Being Upfront About Their Chances
Here’s a look at what each network is facing heading into next season—and what they really need
By Marisa Guthrie -- Broadcasting & Cable, 5/17/2010 12:01:00 AM
ABC: LAUGHING AGAINTHE SITUATION: After years of searching for its funny bone, ABC this season has taken baby steps toward renewing its comedic identity, a once-storied brand that included iconic hits Roseanne and Home Improvement. Wednesday-night sitcoms The Middle, Modern Family and Cougar Town are a good start. Hank was DOA. But so far, Modern Family, which has the quality and ratings momentum to be a long-term franchise, is really the only program of the three that has found its legs. The Middle and Cougar Town are averaging 2.2 and 3.1, respectively, so far this season. And those numbers are not quite long-term-hit-worthy. A fourth comedy is essential to fill out the Wednesday lineup. A second two-hour comedy block is beyond ambitious. But a couple more would do wonders for ABC’s heretofore dismal repeatability potential, a major conundrum for the network.
WHAT’S WORKING: A rejuvenated Dancing With the Stars, and the surprisingly still popular Bachelor and Bachelorette, have been clutch. But ABC is also weathering aging drama hits and a future without Lost. To be sure, Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives are a couple of old gals that would be more than welcome at competing nets. But their use-by date is getting closer. The 10 p.m. crime drama Castle, another middling performer, has nevertheless given ABC at long last a procedural. (Castle was probably buoyed by increased sampling during NBC’s Leno-in-primetime period.)
WHAT’S NEEDED: ABC needs to keep rebuilding comedy while also re-stocking the drama shelves with a combination of sweet-spot soapy dramedy, a la Desperate, and another reliable procedural.
CBS: STEADY AS EVERTHE SITUATION: CBS’ dilemma is shelf space. And wouldn’t its competitors love to have that particular cross to bear.
WHAT’S WORKING: The network’s crime wave snowballed this season with two successful drama launches, NCIS: Los Angeles and The Good Wife, plus the incredible momentum of NCIS, which hit a high-ratings mark in its seventh season. Meanwhile, sophomore hit The Mentalist continues to post strong numbers. The network’s CSI franchise is aging but stable for now, while a couple of B-list procedurals, including Numbers, have been consigned to the scrap heap. Launching procedural franchises is what CBS has done best. And another one would put the network well beyond its competitors.
CBS’ Monday-night sitcoms are solid and have turned out lucrative back-end deals for their studios. (Big Bang Theory is being pitched to syndication buyers now and could go for as much as $4 million an episode, including cable.)
WHAT’S NEEDED: The Wednesday-night sitcom block is populated by middling performers Accidentally on Purpose, Old Christine and Gary Unmarried. Yes, comedy can take time to jell, but CBS is looking for another Two and a Half Men, not another Accidentally on Purpose. And the sooner, the better. After all, how long is the perennially personally challenged Charlie Sheen going to continue to do Two and a Half Men?
THE CW: A NICE NICHE NETWORKTHE SITUATION: The CW seems to have found its niche—an oxymoronic concept for a broadcast network, except if you’re The CW, apparently. With Gossip Girl, 90210, Vampire Diaries and the reliably puerile America’s Next Top Model, The CW has created a niche channel for young women who consume the network’s content across platforms.
WHAT’S WORKING: The network has embraced its sweet spot, jettisoning incongruous programs like broad family comedies and wrestling in favor of a schedule chock-a-block with melodramas populated by the young, beautiful and unscrupulous. (In fact, The CW put zero comedies in development this year.)
WHAT’S NEEDED: The CW could use a new reality hit to bolster Top Model, which will eventually start to develop crow’s feet. There are multiple candidates in the wings, including weight-loss and dance competition shows. The Vampire Diaries, Supernatural, Smallville, Gossip Girl and 90210 are all coming back next season. If The CW can turn one or two new dramas into cult hits, it may have to rethink its niche status.
FOX: ANOTHER RUN AT COMEDYTHE SITUATION: Fox can still boast the juggernaut status of American Idol and one of this season’s new hits in Glee, though the musical dramedy is not (yet) the monster hit some Fox executives are hoping for. But the network is confronting the end of the Simon Cowell era on Idol. And although Cowell will be on Fox in a new version of his U.K. hit X Factor, his exit will irreparably change the chemistry on Idol, which has seen modest ratings erosion over the last several seasons. And there is no guarantee that two singing competition shows can peacefully co-exist on the network.
Fox is also losing Mr. January, Jack Bauer, as 24 is coming to an end. The show, along with Idol, has been a linchpin of Fox’s midseason slate for nearly a decade.
WHAT’S WORKING: Dramas House, Bones and Fringe are holding steady, and while everyone has ideas to “fix” Idol, it’s still the biggest game in town.
WHAT’S NEEDED: Fox has thrown its development dollars at comedy. The network that was launched on the subversive comedy of Married With Children and The Simpsons has struggled lately to keep anything but its animated comedies alive. Sons of Tucson and Brothers can fairly be described as bombs. And ‘Til Death has come to the end of its mirthless life after a handful of seasons. The Simpsons has been doing the heavy lifting on Sundays for 20 years and counting; it’s time Homer and company got a little more help. And, like every year, a Yankees-Cubs World Series wouldn’t hurt, though in 2010, like every year, only half of that equation is realistic.
NBC: SPENDING ITS WAY BACK?THE SITUATION: NBC executives are spending their way out of a slump, upping the development budget by 30% year-to-year in the wake of the aborted Lenoto- primetime gambit. They’ve already given green lights to multiple big-ticket items including the J.J. Abrams drama Undercovers (cost of pilot: $10 million), Jerry Bruckheimer’s Chase and The Event, an ambitious drama thriller with a big (read: expensive) cast.
NBC is also bringing back Law & Order: SVU and adding another spinoff, Law & Order: Los Angeles.
The network has in addition renewed freshman series Parenthood (executive- produced by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer), which is the kind of soft, expensive drama that has virtually no aftermarket. But these days, NBC needs the high-class eyeballs. So, the pressure is on, both from a ratings and dollars standpoint.
WHAT’S WORKING: NBC’s comedy performance remains stronger in the Zeitgeist than on the Nielsen charts. But as long as Steve Carrell’s terminally unseemly Michael Scott stays in Scranton (a question as of late) and Tina Fey can keep Alec Baldwin on the payroll—and the straight and narrow—neither The Office nor 30 Rock is going anywhere. Community is multiple ratings points away from hit status, but together with the improving Parks and Recreation, it’s enough to make a stable Thursday comedy block.
WHAT’S NEEDED: NBC just needs one big breakout hit to get everyone off its back, period. Especially with Comcast honchos scrutinizing the performance of every single NBC executive as we speak.
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