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 Mother, 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.

Effect:
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 Agents 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.

‘Revenge’

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 Angels 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.

Effect:
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 Engagement 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 Mother 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