into fall with a schedule that most looks like its normal design.

“We are really uniquely positioned to make it feel like fall is back,” she says. “I look at our slate as one of the only places where new scripted dramas launching, so obviously we’re leaning into that. Given that there’s less competition, the lanes are a little bit clearer,” says Margaret Walker, SVP of NBC brand strategy and audience growth.

The network won’t have new episodes its Dick Wolf-fueled “Law & Order” and “One Chicago” shows (it’s airing reruns of both), but it does have new episodes of returning series “Quantum Leap” and “Magnum P.I.,” in addition to new dramas “The Irrational,” with Jesse L. Martin, and the Shanola Hampton-led “Found.” Add in four (!) hours of “The Voice” (featuring new judge Reba McEntire), Sunday Night Football and a new Saturday night Big 10 college football package, and Walker likes the hand she’s been dealt.

“A lot of folks are like, ‘are you not busy?’ But there are shows on our air, we have a lot of new stuff to launch,” Walker says. “So while the environment in which we are operating in presents unique challenges, it is like the same. We’ve got a lot of tools in our toolkit, and so while we’re not using some of those tools, we’re full boar on all the other ones and it feels like a real fall.”

Schillace notes that Fox also has new scripted episodes via its Sunday night “Animation Domination” block, including “The Simpsons,” “Bob’s Burgers,” “Family Guy” and long-gestating Dan Harmon half-hour “Krapopolis,” which was originally slated to premiere last year and has been promoted for over a year. Unscripted returnees include “The Masked Singer” and the Gordon Ramsay stable of food shows — including “Kitchen Nightmares,” with its first new episodes in a decade.

“We are very lucky, going into this fall, Fox is up 5% year over year and we’re starting in a place of positivity, as well as having college football, pro football, the World Series,” he says.

At CBS, the priority is to keep Sunday afternoon NFL a powerhouse, along with supersized 90-minute editions of “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race” on Wednesdays. The Eye is also hoping to turn viewers on to the international versions of its popular franchises with “NCIS: Sydney” and the U.K. edition of “Ghosts.” The schedule rounds out with a ton of reality — and then repeats of Paramount Network’s “Yellowstone” on Sundays.

Benson is bullish on “Yellowstone” — although it ended last season as TV’s most-watched scripted show, he has stats that show it’s still an unknown commodity to his audience. “80% of the CBS audience has never seen an episode of ‘Yellowstone,’” Benson says. “We want to remind the audience that it’s not only a phenomenal show, but it’s a cultural phenomenon.”

CBS is creating an “NCIS Day” on Sept. 25 — the first night of the season — to promote the franchise’s 20th anniversary. The Eye also has a new “Survivor” campaign in the works and is unveiling a social media initiative dubbed “Hi, CBS.”

And then there’s ABC, where “The Golden Bachelor” is a priority. Ryan says plans include screenings of the series in more than 200 retirement communities, as well as a partnership with USA Pickleball (sponsoring tournaments around the country) and “golden discount” deals for all ages (think “senior discounts,” but for anyone) via partnerships like Uber Eats, Cinnabon and 1-800 Flowers.

“We’re working with these ‘grandfluencers,’ who are these amazing, delightful people that have massive followings on Tik Tok and Instagram,” she says. “We’re creating a golden glow-up Snapchat lens. We’re really leaning in hard on that show, because we feel it has an opportunity to bring in an audience just like we would on a regular fall scripted show.”

The networks are doing all of this with an acknowledgement that they may have a heavier lift if and when their regular scripted shows return in midseason. At Fox, Schillace says he has developed “continuity campaigns” to make sure people don’t forget about series like “The Cleaning Lady,” which aired its last original at the end of 2022. “That’s a long time between seasons,” he says. “Back in our youth we would have summer repeats, and that’s not the case now. We’re very strategically finding times of the year to partner with Hulu, with our studios, in keeping a pulse on shows that would normally go quiet.”

Hulu also falls under Ryan’s oversight, giving her the opportunity to promote both current and library ABC content (as well as shows that are produced by its sister studio).

“It’s an opportunity to remind fans that they can start from the beginning and rewatch their favorite shows, and catch up on episodes or shows that they may have missed during the season,” she says. “We’re using the Hulu brand to  get people to catch up or potentially start from the beginning, because there won’t be those scripted fall shows coming in September, like they’re used to.”

(Think of all of this as a modern-day version of NBC’s infamous 1990s campaign to promote repeats: “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you!”)

The marketing execs are also having to contend with promoting some of their fall wares without the help of talent. Reality hosts and contestants are still able to participate, since they’re under a different SAG-AFTRA contract, but there’s a limit to how much people feel comfortable with doing right now.

And the usual fall photo and promo shoots were mostly out of the question this time (no “mondo shoots,” as they’re called in the biz), as are fall preview specials. “We tried to find a different approach,” Benson says. “We do have to work through some of the things that we just aren’t doing this year.”

Schillace says he has worked out multiple scenarios for how to promote the rest of the season once production resumes. “I have five different plans based on when the strike may end,” he says. “Everyone’s got their plan of attack. It’ll be purely ‘go’ mode.”

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Click here to read the full article.