The television landscape has been entirely flipped on its head over the past ten years, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the Big Four’s fall lineups. Network television has long been cautious and resistant to change, but the 2021 fall schedule displays an alarming lack of creativity: a total of only 11 new series will debut across ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX this fall, four of which are reboots or spinoffs of existing IP. As for the returning series, Dick Wolf alone will oversee two three-hour programming blocks (one on CBS, and one on NBC), in addition to two-hours of Law & Order Thursday nights on NBC.
Dick Wolf and his various procedurals have been a broadcast staple for decades, but the networks’ focus on franchise expansion is particularly striking given the current state of television. While their streaming and premium cable counterparts are digging deep into society’s myriad issues and adapting literature’s greatest works, the Big Four are rehashing the same old police dramas in new locales (Hawai’i! Las Vegas! Budapest!), stacking them back-to-back-to-back on different nights, and calling it a day. Emphasizing procedurals may not be the most innovative strategy, but it’s proven to work at a time when little else does: with 12.54 million total viewers, CBS’ NCIS was the most-watched TV show of the 2020-2021 broadcast season, followed by Queen Latifah’s The Equalizer (11.78 million), and FBI (10.97 million).
The networks may not be interested in streaming’s more creatively ambitious programming, but they do seem to be taking a page out of the competition’s book with their marathon FBI, Chicago, and Law & Order nights. Apart from commercial breaks, these programming blocks offer viewers hours of uninterrupted time in their favorite universe — essentially enabling linear viewers to binge-watch, just as they might on Netflix or Hulu. If the networks aren’t going to bring their content into the twenty-first century (do we really need so many police procedurals, given the threat the institution poses to Black Americans?), at least they're presenting their content in a way that reflects how people prefer to watch TV today.
By stacking their programming in two- or three-hour blocks, the broadcasters are telling viewers, “Tonight is NCIS night” or “Wednesdays are for the Chicago-verse,” statements that cut through the clutter for fans overwhelmed by TV’s many choices. But there’s an obvious downside to franchise nights, as well: what happens when viewers don’t watch FBI, or are hesitant to add another show (let alone another franchise) to their queue? Devoting two or three full hours to a single franchise is guaranteed to put off potential new viewers, especially for a drama in its fourth season or beyond. For now, the rewards of this strategy may seem to outweigh the risks, but one can't help but wonder how far off we are from all of Network TV resermbling PlutoTV's programming grid.
The binge model has revolutionized television, and while the Big Four’s decision to shift franchise expansion into overdrive seems unlikely do the same, it does pose some intriguing questions about the future of broadcast TV. At least there's one interesting thing about network TV’s fall 2021 lineups.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the TV Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.