The Big Five's Most Wanted
A look at what’s working—and what isn’t—for the five major broadcast networks, and what each really needs this fall
By Andrea Morabito -- Broadcasting & Cable, 5/7/2012 12:01:00 AMBroadcast Nets Looking for a Break, and Breakouts
WHERE THEY STAND: After a 2010-11 season that bombed on the drama side, ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee’s first development slate fared much better, launching the season’s highestrated rookie drama in Once Upon a Time and giving the network a buzz-worthy (if moderately rated) hit in Revenge. But the hyped Southern soap GCB has not proved a worthy inheritor of the departing Desperate Housewives’ Sunday slot, and Thursday at 8 p.m. continues to be a problem time period, failing to launch both the critically reviled Charlie’s Angels and better-reviewed Ashley Judd drama Missing this season. Though Suburgatory has proven a suitable companion to The Middle and Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 has done well, Last Man Standing has generally failed to jump-start a new night of comedy for the network. If Last Man is given a second season, the show will need a stronger pairing to survive.
WHAT’S WORKING: Modern Family continues its reign over scripted television, often ranking above American Idol as the top-rated show on TV once DVR viewing is factored in. Grey’s Anatomy is still ABC’s highest-rated drama eight seasons in, though it stands to be vulnerable should several cast members choose to defect at the end of their contracts this season. And in addition to Once Upon a Time and Revenge, late midseason entry Scandal has hovered at a steady and respectable 2.0 rating among adults 18-49 at 10 p.m. the last month.
WHAT’S NEEDED: After one of the weaker castings on Dancing With the Stars this season—and ratings to reflect it—the show needs to up its game or change its format to stay fresh (as the producers hinted at last week in regard to a rumored all-star season) especially since it may face NBC’s The Voice again as soon as next fall. Despite some drama success, ABC needs more waiting in the wings to replace Desperate and the aging Grey’s. And another breakout comedy wouldn’t hurt. After all, the network can’t lead everything out of Modern Family.
WHERE THEY STAND: As always, the most-watched network has few schedule holes to fill, and its large-scale renewal of 18 series in March made it clear where they are.
WHAT’S WORKING: A lot—including the breakout comedy 2 Broke Girls and The Big Bang Theory, which is only improving with age (and a syndication debut). CBS’ Monday night remains steady, helped by a still-dominant Two and a Half Men, and Person of Interest has proven a solid drama performer, if perhaps not quite living up to its high-profile time slot. The returns of NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, Hawaii Five-0, Criminal Minds, CSI, The Mentalist, Blue Bloods and The Good Wife gives CBS a strong drama bench to launch the few replacements it does need.
WHAT’S NEEDED: If CBS goes for two hours of comedy on Thursdays, it will need strong pilots that can earn a respectable retention out of hits like The Big Bang Theory—not an easy task, as proven by past duds like How to Be a Gentleman. One of Thursday’s bubble comedies, Rules of Engagement or Rob!, could survive—probably not both—but the net needs a comedy with real breakout potential to make two hours of laughs stick.
WHERE THEY STAND: The current season did not produce the headlines the young female-skewing network needed, as it saw the partial ratings collapse of America’s Next Top Model, previously The CW’s second-highest-rated show. New reality entry Re-Modeled posted the network’s lowest-rated premiere ever. None of the network’s three new dramas—Hart of Dixie, Ringer and The Secret Circle—proved breakouts. On the plus side, a syndication deal struck with Netflix last fall finally gave the network a needed back-end revenue stream.
WHAT’S WORKING: The Vampire Diaries continues to be The CW’s top-rated series, and 90210 and Supernatural draw big enough audiences (relatively speaking) to warrant renewal and serve as launch pads for new series.
WHAT’S NEEDED: The network needs to replace aging series like Gossip Girl and the departed One Tree Hill with shows that can draw in its digitally inclined target demo live. “I’m looking for shows that have the capability to bring audiences back live to the [network] at the same time,” CW president Mark Pedowitz says. While ANTM declined in the overnights, the net saw digital viewing of the series increase; The CW plans to re-format the show in the fall with a big social media component embedded in the selection process to help encourage live viewing. And as it did last year with Ringer, The CW will continue to broaden out its appeal with pilots like the comic book-based Arrow and Hunger Games-esque The Selection. “We have a core audience of women 18-34, but the game plan is to open it up to the complete demo of 18-34,” Pedowitz says.
WHERE THEY STAND: Having built cornerstones in its schedule with the year-round lineup of The X Factor and American Idol, Fox has a limited number of hours to fill. But the net’s scripted series need to catch up to the success of its reality franchises. Having seen high-concept dramas like Terra Nova and Alcatraz come and go this season, Fox isn’t going as far afi eld conceptually in the few drama pilots it did order, sticking to series with spies, lawyers and doctors. On the comedy side, Glee’s star is fading fast, so the net needs to pop some more long-term players to keep New Girl company. Fox has doubled down on the genre, ordering twice as many comedy pilots as dramas.
WHAT’S WORKING: New Girl was a happy success story, finally giving Fox a bona fide half-hour live-action hit and helping define the network’s comedy brand. American Idol, though down this season, is certainly not out; it is still the highestrated live-viewed show on television. The X Factor, despite falling short of sky-high expectations, still helped Fox rank first in the fall (tying CBS) for only the second time in its history.
WHAT’S NEEDED: Replenishing the drama inventory is key as House is retiring, Bones is embarking on its eighth season and Fringe’s next season will be its last. And if the network wants to try again for a four-comedy block, it will need more compatible pairings than I Hate My Teenage Daughter and Breaking In proved to be this season.
WHERE THEY STAND: As with The CW, NBC’s leadership is going to need more than one season to turn around the flailing network. Its biggest problem is launching pads, as proven by the number of failed series this year: The Playboy Club, Free Agents, Prime Suspect, The Firm (we could go on). Even The Office, NBC’s top scripted series, has taken a precipitous fall this season without Steve Carell. “For us to be able to have the declined viewership that we have and throw a show out there at 8 o’clock and expect a big number is unrealistic,” says NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke. “It’s going to be about building hits one block at a time and then trying to position our strongest material behind those things.”
WHAT’S WORKING: “Thank God for The Voice,” is a familiar mantra spouted by NBC brass, giving the fourth-place network its only true launching pad. The Voice helped Smash earn a second-season renewal (if falling short of breakout status), and the latter series’ 2.3 18-49 demo rating makes it a solid 10 p.m. contender. Even Grimm is considered a success by NBC standards, especially on Friday nights. And a revival of Fear Factor proved a solid performer for the network around the holidays, giving it a utility player that can be dropped into the schedule as needed.
WHAT’S NEEDED: Something—anything—to break out. And with a lack of strong lead-ins, NBC’s pilots will largely have to be self-starters, which is a tall order. Yet Salke says she is cautiously optimistic about NBC’s development slate. “We have to believe if we have something that breaks through, that is a great show and has the quality and vision to back it up and we market it and put our marketing passion behind it that it can work,” she says.
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