5 Questions for TV’s Weirdest Fall Season Ever

Clockwise from top left: Leslie Jones; The Mandalorian; Shonda Rhimes; and Friends. Photo-Illustration: Vulture, ABC, Disney+, NBC and Getty Images

Fall TV previews traditionally focus on what new shows are expected to break out or how various networks are shaking up their schedules in order to get a strategic advantage. The pandemic hasn’t completely changed all that, but it has added endless new challenges for the folks who run things in TV land. There will still be new shows (especially on streaming platforms), but they won’t all be rolling out in exactly the same manner as usual or in the same environment. And strategizing hasn’t gone away at all: It’s just now different at most platforms as programmers are less concerned about hits and misses — and more worried about figuring out how to survive these topsy-turvy times. Ahead of next week’s Nielsen-sanctioned start of the new season, here are five questions worth pondering about how this very weird fall TV cycle will play out.

Will network viewership collapse as the pandemic blows up the traditional fall TV season?

Here’s the good news for broadcast TV: As much as the pandemic has upended the normal order of things this fall, it could have been a whole lot worse. As recently as two months ago, some TV-industry insiders I speak to regularly weren’t certain there would be any big live-action scripted shows debuting this year (not counting productions wrapped pre-pandemic, of course). COVID-19 cases in California were out of control, and there was a sense networks were deluding themselves by thinking production could (safely) resume anytime soon on most U.S. shows. There is still tremendous uncertainty surrounding how shows get made now, but network TV is starting to figure it out. Several primetime series, including ABC’s The Conners and The Good Doctor and CBS’s S.W.A.T., have already started filming; others are slowly coming on line. There will be new episodes of familiar favorites this fall.

But those positives aside, it won’t feel like fall TV when the season officially kicks off next week. September and most of October will still consist mostly of unscripted reality fare, game shows, and assorted other stunts and specials as networks try to build up a big enough inventory of filmed episodes before premiering a show. (See: ABC’s revived Supermarket Sweep, hosted by Leslie Jones.) And even those series that manage to make it back this fall won’t air a long stretch of episodes: Insiders say to expect at most five or six installments before the end of year, and in some cases, as few as two or three new episodes. Beyond production challenges, there will be preemptions for Election Night coverage and holiday programming that will limit how many new episodes can be squeezed in by the time networks go into full rerun mode in mid-December. There could also be unplanned delays if an outbreak of COVID on a set shuts down a production.

The big mystery, of course, is how audiences will respond to this strangest of fall launches. This isn’t the first time circumstances have conspired to blow up the start of a new season. A 1988 strike by the Writers Guild of America delayed that year’s fall launch until November, while the 2007-2008 season was thrown into disarray when the WGA walked out in November 2007. Individual shows took a hit, but TV largely survived. Things are much different now: Network TV, while still managing to hang on, is being challenged as never before by the rise of streaming. Summer Nielsen numbers have been dreadfully low as networks, deprived of several unscripted shows, aired mostly reruns. That has no doubt prompted many of the older viewers who still regularly watch linear TV to sample more streaming platforms and programs. Not all of them will return to their pre-pandemic habits. Broadcast ratings will also be challenged through November as an increasingly nasty presidential campaign drives up viewership for the cable-news channels.

That doesn’t mean network TV is going to collapse this fall, or that nobody will show up when Grey’s Anatomy and This Is Us begin their delayed seasons. One very hopeful sign for the network-TV ecosystem came this week, when ABC’s Dancing With the Stars returned to the same overall audience it had for its 2019 premiere and notably better demographic ratings. Some of its gains can probably be chalked up to audiences wanting to check out the show’s socially distanced pandemic format and new host Tyra Banks. But CBS’s Big Brother has been doing decent, if somewhat diminished, Nielsen numbers since it returned in August. And while the NFL’s early primetime ratings are down a bit versus last year, football is still drawing a huge audience to linear TV. All of this points to the likelihood that viewers are still interested in watching traditional TV, even if the craziness of our current world means continued ratings erosion.

Can The Mandalorian avoid a sophomore slump (and help Disney+ usher in some new hits)?

To a degree, it really doesn’t matter whether season two of the Disney streamer’s signature series is good or bad: People are going to want to watch it — and talk about it — whatever its ultimate quality. As one of my editors noted when I mentioned this topic, people feel an obsessive need to see anything Star Wars–related, even if it’s ultimately deemed garbage. So in a sense, the fact that Disney+ was lucky enough to have Mandalorian ready to go on schedule this fall despite the pandemic already represents a big win. The show will drive new signups and convince more than a few folks with annual subscriptions due for renewal in November to stick around a bit longer.

Still, it wouldn’t hurt if Mandalorian were also able to maintain the mix of heart, humor, and action that also made it a critical sensation last fall (and an Emmy nominee for Best Drama at this Sunday’s kudos). Having a pop-culture phenom is great, but having one that is also good helps Disney+ be seen as more than just a place folks turn to as a babysitter or hit up when they need to relive their Disney-branded childhood memories. The one thing streaming industry execs tell me consistently is that while great libraries help keep current customers satisfied, the best way to get new signups is through buzzy, first-rate original programming. Fact is, there’s not been a ton of that on Disney+ during its first year.

Yes, Disney+ has done an amazing job maintaining momentum during the pandemic with stunts such as Hamilton, the early release of Frozen 2, and this month’s early access to Mulan (though the latter is more an effort by Disney’s film division to avoid financial disaster on a major investment). But the streamer’s original scripted-series pantry has been pretty empty during the nine months since Mandalorian ended its first season. There was the teen-focused Diary of a Future President in January, the kid-focused Muppets Now in July, and … well, that’s about it. Pandemic delays blew up the streamer’s plan to unleash its first Marvel-branded scripted series over the summer (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier), while the buzzy Love, Simon series adaptation green-lit by Disney+, Love, Victor, was moved to Hulu because of content concerns.

Next month marks the end of that drought. In addition to the October 30 return of Mandalorian, the streamer will roll out National Geographic’s adaptation of the space drama The Right Stuff starting October 9. And while no specific date has been announced, the streamer this week said another Marvel show, WandaVision, will debut before 2020 ends (assuming, of course, 2020 actually ever ends). Disney+ clearly wants to make sure audiences returning for Mandalorian have other new shows to check out while they’re on the platform. That mission will be just a little bit easier if Mandalorian remains must-stream TV during its second season.

What happens when Shonda Rhimes (finally) returns?

All the way back in 2017, Netflix shocked the TV industry by announcing it had signed the Grey’s Anatomy creator to a big bucks, multiyear overall deal. Six months later, it struck a similarly rich pact with Ryan Murphy; six month after that, in August 2018, it signed Kenya Barris. Barris and Murphy have already premiered shows on Netflix, but Rhimes has yet to make her debut on the streamer. That should change soon: While there’s been no premiere-date announcement, industry insiders expect the Rhimes-produced Bridgerton (written by Shondaland vet Chris Van Dusen) will debut on the service before the end of the year, ending our long national nightmare of a world without new creative output from one of this century’s creative titans. Assuming the show is reasonably good — and I’m betting it will be, given the auspices, two-year gestation period, and Netflix’s resources — I think it could end up being one of the biggest TV events of the fall.

One show does not a creator make, nor will the success (or failure) of Bridgerton determine whether or not Netflix’s bet on Rhimes has paid off. I would argue, though, that to some degree, the streamer recouped its investment in her and her Shondaland shingle years ago: By taking a leap from the very safe and profitable world of network television three long years ago, Rhimes sent a signal to other showrunners that the age of linear-TV dominance was over and that Netflix was a safe space to set up shop. Perhaps Murphy and Barris would have jumped anyway, but the Rhimes deal helped a lot of superstar showrunners feel more comfortable leaving the network TV cocoon. Her arrival at Netflix, like that of Murphy and Barris, also acted as a talent magnet, bringing over dozens of writers and actors who want to work with them. What’s more, even in the unlikely event Bridgerton doesn’t connect with audiences, Netflix will still have many, many creative at-bats from Rhimes in the next year or two.

Will HBO Max and Peacock settle their disputes with Roku and Amazon?

It’s been nearly four months since Max launched and over two months since Peacock rolled out nationally — and yet as of this writing, both platforms can’t be easily accessed by the tens of millions of U.S. homes which use Roku or Amazon Fire devices to get their streaming services. I’ve previously written about why this is the case, but no matter which side one thinks is most in the right here, I am stunned this standoff has gone on for so long. WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal spent millions to hype their respective services, and so much of that marketing was wasted selling products wide swaths of consumers basically couldn’t get. Instead of associating HBO Max and Peacock with specific shows, many people now think of them as Those Things I Can’t Get.

To be sure, Roku and Amazon have taken a hit here, too. People who bought either device on the promise that they’d be able to stream all those services they keep hearing about may be wondering why friends with Apple TV or Chromecast are able to watch Friends on HBO Max or relive old episodes of Columbo on Peacock. But Roku and Amazon Fire are well-established by now and have probably been able to weather this turbulence, at least so far. I am curious, however, if the two companies (especially Roku, where streaming TV is the whole enchilada) really want to go into the holiday shopping season without being able to offer consumers access to two big services? Google, which does have deals for Max and Peacock, is about to launch what is expected to be a radical reimagining of its Chromecast TV product, one that could in theory make it more of a threat to Roku (which will also announce new products by month’s end). I have zero idea how talks are progressing, but it wouldn’t shock me to (finally) see some movement on this front soon.

Will Netflix’s original movies get a lift from the lack of theatrical competition?

Even before the pandemic completely messed up the release of feature films, Netflix had already substantially disrupted the movie business on multiple levels, including awards season. But the last few months have seemingly blasted away whatever walls still existed between traditional theatrical releases and films made for streaming platforms. Huge blockbusters such as Mulan are now being released on TV, and a slew of smaller movies will likely skip theaters completely over the next year as the never-ending pandemic makes moviegoing in public risky. Netflix, which has been hammering home the point that audiences don’t care where a movie first screens, couldn’t have scripted a better scenario for ushering in the era of direct-to-consumer movies.

But while there will surely be long-term implications for the film business, I’m particularly curious to see how this all plays out for Netflix’s fall 2020 film slate. We don’t know yet exactly which (if any) Oscar-y movies will end up getting released before the end of 2020; it’s been a constantly moving target. But while traditional studios change their plans weekly, Netflix is already set to go with a fourth quarter slate of Quality Films. Among the expected highlights (not all have confirmed release dates): Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, Ryan Murphy’s The Prom, George C. Wolfe’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky, Ron Howard’s adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy, and David Fincher’s Mank.

At least in theory, those movies could benefit from a dramatically less cluttered fourth-quarter movie calendar. I don’t pretend to know anything about the politics of Oscar (always read my Vulture colleague Nate Jones for that), so I don’t know if this will make any difference at all in what gets nominated next year, let alone what wins. That said, even though it seems quite likely American audiences won’t be lining up to see movies this fall, people will still want to see big, expensive movies — and culture writers and critics will not suddenly lose interest in reporting on and analyzing such films. Netflix’s platform already gives it a leg up in the battle to connect films with an audience, and less competition from others in the marketplace surely won’t hurt Netflix’s efforts to draw attention to them. (And while they don’t have nearly as robust slates, you can argue Amazon and Apple could benefit from not having to worry about going up against big feature films; both platforms have big, potentially Oscar-friendly releases scheduled for the fall, too.)

That said, all this really is just a theory: William Goldman’s famous line about Hollywood — “Nobody knows anything” — holds doubly true in a global pandemic.

The Time Capsule: The Mary Tyler Moore Show Turns 50

If you follow me on Twitter, you may know that for the past year or so, I’ve made it a habit for most of 2020 to watch one episode of both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show every Saturday night. The legendary sitcoms shared the 9 p.m. hour on CBS’s equally legendary 1973-74 Saturday night lineup, and since I was just a bit too young to watch them when they first aired, I decided it might be fun to slow-binge them the way God and Fred Silverman intended. Especially these days, I highly recommend this comfort-food comedy combination — both shows are on Hulu — and there’s no time like this Saturday to start: It just happens to be the 50th anniversary of Mary Tyler Moore’s September 19, 1970 premiere on CBS. And if you need some companion reading, I also recommend Love Is All Around: And Other Lessons We’ve Learned From The Mary Tyler Moore Show, by my friend and former Variety colleague Paula Bernstein. It’s not a history of the show, per se (for that, buy this), but rather a fun, breezy (and trivia-filled) distillation of the show’s many wisdoms. For the video portion of this week’s Time Capsule, I found a three-minute promotional clip CBS used to sell the show during its annual primetime fall-preview special. Even if you’ve seen every episode, it’s worth checking out because it features a rough version of a key scene from the show’s pilot — one that’s very different from what actually aired a half-century ago.

Parting Shot

“Would I like it to be more? Would I like it to be faster? Sure. [But] we’re not doing this for a year. We’re doing this to build a platform that can sustain for the next decade.”

—AT&T CEO John Stankey explaining why he “couldn’t be more pleased” about how the launch of HBO Max has gone.

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5 Questions for TV’s Weirdest Fall Season Ever