Fall of Surprises

What has popped, what has disappointed and what it all means for the rest of the season

A month ago, B&C asked broadcast network
brass what they were most eager to see play out
this fall, and just three weeks into the 2011-12
season, some answers are already starting to take shape.

Fall claimed its first two casualties last week when
NBC cancelled low-rated drama The Playboy Club and
comedy Free Agents, a likely outcome given the series’
falling numbers.

But other story lines from early fall were more surprising,
both pleasant and disappointing. While it is
still too early in the season to make vast pronouncements,
the third week does tend to be where the rubber
meets the road, as one network exec put it. With
that in mind, here are fall’s biggest primetime surprises
so far for the broadcast networks—and what they
each mean to the television landscape.

‘Two and a Half Men’

Ashton Kutcher proved the
Simon Cowell rule that when it
comes to a long-running series with
a large following, do not overestimate
the importance of a single star.
While eight months ago CBS was
not sure if they would even have
a show come fall, now they have
a renewed hit. Though the ratings
have been dropping steadily since
its massive return, the show is still
tracking almost 35% ahead of its
year-ago average, which is comically
more than CBS could have
hoped for. More than that, in its first
episodes, Men drew ratings thought
impossible for a scripted show in today’s TV landscape.
“People are watching television in large numbers, and
we’re thrilled that they’re watching CBS, but I think it
really speaks to the power of broadcast TV,” says Nina
Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment.

Effect: The strong return for Two and a Half Men
underscores the overall continuing strength of CBS’
Monday comedy block. Rookie 2 Broke Girls received
a full-season pickup last week, as expected given its
crown as fall’s top new comedy, giving CBS a likely
half-hour staple for years to come. Mike & Molly has
gotten a ratings bump, up 10% over last year thanks
to Emmy-winning star Melissa McCarthy’s increased
visibility and the growth of Men. Even How I Met Your
, seven seasons in, is up 30% in the adult 18-
49 demo, buoyed perhaps by a syndication debut. All
in all, the performances have secured CBS’ hold over
Monday nights.

‘New Girl’

Fox’s quirky Zooey Deschanel comedy has been the
poster girl of this season’s comedy resurgence. While the
series had great buzz and reviews going into its premiere,
how well it has done is surprising only because unlike
CBS, Fox has traditionally struggled to find a breakout,
live-action half-hour hit. Also surprising is the fact that
New Girl has built on its Glee lead-in every week, and
though that may say more about the fate of Glee, it is still
unexpected for a freshman show.

Effect: With New Girl picked up for a full season
and already leading Fox’s Tuesdays, it improves the odds
of success for the network’s planned four-comedy block
in the spring, which, along with Raising Hope, could include
the resurrected Breaking In and comedy pilot Little
in Common
, giving Fox its long-desired live-action sitcom
block. “Given the numbers that we’re seeing, do we
feel more comfortable about saying it’s the tentpole of a
four-comedy block? De! nitely,” says Preston Beckman,
executive VP of strategic program planning and research
at Fox. “It makes us feel better about it and more positive
about it. And it also gives our comedy development
people some kind of road map for what kind of shows
should we be developing for next year.”

‘Up All Night’

In a fall with not much good news for NBC (besides
football), Up All Night has been somewhat of a bright
spot on a super-competitive Wednesday night. While
Whitney is tracking higher, it has the benefit of the strongest
lead-in NBC can offer in The Office. Up All Night,
however, has done the heavy lifting on its own starting
off Wednesday nights. After benefitting from some solid
sampling out of the America’s Got Talent season finale, the
show has dropped off but is still posting better numbers
than Community, a show in its third year.

With a full-season order for Up All Night,
NBC can claim success on one of its fall goals, opening
up a new night of comedy, even though Free
has proved a dismal companion. With Whitney
also getting a back-nine pickup and 30 Rock still to
return, it is possible Up All Night could get a stronger
companion come midseason.

Struggling With Reality

Punctuated by The X Factor’s lower-than-expected debut,
reality shows have taken a hit in the first few weeks of fall as comedy shines. Dancing With the Stars recently
posted its lowest-rated performance show
ever and The Biggest Loser is fading where it once
dominated Tuesday, down 18% year-over-year. “Reality
shows have gotten beaten up pretty good early
on, and there are some people who probably enjoy
that,” says Brad Adgate, research director at Horizon
Media. Count Modern Family cocreator Steve
Levitan among that group . When the ABC sitcom
topped The X Factor premiere ratings, he took to
Twitter to claim victory of scripted comedy over an
“overhyped karaoke contest.”

Effect: While it is tempting to use the fading
reality ratings to signal fatigue in the genre, the
smarter minds say that the ratings have to do with
the shows, or perhaps their number of hours on
the schedule, not the format. “It is requiring an awful
large time commitment from people,” says one
network exec. “I think people are starting to be a little
pickier.” If The X Factor’s opening was disappointing, it
does at least remove the fear that it will take any shine
off Idol when it returns at midseason, and given NBC’s
weak-as-expected fall, you can be sure they’ll be throwing
all their weight behind growing The Voice in season two.

‘Terra Nova’

Fox’s big-swing drama fell into the X Factor camp of
otherwise solid numbers tempered by great expectations
and expensive budgets. “Most would consider that a pretty
good launch, but at the end of the day at that cost, is that
going to be worth it?” asks a rival network exec. While
Terra Nova can claim 100% retention in week two, a rare
feat for a rookie show, it is too early to tell if the numbers
will be enough to justify a sophomore season.

Effect: While Terra Nova continues the story line of
improving Fox’s fall, failing to break out in a big way so
far leaves the door open for any of Fox’s midseason dramas—
Alcatraz, Touch, The Finder—to prove themselves
a more cost-effective value to the schedule.


ABC has been modest with its rollout of new series,
with three fall shows still to premiere three weeks into
the season. But the network has reason to be cautiously
optimistic about Revenge, its soapy, Hamptons-set drama.
After opening as the fall’s top-rated drama out of
Modern Family, it fell off about 20% in week two but is
hanging in at a 2.5, good for second place in the hour.
Working in its favor for growth is positive buzz and a
strong sitcom lineup to follow.

Effect: With Desperate Housewives in its final season
and Grey’s Anatomy losing steam, no doubt ABC needs
to replenish its aging drama coffers. Revenge seems a
likelier successor than the sure-to-be-cancelled Charlie’s
and risky Once Upon a Time, especially if Pan Am,
which opened well but dropped off in week two, fails
to fly going forward.

‘How to Be a Gentleman’

Though the soft (by CBS standards) opening likely
did not surprise critics, CBS was surely hoping for better
from the Thursday comedy in week one. While the
premiere number was not bad on paper (2.7 household
rating, 9 million viewers), How to Be a Gentleman posted
a poor 55% retention out of The Big Bang Theory.

Given CBS’ desire to support new drama Person
of Interest
at 9 p.m., it’s unlikely Gentleman will remain
in the time period at those numbers (it could be off the air,
or moved to Saturday, by the time you read this). While
the network has an easy solution of moving in Rules of
from Saturday, cancellation would mean another
failure in popping a new sitcom in the time slot that
already claimed $#*! My Dad Says last year.

The CW Comes Back From the Dark

While the fifth English-language broadcast network
can’t claim a breakout hit this fall, The CW does
at least seem no worse for the wear after taking the
summer off. The network can be optimistic about
the early numbers for all three of its new scripted
shows —Hart of Dixie, Ringer and The Secret Circle
being mostly on par with their established lead-ins,
and in the case of Dixie, actually building on it. Ringer
was part of The CW’s strategy to invite in viewers
who may not have sampled the network before, and
with a median age of 39, the show is starting to
plant the seeds for future programming that could
skew a bit older than typical for the network.

Effect: New CW President Mark Pedowitz
knows better than to expect massive fall ratings
on a network that has been dark for four months,
and hence is already developing programming for
next summer as well as midseason to keep the
lights on year-round at The CW. “For us, it’s going
to be a build. We’re going to have more programming
throughout the course of the year, which should help
us next summer in circulation,” he says. “We’re looking
at 50 to 60 more hours from what we did a year ago.”

Returning Shows

With Two and a Half Men being the prime example,
audiences have come back to their favorite shows in a
big way this fall, particularly in comedy. How I Met Your
had its highest-rated season opener ever going
into its seventh season. Modern Family is tracking a full
ratings point higher in the key demo than this time last
year. The Office, while off from last year minus Steve
Carell, is still pulling strong numbers for NBC.

Effect: Many a network president talked about the
desire to add more comedy to the schedule at upfront
time. And with the strength of returning sitcoms, they
have the launch pads necessary to do so—as in the case
of 2 Broke Girls and Whitney this year—and going forward.
But it has also boosted the morale of the broadcast
television industry and the people who work in it to see
that network television can still draw a crowd. Despite
the buzz that cable launches like Showtime’s Homeland
and FX’s American Horror Story drew, network execs
have been pleased overall to see the power of broadcast
on display the first few weeks of this season.

E-mail comments to amorabito@nbmedia.com
and follow her on Twitter: @andreamorabito