Broadcasters Seek Better Ratings With Expanded Worldview

The Big Five are set for their turn on the upfront circuit with an eye toward doubling down on their diversity success

Why This Matters

WHY THIS MATTERS
With stiff competition from cable and digital, broadcast nets face an upfront of reckoning this month.

During the 2014-15 TV season, broadcast networks have seen continued erosion of live/same-day ratings, but if there is a ray of hope, it is the success they found with increased on-screen diversity.

“We appeal to a young audience and young people today live in a multicultural world,” Fox Broadcasting COO Joe Earley told B&C in March, when discussing the record-breaking success of Empire. “It’s not just social responsibility, it is actually part of the business.”

Many of the successful newcomers this year featured series with diverse casts, most notably Empire, Fox’s hip-hop drama that blasted off into the stratosphere and never came back down. ABC can credit much of its success this year to its pair of African-American-led efforts in How to Get Away With Murder and Blackish, as well as Fresh Off the Boat, the first sitcom with an Asian-American lead in 20 years. The CW broke through the cultural barrier this season with Jane the Virgin, fronted by Gina Rodriguez (who is of Puerto Rican descent). Even Fox’s other breakout show, Gotham, featured Jada Pinkett Smith in a key role.

“I think the changes in the demographics in the U.S. are every bit as important a revolution as the technological changes that we’re all going through,” ABC’s entertainment chairman Paul Lee said in his executive session at the TCA winter press tour. “I think it’s our job to reflect America.”

It’s a safe bet that we’ll see even more minority and female-fronted shows on the air next season, along with some typical next entries in tried-and-true franchises. As the networks begin to pick up pilots for series orders and make the final call on bubble shows, here is how the broadcasters stack up a week before Upfronts.

ABC

WHAT WORKED: Comedy. It was a strong season for ABC’s sitcom team, as the network’s diversity push paid off. In Blackish, ABC finally found a companion for Modern Family, and the placing of The Goldbergs between Modern Family and The Middle boosted the sophomore comedy. Asian-American comedy Fresh Off the Boat delivered buzz and—more important—stable ratings leading off Tuesdays. On Thursday, ABC tripled down on Shonda Rhimes-produced dramas with How to Get Away With Murder, which was the season’s top rookie until Fox’s Empire stole the show.

WHAT DIDN’T: Despite the box office prowess of Marvel, ABC’s two series from the studio did not produce super-powered ratings, though Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was at least consistent week-to-week. Before Fresh Off the Boat stabilized the 8 p.m. time slot on Tuesdays, ABC swung and missed with a pair of comedies in Selfie and Manhattan Love Story. American Crime had a tough time filling the shoes left by How to Get Away With Murder.

LOOKING AHEAD: ABC appears to have fewer holes than in years past, though it’s still keeping the comedy wheel churning with Chevy Chase-Beverly DeAngelo’s Chevy and an NBA-themed buddy sitcom. Despite the meager numbers from Marvel, ABC—which like Marvel is owned by Disney—is furthering its relationship with the comic book-based studio. The two are developing a spinoff to S.H.I.E.L.D. (likely ensuring a third season for the Avengers-spinoff) and another project helmed by John Ridley (American Crime). ABC is also developing a new series around The Muppets.

CBS

WHAT WORKED: Football. CBS was able to kill two birds with one stone with its seven Thursday Night Football games this past season. Having primetime football on Thursdays helped the network lap its competition on an important night for advertisers. With its comedy lineup being held back until late-October, CBS was able to use The Big Bang Theory on Mondays to launch drama Scorpion. NCIS: New Orleans, third stop in the successful franchise, was this season’s most-watched newcomer, and comedy Mom became a key pillar in its sophomore year. With The Odd Couple, CBS finally ended Matthew Perry’s post-Friends losing streak.

WHAT DIDN’T: Any drama besides NCIS: New Orleans. While Scorpion launched strong, its ratings tumbled after Big Bang moved back to Thursdays, though its early-season success was rewarded with a renewal. The net’s two Wednesday dramas, Stalker and CSI: Cyber, did not sink in the 10 p.m. time slot, but did not improve in it either. Sunday dramas Madam Secretary and Battle Creek attracted sizable overall audiences but miniscule ratings in the advertiser-coveted adults 18-49 demo, but didn’t have the prestige of similarly low-rated The Good Wife. (Madam Secretary did get a second season pickup, however.) The McCarthys, CBS’ other new comedy this season, was a non-starter on Thursdays and The Millers was somewhat surprisingly shuttered midway through its second year.

LOOKING AHEAD: CBS will once again have Thursday Night Football, though weeks will be a bit different than last year; even so, expect the network to again delay its Thursday comedy lineup and use The Big Bang Theory to launch new series on another night. CBS will continue its strategy of adding new versions of its existing procedural dramas, this time with Criminal Minds. However, the network will also go a bit off-brand with Supergirl, becoming the latest broadcaster to try to mine ratings from comic book properties. Look also for developing adaptations of films Limitless and Rush Hour, and transgender actress Laverne Cox top-lining the legal drama pilot Doubt.

FOX

WHAT WORKED: Empire. Fox had the biggest hit on broadcast television in years with the soapy hip-hop drama, which became the story of the season during its record-breaking two-month run. Before Empire exploded, Gotham was Fox’s lone bright spot in an otherwise dreary fall. Last Man on Earth fit in nicely with the rest of Fox’s “Sunday Funday” lineup, which was also boosted by the addition of Brooklyn Nine-Nine sandwiched between The Simpsons and Family Guy.

WHAT DIDN’T: All of its fall fare besides Gotham. Utopia was a pricey misfire—which hastened the end of Simon Andreae’s very brief tenure as reality chief—and Red Band Society, Mulaneyand Gracepoint barely registered. Midseason entries Backstrom and Weird Loners struggled as well, though Fox’s long relationship with Backstrom’s Hart Hanson makes a sophomore campaign a bit more likely.

LOOKING AHEAD: Despite having the biggest breakout in years for broadcast, Fox still has a lot of question marks. Its Sunday lineup aside, the network could use an infusion of new comedies, with ratings for veterans such as New Girl and The Mindy Project resembling a fraction of what they were a few years ago. Fox’s drama coffers look pretty full, with Gotham, Empire and Sleepy Hollow already renewed and Bones likely to return for an 11th season, joining newcomer Scream Queens. Fox also has in contention Minority Report, Frankenstein and Lucifer—another D.C. Comics adaptation.

NBC

WHAT WORKED: Not much. NBC still gets much of its ratings boost from Sunday Night Football in the fall, and The Voice is still a strong (though not as strong as it used to be) performer despite fears of audience fatigue. Mysteries of Laura was the best of a bad crop of newcomers for NBC, managing to draw a sizeable overall audience. Dick Wolf’s Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. have been reliable contributors.

WHAT DIDN’T: NBC had a string of misfires this season, failing to launch a single scripted hit, as viewers rejected the likes of American Odyssey, Allegiance, One Big Happy, A to Z and Bad Judge. Despite The Blacklist’s strong return on Mondays, the net’s decision to move it to Thursdays appears to be an unwise one, as one of the few scripted hits for NBC saw its ratings tumble in a much more competitive time slot. A.D. The Bible Continues did not inspire the same following as History’s The Bible.

LOOKING AHEAD: NBC will likely finish the 2014-15 season near the top of the ratings charts, but a large part of that is due to SNF (and Super Bowl XLIX), The Voice and the first half of The Blacklist’s sophomore season. The lack of any breakout hits and the end of Parks & Recreation’s run left NBC’s comedy cupboard bare, making it likely that newcomers such as Eva Longoria-starrer Telenovela and its Coach sequel will have to be self-starters. NBC will also look to expand Dick Wolf’s Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. with Chicago Med, having aired a back-door pilot this season for the potential spinoff. Expect the network to yet again retool its Thursday lineup.

THE CW

WHAT WORKED: It was a very strong season for The CW. The Flash quickly became one of its best series—it was the third-most watched series debut ever—and Jane the Virgin gave The CW some much-needed cultural cache. Jane even nabbed a pair of Golden Globe wins, the first in CW history, including one for breakout star Gina Rodriguez. Midseason entry iZombie has been a capable performer and appears headed for a second season.

WHAT DIDN’T: Not much went wrong for The CW, with The Messengers the only non-bona fide hit this season (it only recently launched on Fridays). The network was not able to get a ratings boost for Jane the Virgin following Rodriguez’s Globe win. The Vampire Dairies began to show its age in its sixth season and will now have to deal with the loss of star Nina Dobrev.

LOOKING AHEAD: The CW doesn’t have very many open spots on its schedule heading into next fall, having already renewed its entire fall schedule. With the expected addition of the Flash-Arrow crossover series—giving The CW a fifth D.C. Comics-inspired show (which is owned by parent Warner Bros.)—don’t expect too many changes as the net hopes to maintain its success.