BEST SCHEDULING MOVE:
Grey's Anatomy to Thursday
ABC is back in the game on TV's most lucrative night, thanks to the switch of Grey's Anatomy to Thursday. And it has helped the network overall. “We didn't think, with the loss of Monday Night Football, we would be as competitive as we are,” says ABC scheduling chief Jeff Bader. “But Grey's is making up for the loss.” Putting telenovela adaptation Ugly Betty on at 8 p.m. ET has helped, too, but the network will have to make a move at 10: Serial drama Six Degrees is bleeding too many of the viewers that the network has finally begun to draw in earlier in the night.
WORST SCHEDULING MOVE:
Everybody Hates Chris to Sunday
One of the most promising comedies on TV when it debuted last year on UPN—and a potential anchor for the new CW—Everybody Hates Chris began its second season this fall at 7 p.m. on Sunday, when many target viewers are watching football. After a sluggish start, The CW moved it to Monday at 8, but the show's luster has worn off.
Almost as ill-conceived was NBC's decision to schedule Twenty Good Years at all. The geriatric sitcom, starring heavy-hitters John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor, misfired badly and was shelved last week.
MOST UNDERRATED SHOW:
Pop quiz: Who stars in this CBS drama about an elite group of FBI behavioral analysts? About 16 million viewers per week could tell you it's Mandy Patinkin, but Criminal Minds may be the least-talked-about hit in recent years. Now in its second season, the series regularly ranks among the top 10 network shows. Lost may be a cultural phenomenon—and it still dominates in the 18-49 demo—but Criminal Minds has proved that it can beat the ABC show head-to-head in total households on any given Wednesday night.
MOST OVERRATED SHOW:
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
The NFL and supernatural serial Heroes have brightened NBC's fall, but Studio 60 has been an unmitigated disappointment. Despite a big-name ensemble cast, big-name creator and huge pre-launch buzz, early samplers have fallen away week after week, and the show looks to be settling in at just above a 3 rating. Yes, the audience skews upscale, but it's never a good sign when a network keeps pointing that out. Most Americans didn't care about behind-the-camera drama the last time Aaron Sorkin mined that vein on Sports Night, and they don't seem to care about it now.
MOST SURPRISING TURNAROUND:
In its 13th season, ER has emerged from its midlife stupor to become one of NBC's strongest assets—yet again—prompting the network to kill its plan for a midseason hiatus. The modest performances of its competitors, new dramas Shark on CBS and Six Degrees on ABC, have certainly helped. “Clearly, the dramas against it are struggling, and we are benefiting from the tune-out,” says NBC Executive VP of Scheduling Mitch Metcalf. The show's dramatic jump in viewers coming out of game show Deal or No Deal has prompted NBC executives to joke that ABC's Grey's Anatomy may be the best lead-in ER has ever had.
NBC executives may have backed off on the “Reality-at-8” mandate they touted as part of the network's plans to cut costs on primetime scripted series, but the point stands: Unscripted programs are potent and lucrative. From ABC's Dancing With the Stars to The CW's America's Top Model to CBS' still-strong Survivor, reality television and its relatively inexpensive production budgets are enjoying a second boom. And not just on broadcast. It surely hasn't escaped NBC that shows like Project Runway and Top Chef on its cable cousin Bravo and Flavor of Love on VH1 are attracting viewers and buzz to cable networks.
With the number of new serialized dramas in the double digits, networks may be learning that they can expect only so much of a commitment from viewers. Heroes and CBS' Jericho may have hooked viewers, but the glut of similar shows (including NBC's Kidnapped), along with their limited backend value in syndication, suggests that this genre has overstayed its welcome. Meanwhile, the network sitcom has remained on the endangered-species list as another fall has come and gone without a new hit. Twenty Good Years is off the schedule, Fox's comedies haven't worked, CBS' The Class has underwhelmed, and ABC seems afraid to launch any of its own.
MOST SURPRISING DEVELOPMENT:
The Success of Jericho
It's a show about American survivors of a nuclear attack. Like Surface, Invasion and Threshold—all of which bombed last year in attempting to tap into Lost's popularity—it has a sci-fi streak running through it. And of all the networks it might have found a home on, CBS is the least likely. So why is Jericho one of the best-performing rookies this fall and one of only a handful of new shows to be picked up for a full season?
If network executives knew the answer to that, they wouldn't have to launch so many new shows every fall.
LEAST SURPRISING DEVELOPMENT:
Networks' Itchy Trigger Fingers
Network executives like to chide the media for prematurely pronouncing shows dead, but they are the ones tweaking shows' schedules—or cancelling them altogether—after just a few airings. “We are both probably a little guilty of rushing to judgment,” says CBS head of scheduling Kelly Kahl, whose network was the first to cancel a show this fall, killing Smith after its third episode. Says NBC's Metcalf, “A few years ago, we would have been more patient, but now, you just can't afford to.”
THE NEXT GENRE TO BE MILKED DRY:
First, it was procedural dramas. Then, serialized dramas. Now, it's the game show's turn to be cloned ad nauseum in primetime. With the explosion of NBC's Deal or No Deal last year, the networks are falling over themselves to find the next hot (and cheap) hit game show. NBC just launched 1 vs 100, with host Bob Saget, and coming soon are ABC's Set for Life, starring Jimmy Kimmel, and Show Me the Money, starring William Shatner, as well as Fox's The Rich List. And that's just the start: A raft of ideas are making their way around Hollywood right now. Consider yourselves warned.