How This Can Still Be A Breakout Season
No, the broadcast nets didn't pry out any hits this fall, but here's how midseason could come to the rescue
By Andrea Morabito -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/15/2010 12:01:00 AM
But the news hasn’t remotely been all bad for broadcast, which has seen only minimal drop-offs year-over-year in primetime ratings, both in the coveted 18-49 demo and total viewers (see chart on opposite page). These days, stemming the tide is good news, especially with primetime broadcast ratings in a collective free fall for years. But this year’s numbers have held up despite some serious road bumps, especially at Fox, where the prized rookie of all the networks, Lone Star, tanked and a short Giants-Rangers World Series didn’t help matters.
“That [the networks are] not off to a great start is always disappointing,” says Bill Carroll, VP/director of programming at Katz Television Group. “But the whole dynamic changes after the first of the year at midseason, when American Idol becomes part of the overall schedule.”
And while the networks won’t have prized midseason assets like Lost and 24 to help launch other new shows, there is plenty about the upcoming midseason to watch out for. Obviously all eyes will be on the new look of American Idol without Simon Cowell, but there are several factors that will decide the fate of a television season whose story is still yet to be defined.
THE IDOL FACTOR
It may be entering double-digits in age, but when it comes to midseason, it’s still all about American Idol. “A lot of what’s riding on how the broadcast networks will do is based on what happens—or doesn’t happen—with the newly reconfigured, Simon-free American Idol,” says Shari Anne Brill, an independent media industry analyst.
As the show (finally) has started to show its age with falling ratings, and now with a new judging panel of Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Stephen Tyler, everyone is waiting to see what will happen. “It’s strange to say that [Idol is] the wildcard, but I think it is because you have two things going against it: it’s in its 10th season, and Simon’s gone,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media. “The question is how dominant are they going to be, and that will determine how well Fox will do in adults 18-49 for the season.”
“The other networks will be looking to see if there’s any vulnerability in American Idol, and at that point they might go counter-program against that,” says Carroll.
CBS insists that scheduling Live to Dance on Wednesdays is not a stab at Idol, but rather a bridge show for Survivor. In fact, CBS execs say—in an opinion mirrored by other networks—that while they don’t know how the Death Star will fare with its new casting, they wouldn’t dare expect a massive falloff.
While Idol will be down one acerbic British judge, it is adding music industry executive Jimmy Iovine as a mentor; Brill thinks Iovine could re-insert that missing element. “He also is bold and brash and doesn’t mince words, and will dish out that brutal honesty that everyone loved Simon for,” Brill says.
And Simon or not, Fox remains con! dent that the show will survive this year’s road bumps. Network execs have long maintained the contestants are the real key to Idol, not the judges.
“I don’t think any network could have handled Idol as well as we’ve handled Idol. We know it inside, outside, upside-down—we know it,” says Preston Beckman, Fox executive VP, strategic program planning and research.
Even if Idol continues to drop off, that decline is still relative, and no one doubts that it won’t still be the most-watched show on television. “American Idol will decline, but even if it loses 10% of its viewership, it’s still going to be probably the top show among adults 18-49,” says Brill. “It would have to be universally panned for that show to be in trouble.”
CAN THE NETWORKS WAKE UP 10 P.M.?
Despite last year’s promising entry The Good Wife, a dominant 10 p.m. drama continues to elude the networks in a time slot where NYPD Blue and ER once dominated. Good Wife has failed to greatly build its audience from last season like Glee and Modern Family, and two of this fall’s five casualties so far—NBC’s Outlaw and ABC’s The Whole Truth—were 10 p.m. occupants.
Perhaps the most likely midseason show with the potential to reverse the trend is ABC’s Off the Map, the latest medical drama from creator Shonda Rhimes, which will fill Truth’s time slot Wednesdays at 10 p.m.
The network, seeing room for a big hit at the hour, hopes it is an aggressive move, says Jeff Bader, ABC executive VP, planning, scheduling and distribution. “The 10 p.m. time period is a really interesting time period right now because nothing has really broken out and there is room for a big hit on Tuesdays and Wednesdays,” he says.
IS THERE A DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH?
In the absence of any breakouts this fall, the question remains if any rookie show can break through the clutter in midseason and emerge as a hit.
“There are a lot of midseason shows—maybe there’s some gem in there on some network that even they’re not aware of,” Beckman says.
A midseason launch provides networks the opportunity to promote the show in the fall, when TV usage is higher than the summer, and possibly put it in a more strategic time period with the knowledge of how the season has unfolded—a strategy that made hits like Grey’s Anatomy and House. “There’s been a pretty good track record of shows that have debuted in the middle of the season and have had successful runs on television,” says Adgate.
Among other scripted hopefuls set to debut in midseason are ABC’s Mr. Sunshine, CBS’ Mad Love and Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior and NBC’s Love Bites and The Cape.
FRESHMEN (ACTUALLY) GETTING TIME TO BREATHE
After some swift cancellations (Fox’s Lone Star, ABC’s My Generation), many of this year’s new entries are actually being allowed some time to prove themselves. “If it’s anything, it’s going to be how patient are the networks going to be with these shows that are right on the cusp—will they hang onto them for a full year,” says Fox’s Beckman.
And in some cases not only are the networks giving them a chance, they are actually actively trying to prop them up.
That is ABC’s plan for the Michael Chiklis drama No Ordinary Family, which Bader notes is probably in “the most difficult time period on the schedule” against The Biggest Loser, NCIS and Glee.
So ABC will move the series to 9 p.m. in December and run holiday specials in front of it to try to pump a family audience into it. “We’re hoping that come January with No Ordinary Family and then the return of V, we have a block of programming that’s an alternative to the very female programming that’s on the other networks,” Bader says.
Beckman names Raising Hope as the most important new show on Fox’s schedule, one that has the potential to support a liveaction comedy block in the future. “I think there’s a show there, and if we nurture it and are patient with it, it can be the foundation for a comedy block,” he says. “That’s been a tough nut for us to crack. Glee allowed us a foundation; we have to keep fanning the " ames on Hope.”
The CW gave both its freshmen, Hellcats and Nikita, full-season orders despite moderate ratings in hopes their audiences will grow. And CBS, which renewed all five of its fall rookies, had yet to announce the bulk of its midseason schedule at press time, in favor of a wait-andsee approach. “The success of these shows has bought us quite a bit of time to evaluate,” says Kelly Kahl, senior executive VP, CBS primetime. “We’re in the fortunate position of not having to decide right now, so we’re going to take full advantage of it.”
AVOIDING THE SOPHOMORE SLUMPS
If this fall season lacks a breakout hit, perhaps it’s because last year’s darlings are still holding onto the title. “You could say that the biggest hits of this year, the programs that have gotten the biggest bounce upward, are two-year shows like Glee and Modern Family,” says Adgate.
While Heroes was the most recent example that a big ! rst year does not a hit make, the Fox and ABC critical and Emmy darlings are up huge vs. last season. Glee has jumped 23% with adults 18-49 (4.4 to 5.4) and Modern Family has grown a whopping 45% (4.0 to 5.8).
Of the other big rookies from 2009-10, NCIS: LA is up 14% over last season, while The Good Wife is up 7%. With the exception of the franchised NCIS, all have benefitted from critical acclaim based on the appearance of bringing something new and fresh to TV—something this season’s rookies notably lacked. In a fall crop littered with spinoffs (Law & Order: Los Angeles), remakes (Hawaii Five-0) and re-imaginings (Outsourced, or The Office in India), the sophomores continue to attract new fans.
“There’s still plenty to talk about on network TV—you just need to take a little more of a risk,” says Brill. “When you play it safe, you don’t win audiences that way.”
E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter: @andreamorabito
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