Needed Under The Big Tents
A look at what is working (and isn’t) at the five big broadcast networks—and what each really needs this fall
By Andrea Morabito -- Broadcasting & Cable, 5/9/2011 12:01:00 AMRELATED: Knowing Where TV Success is Born
WHERE THEY STAND: ABC Entertainment Group chief Paul Lee is helming his first upfront season, and the volume of development at ABC speaks to the number of hours he has to fill. ABC followed NBC into testing the three-hour comedy block in midseason, though it probably doesn’t have enough bonafide hits to make it a mainstay next year. Fall’s Better With You has slim chances for renewal, and midseason entries Mr. Sunshine and Happy Endings cling to the bubble. The net batted one-for-five in rookie dramas with the swift cancellations of My Generation and The Whole Truth and the certain-not-to-return Detroit 1-8-7, No Ordinary Family and Off the Map. The midseason medical drama Body of Proof was the one bright spot—the freshman procedural is notably rivaling its time-period competition, CBS’ oft-buzzed-about sophomore The Good Wife.
WHAT’S WORKING: Drama stalwarts Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives still put up strong ratings, but are beginning to show their age. Modern Family cemented its hit status in its second season, and has reliable co-comedies in The Middle and probably Cougar Town. In reality, The Bachelor and Bachelorette remain popular, and the midseason Secret Millionaire premiered to 12.7 million viewers. Dancing With the Stars remains a draw 12 seasons in, though its Nielsen success is directly linked to the casting of the show. When asked what ABC needs most from the fall, Lee joked, “Kate Middleton in Dancing With the Stars,” acknowledging how crucial casting buzz-worthy stars is to the show’s ratings.
WHAT’S NEEDED: A solid fourth comedy hit to round out its Wednesday sitcom block, and better retention of new dramas to complement its aging franchises.
WHERE THEY STAND: CBS has for years had fewer holes to fill than its broadcast brethren, and the story is no different this year. While it now seems Two and a Half Men, the network’s top-rated comedy, will return without Charlie Sheen, a cast shake-up means the show will no longer be a sure thing in the Nielsens after the initial curiosity tune-in that will inevitably happen. With so many hits already in its stable, CBS is wise to look after its existing series as much as its new ones. “We’re looking at every single show we have on the network and what we can do to better support them next year, what changes we can make that will allow them to creatively go to the next level,” says Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment.
WHAT’S WORKING: How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory continue to keep CBS’ comedy heartbeat humming; the latter didn’t skip a beat in its move to Thursdays this year. NCIS continues to defy age and ratings, hitting a series-high 22.7 million viewers in its eighth season. The Good Wife and NCIS: L.A. have avoided the sophomore slump and veteran procedurals Criminal Minds, CSI and The Mentalist continue to put up strong numbers. The network has two freshman hits in Hawaii Five-0 and Mike & Molly, the former of which CBS Television Distribution has sold into syndication for $2 million-plus an episode.
WHAT’S NEEDED: With the cast shake-up on Two and a Half Men, establishing strong sitcoms waiting in the wings is more important than ever. With the swift cancellation of midseason’s Chaos, and $#*! My Dad Says and Mad Love unlikely to return, this time around CBS needs a pilot with hit-worthy status.
WHERE THEY STAND: Fox’s two biggest fall launches are already known—Simon Cowell’s much-anticipated The X Factor and the special effects-laden Terra Nova, pushed back from the spring. With X Factor likely assuming upwards of three hours on the schedule, Fox has very limited needs to fill—and that’s just how they want it. “Part of the thinking behind the shift of American Idol from Wednesday to Thursday, setting us up for X Factor in the fall, is to give us a schedule where we have very limited and focused needs,” says Kevin Reilly, Fox Entertainment president. “That’s not to say that we won’t pick up and launch great shows when we find them—because we will—but we’d like to be in a place where we only need to launch a couple of shows at once, at any given time of year.”
WHAT’S WORKING: American Idol bucked all the naysayers in its 10th season, managing to reverse its sliding ratings trend with a new judging lineup. Glee keeps hitting high notes in its sophomore year, and veteran dramas House and Bones still draw steady ratings. Fox also started programming Fridays in midseason, shifting cult hit Fringe to the mostly abandoned night, and saw the show’s audience follow.
WHAT’S NEEDED: Fox is still in search of a live-action half-hour hit, and is looking to be more aggressive in its comedy development this year. Last fall’s Raising Hope got an early second-season renewal, but its numbers are modest; Fox clearly hopes it can grow the show’s audience. The network’s penchant for quirky comedies with niche, passionate audiences failed to produce a winner this year: Running Wilde underwhelmed, midseason’s Traffic Light seems certain to be cancelled and newest entry Breaking In remains on the bubble. With Glee as a launch pad, Fox needs to pop a sitcom worthy of building a comedy block around.
WHERE THEY STAND: New network topper Mark Pedowitz will be in his job just three weeks when the CW makes its upfront presentation, and he will be touting a development slate conceived by Dawn Ostroff, outgoing CW entertainment president. With oversight of both the business and entertainment divisions, Pedowitz is tasked with leveraging the channel’s niche programming for young women into a viable broadcast network business model. The net recently gave wellrespected development head Thom Sherman additional responsibility for unscripted series, perhaps signaling a renewed commitment to the genre. The CW could use another alternative hit—America’s Next Top Model, a holdover from the UPN days, needs some company, and midseason’s Shedding for the Wedding was D.O.A.
WHAT’S WORKING: The CW has found its niche in melodramas starring young beautiful starlets like The Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl and 90210. Those three series, along with Top Model and Supernatural, have already been given early renewals for 2011-12. But the CW’s development this year signals a conscious effort to expand its reputation from primetime soaps into franchise shows. Three of its pilots are procedurals, with Cooper and Stone (police), Danni Lowinski (legal) and Hart of Dixie (medical). Getting away from series about high school kids would broaden the net’s appeal, and the addition of procedurals means the benefi t of story lines that extend past graduation—as well as improve their repeatability potential.
WHAT’S NEEDED: A new drama to break out as a cult hit. With neither of last fall’s entries assured a renewal, the network needs another Vampire Diaries, not another Hellcats.
WHERE THEY STAND: New NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt has his work cut out for him in rebuilding the fourth-place network. But don’t expect to see him spending his way back à la the Jeff Zucker-era NBC. After big-ticket dramas from familiar names like Undercovers, Chase and The Event fizzled, look for Greenblatt, a former Showtime exec, to take some risks in his programming choices. “What will not work—at least not for NBC—is the tried and true,” he says. That doesn’t mean the network won’t be investing in programming. NBCU CEO Steve Burke said during Comcast’s earnings call last week the company will ramp up primetime spending to $200 million this year (though that does include still digging out of the dearth left by the Jay Leno 10 p.m. disaster). But as Burke noted, money alone won’t turn around NBC’s fortunes. “The real key to turning around NBC is not necessarily the increased investment,” Burke said. “The real key is making better shows.”
WHAT’S WORKING: NBC may have found a ratings building block in new singing competition series The Voice, which opened to 11.8 million viewers and a 5.1 rating in the key 18-49 demo and grew in week two. The net’s Thursday comedy block got an early renewal, but Steve Carell’s departure from The Office leaves NBC’s top scripted show in limbo. That, combined with Alec Baldwin spouting 30 Rock final season rumors, means buzz-worthy but modestly rated Community and Parks & Recreation need some new company in the wings (more successful than Outsourced, Perfect Couples or The Paul Reiser Show proved to be). While most of this year’s drama crop was dismal, Harry’s Law, yet another legal drama from David E. Kelley, proved a surprising hit (even to many of those at NBC), drawing a sizeable audience at the tricky 10 p.m. hour.
WHAT’S NEEDED: “Patience—from the audience, from the advertising community and from the press,” says Greenblatt. Good luck with that. A breakout hit wouldn’t hurt either.
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