As the broadcast networks head into the final months of a particularly grueling season with few new hits to speak of, the pressure is on to find another scripted series to prop up a failing average.
The handful of spring premieres represent the networks' last crack at scripted redemption before they cede the field to cable, reality and backyard barbecues for the summer. And while spring has historically yielded some breakout hits like ABC's Grey's Anatomy, this year has been marked by a dearth of them.
“The networks should be credited for trying to create a surprise success going into the upfront season while there is still enough critical mass to sample a series,” says John Rash, senior VP/director of media analysis at Campbell Mithun. “But it remains to be seen if any of these shows will be seen next year because to date most have struggled in the ratings.”
But Thursday's premiere of Southland on NBC and Harper's Island on CBS at least had network executives breathing a sigh of relief. While neither drama posted out-of-the-box-hit numbers, they both premiered strong in head-to-head competition Thursday night at 10 in ER's former spot. Harper's Island claimed victory among total viewers with 10.2 million to Southland's 9.9 million, while NBC's John Wells cop drama prevailed in the 18-49 demo, posting a 3.2/9 to Harper's 2.6/8.
Thanks to a special Office lead-in, the premiere of Amy Poehler's Parks and Recreation also gave NBC another bit of solid news with a 3.0/9 and 6.9 million viewers, a significant improvement over Kath & Kim, which had languished in the Thursday 8:30 p.m. slot. That helped ease NBC's pain after recent busts such as Kings, which was banished from Sunday to Saturday.
“It's been a tough midseason for everyone,” concedes Mitch Metcalf, executive VP, program planning and scheduling at NBC.
CBS has benefited from a stable schedule of dependable comedies and crime procedurals this season, growing 13% in total viewers and 7% in 18-49, while every other network is down. But CBS has also been dogged by its older audience. Harper's Island was a bid to attract a younger viewer, according to Kelly Kahl, senior executive VP, CBS Primetime.
“It's clearly a different kind of show for us,” he says. “Generally I'd say we're pleased [with the premiere ratings]. We still have a little work to do. Serialized shows tend to build over the first couple of weeks.”
ABC has bowed the most new scripted series this spring and finally got some good news last week after a tough run of late, as the premieres of Surviving Suburbia and The Unusuals were both solid. With a big Dancing With The Stars lead-in, Suburbia—the Bob Saget comedy that was originally supposed to air on The CW's MRC-programmed Sunday night—posted a healthy 3.0/7 with 12.2 million viewers. On Wednesday, The Unusuals was second in the 10 p.m. time slot behind CSI: NY, averaging 2.0/6 and 6.8 million viewers.
And while crime drama Castle had a decent premiere (11.6 million viewers, 3.3 rating), helped by the season premiere of reality juggernaut Dancing, Castle was down to a 2.3 rating with 9 million viewers by last week.
Viewers are showing Tuesday drama Cupid no love. A weak premiere on March 31 (2.3/6, 7.5 million viewers) was followed by a worse performance in week two (1.6/4, 6.2 million viewers). It's also hard to fathom ABC renewing comedies In the Motherhood and Better Off Ted. Last week, neither cracked 5 million viewers, with Ted managing only a 1.8/5 while In the Motherhood was down to a 1.3/6.
An ABC executive was unavailable last week for comment.
Fox has once again flattened the competition this spring with American Idol. The network is rolling out midseason replacements sparingly. Glee, the new Ryan Murphy dramedy, will get a special preview behind Idol on May 19. But regular episodes won't bow until the fall. New animated comedy Sit Down, Shut Up premieres April 19 at 8:30 p.m. between new episodes of The Simpsons and Family Guy. Lie to Me, which bowed in January, is holding steady for the network, last week posting a 2.5/8 with 8.4 million viewers. Preston Beckman, executive VP, strategic programming and planning at Fox, says Lie To Me is likely to return next season, as the network will give it summer repeat airings.
“As ABC has learned painfully, when you put shows on in the spring you have to really be careful how you evaluate them,” he says. “[Lie to Me] feels like a show that with patience and in the right time period, next year can really grow into a player for us.”