By Liana B. Baker
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The big four U.S. broadcast networks, in need of new TV hits to turn around slumping ratings, are betting espionage programs and old comedy stars will convince advertisers to spend about $9 billion during the so-called upfront selling season.
This week, the broadcast networks have been wooing advertisers, giving them previews of the new shows and revealing the upcoming fall schedules all in the hope that they will get commitments for billions of dollars.
The broadcasters are under pressure from growing competition from cable, upstarts such as Netflix and Wall Street expectations that their ad price hikes will be the lowest in three years.
Barclay's Capital estimates that the networks will be able to push their ad rates up by 6 percent on average, which is well ahead of the 1.3 percent annual inflation rate, but down from 7.5 percent in 2012.
SINCEREST FORM OF FLATTERY
Copying a successful program is a time-honored TV tradition and this year, the networks fixated on espionage. Three out of four large networks showed advertisers series that resembled the Emmy-award winning cable drama "Homeland".
"The intelligence/spy genre just happens to be resonating with viewers lately," said Jason Maltby, director of national broadcast TV at media buying firm MindShare.
"Homeland," which premiered in 2011 on CBS-owned cable network Showtime, is about a returning Iraq veteran and a CIA agent at the heart of a political and terrorism conspiracy. It dominated last year's Emmys, sweeping the top drama categories in the television awards show.
CBS's flagship drama was "Hostages", featured Toni Collette as a surgeon whose family is taken hostage by a rogue FBI agent. Collette becomes part of a conspiracy to assassinate the president. Action producer Jerry Bruckheimer is behind the show, which like "Homeland" is adapted from an Israeli series. CBS plans a limited run of 15 episodes.
Bernstein analyst Todd Juenger said "Hostages" had "so much intrigue, mystery, and twists in the two-minute trailer, our heads were spinning."
FOX does not have a "Homeland"-type show, but its highest profile drama will have plenty of action. Disney, which owns ABC, is tapping its blockbuster "Avengers" franchise for a TV show about a group of agents who investigate strange happenings around the world. The program, "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.", will be going up against the top-rated CBS program "NCIS".
"S.H.I.E.L.D. has a broad appeal. That will do well on Tuesday nights," said Harry Keeshan, executive vice president of national broadcast at PHD, a division of media agency Omnicom.
Comedies tend to attract a younger audience making them attractive to broadcasters. They also typically have a better resale value.
For the past few years, networks have been trying to replicate the success of ABC's sitcom "Modern Family." This year was no different, with several shows about wacky families.
What is different, though, is that the networks are turning to old stars who once were mega-successful on TV. Michael J. Fox has a new family comedy on NBC called "the Michael J. Fox Show". Robin Williams, who shot to fame in the late 1970s on television's "Mork and Mindy," will have a new show on CBS called "The Crazy Ones," portraying an advertising executive.
While media buyers say both have gained buzz with clients, it is not a slam dunk to have a star attached to a new vehicle.
"Stars don't make shows. Shows make stars. Having a big name like Robin Williams is no guarantee that the show's going to do well," said Brian Hughes, a senior vice president at MagnaGlobal who analyzes TV audiences.
Hughes said he liked the Michael J. Fox's series better because it had right mix of humor and was also honest because producers wrote Fox's Parkinson's disease into the show.
While the schedule for next year's TV season has been revealed, media buyers say that they and their clients still have to watch the full pilots before they make buying decisions.
MagnaGlobal's Hughes said he will be projecting ratings performance and trying to figure out what will make it to a second season. History shows most new series fail. Social media buzz could indicate a new show will get good sampling, but may not predict longevity, he said.
Over the next three or four weeks, networks will be pushing for ad rate increases - which advertisers do not want to pay, said Keeshan, from Omnicom's PHD whose clients include GlaxoSmithKline, Hyatt and Safeway.
He added that by the end of July, all of the ad deals will be in place.
"We figure out where we're going in terms of getting to a price point everyone agrees on. Now, the work begins," Keeshan said.
(Reporting by Liana B. Baker,; Additional reporting by Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz)