Different network executives have different buzzwords or phrases they like to lean on at upfront time. When Les Moonves was more day-to-day with CBS primetime, for instance, he loved to pepper his remarks to the press and advertisers with “make no mistake” and “clearly.” For the last few years, ABC's Paul Lee has gone strong with “delicious” to describe anything he likes. But the Word of the Day for Lee's press call to discuss next season's schedule (Fienberg has all the details here) was “gap,” as Lee talked about all the timeslots that will be shared next season, as one show fills the gap while another takes a break at mid-season.
Among the partners in time: “Agent Carter” once again minding the gap for “Agents of SHIELD” on Tuesdays at 9, the surprising return of “Galavant” to occupy the “Once Upon a Time” slot on Sundays at 8, “Secrets & Lies” shifting to Wednesdays at 10 to give “Nashville” a winter breather, new drama “Wicked City” filling in for new drama “Quantico” on Tuesdays at 10, “The Real O'Neils” arriving on Tuesdays when “The Muppets” take a break (albeit arriving at 8:30, while “Fresh Off the Boat” will briefly slide up to 8 in the “Muppets” timeslot), “Uncle Buck” swapping in for “Dr. Ken” on Fridays at 8:30 and new drama “The Family” for “Of Kings and Prophets” on Sundays at 10.
(Also, though Lee wasn't entirely clear on this for reasons we'll get to in a moment, it sounds like the new Shonda Rhimes-produced “The Catch” will air Thursdays at 10 when “How to Get Away with Murder” wraps up its second season.)
This isn't a new strategy for ABC, as they've been doing it for a few seasons now, and have a couple of shows in “Agent Carter” and “Galavant” performing the same duty next season that they did in this one. But it's becoming more and more of an institution there, and the network's gotten smarter about how it deploys these gap shows. (A couple of years ago, ABC tried and failed putting spin-off “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland” on its own on Thursdays; in retrospect, that would have obviously been an easy fill-in for the parent show on Sundays.) As Lee noted on the press conference call, “The first time I did this, I don't think we quite got right what we would do in the break.”
Now, though, “We felt the old model of original-original-repeat-repeat-repeat-original just didn't reflect the way we were watching television,” he explained. “We all love to watch a run, particularly our serialized shows. And we are trained now to take a break… So that notion of taking a full season, running it, then resting it, then bringing it back, allows us to end a series with real momentum.”
Of course, doing this first requires the non-gap show to do well enough to not need early replacing, and it requires the gap show to hold onto enough of the audience that there won't be a panic to pull it sooner. But ABC also has some mid-season shows with no planned home as of yet – including the second season of “American Crime,” which will, like “American Horror Story,” bring back several actors in new roles for a new story – so it has options.
“I think you're seeing us hone that mid-season strategy,” Lee said. “When you look at the quality of the gap shows, 'Wicked City' is a crazy good pilot. 'Secrets & Lies' was a hit for us. So you're seeing us put quality shows in the gap as well as on the rest of the season.”
Of course, it helps to analyze this strategy if you know how many episodes each show will be doing in a season, but Lee was reluctant to discuss any numbers at all, whether for the fall shows, the gap ones, or anything else. The closest he came was when someone asked whether “How to Get Away with Murder” would again do 15 episodes, since it's been reported that Viola Davis' contract stipulates that she won't do more. “We won't discuss contracts,” Lee said, “but we did 15 last year and will probably do similar next year.”
But ABC isn't the only network to be doing this, and I would expect it to become even more commonplace in the future. Even in ye olden days of trying to stretch 22 episodes over 39 weeks, I would frequently get calls, emails and letters asking if a show's season was over because it had aired a few repeats in a row in March or April. These days, with cable scheduling and full seasons available digitally, few people have the patience for the on-again, off-again scheduling, so you either have to have longer pre-scheduled gaps, or find other ways to run the whole season in a row, like FOX used to do with “24” or will be doing next season with “New Girl.”
Some other notes from the Lee call:
* Despite abundant rumors that “Agents of SHIELD” would get another spin-off focusing on Adrianne Palicki and Nick Blood's characters, “Agent Carter” got renenwed instead, while Palicki and Blood will remain with “SHIELD” for now. “We absolutely love those characters on 'SHIELD,'” Lee said. “We feel 'SHIELD' hit its creative stride this year, and we love it… We felt the right move now was to leave them on 'SHIELD,' because it's so strong at the moment.”
* If “gap” wasn't the catchphrase winner of the call, it was Lee's hatred of mothers and grandmothers, as expressed by the number of times he insisted some show or other – but particularly the Bill Prady-produced “Muppets” update – was “not your grandmother's” or “not your mother's” version of some show or concept. In the case of “The Muppets,” it won't be riffing on variety shows as the original “Muppet Show” did (because variety was still a huge TV genre at the time), but instead be done mockumentary-style, like “The Office.” Lee also compared it to “Modern Family” and tried to call it “a grown-up 'Muppets,'” but backed off that description a bit when a reporter noted how many kids love the pre-existing take on those characters. (For what it's worth, Prady worked for Jim Henson at the start of his career, so I expect this show to be faithful to the spirit of the original, and for this to be another case of upfront jargon gone awry.)
* “Castle” and “Grey's Anatomy” will be back for their eighth and twelfth seasons, respectively. Despite the frequent drama of trying to re-sign actors (Stana Katic was a late signee to be back on “Castle,” while Patrick Dempsey walked away from “Grey's”), Lee said he doesn't expect either show to end after next season: “I would like to see them run for many many years to come. They are vibrant brands that have incredibly passionate audiences, and 'Grey's Anatomy' is written by one of the very best writers in television.”