We’re only six days into November, but it appears the broadcast networks are already thinking mid-season. While some new series, such as NBC’s The Player, are playing out a shorter string of episodes, no rookie has been killed just yet. Thanks in part to the smash success of Fox’s Empire last winter, the networks are content to let low-rated shows—ones they would’ve outright killed in recent years—plod along, rather than disrupting the early ’16 slate.
“There’s a feeling that mid-season is a better time to get stuff going,” says Preston Beckman, former Fox executive VP of strategic program planning. “Look at Empire and even Last Man on Earth.”
The nets have forever spoken of programming year-round, and the new respect for the mid-season suggests they are increasingly acting on this. In this sense, broadcast is looking more like cable—shorter seasons, and more shows launching outside of fall. “It doesn’t mean anything when those [cable] seasons start,” says Bill Carroll, Katz Television Group senior VP and director of content strategy. “The networks are coming more adaptable to that.”
And so the likes of The Player, Scream Queens and Blood & Oil, for the time being, get to survive. “The successful series get their full season orders earlier,” says Carroll. “The less successful ones, they’re cutting back the number of episodes. Those shows are not being canceled—they just kind of fade away.”
NBC’s Blindspot, Fox’s new comedies, Grandfathered and The Grinder, and ABC’s TheMuppets, are among those with full-season orders. Yet 2015 so far lacks a true breakout star—and that includes the veteran shows. “I don’t believe any returning shows came back significantly higher or even where they were last year,” says Beckman.
CBS’ Supergirl thrived with a Big Bang Theory lead in (3.2 rating in viewers 18-49, per Nielsen overnights), not so much a week later without it (2.2). Even so, the superhero workplace drama showed that CBS can deliver beyond its brand. Life in Pieces, meanwhile, shows CBS doing well with a less conventional single-camera comedy. “If those two hold on, they can be building blocks,” says Beckman.
Medical procedural Rosewood too went outside of the typical Fox brand, and despite middling ratings (it’s hovering around a 1.5) got a full season order, entertainment president David Madden calling it “a real self-starter” and “the perfect complement to Empire.”
Blindspot rode a must-see opening scene, not to mention a massive Voice lead in, to a respectable rookie start (it’s scored a 2.2 in 18-49 the last couple weeks), and ABC’s Quantico has performed solidly despite a dismal lead in from fellow rookie Blood & Oil. Just like Mets second-sacker Daniel Murphy failing to keep up his daily home run pace in the World Series, Empire has finally seen ratings decrease after last season’s gravity defying performance. “But it’s still doing extremely well,” says Carroll.
The CW had big plans for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as its lone fall debutante, but the ratings have been lukewarm (0.3 in 18-49 this past airing). “It’s probably hurting Jane the Virgin a bit,” says Beckman.
Carroll also places The Muppets into the disappointment pile. Several influential critics had it at the top of their pre-season list, suggesting a potential breakout. “It did well enough for a full season order,” says Carroll, “but everyone believed it would do slightly better.”
Yet Fox’s Scream Queens, despite robust delayed viewing, may be the fall’s biggest disappointment. Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan created this way offbeat mix of humor and horror. “That had the pedigree and has not taken off at all,” says Carroll. “That was, in many ways, their kind of show. They have to be disappointed.”
The networks are quick to preach patience in terms of ratings—wait three days for a true number, and then four more for an even better one. For sure, that’s factoring into the low-rated shows staying afloat. But Beckman insists overnight ratings remain a fair metric, even in the age of the DVR and Netflix. “There’s no way you can convince anybody that, when all the votes are in, shows go from duds to moderately successful,” he says.
The World Series reinforced the notion that big audiences will turn up for big sports events—even ones not involving an oval pigskin. It was, on paper, a ratings-friendly matchup—a team from the nation’s largest market, not to mention one with a number of compelling personalities bearing made-for-TV nicknames (Thor, the Dark Knight), and one from the Midwest, where the sheer eyeballs lag New York or Los Angeles, but fans are rabid and tune-in levels are astronomical.
With the Fall Classic out of the way on Fox and Thursday Night Football done on CBS, entertainment rules prime again. Any number of program rookies could get their death sentence at any moment—it is, after all, Friday afternoon—but the new thinking among network execs may stay their execution.
“They’ll stick with them,” says Beckman, “unless it’s a complete and total disaster.”