How This Can Still Be A Breakout Season

No, the broadcast nets didn't pry out any hits this fall, but here's how midseason could come to the rescue
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The annual rite of American Idol promotions ramping
up on Fox means the broadcast networks are starting
to turn their sights to January, a second chance
to launch a television season. And after the networks collectively
failed to birth a new breakout hit this fall, midseason
can’t come soon enough.

But the news hasn’t remotely been all bad for broadcast, which has
seen only minimal drop-offs year-over-year in primetime ratings, both
in the coveted 18-49 demo and total viewers (see chart on opposite
page). These days, stemming the tide is good news, especially with
primetime broadcast ratings in a collective free fall for years. But this
year’s numbers have held up despite some serious road bumps, especially
at Fox, where the prized rookie of all the networks, Lone Star,
tanked and a short Giants-Rangers World Series didn’t help matters.

“That [the networks are] not off to a great start is always disappointing,”
says Bill Carroll, VP/director of programming at Katz
Television Group. “But the whole dynamic changes after the first of the year at midseason, when AmericanIdol becomes
part of the overall schedule.”

And while the networks won’t have prized
midseason assets like Lost and 24 to help
launch other new shows, there is plenty about
the upcoming midseason to watch out for.
Obviously all eyes will be on the new look
of American Idol without Simon Cowell, but
there are several factors that will decide the fate of a television season
whose story is still yet to be defined.

THE IDOL FACTOR

It may be entering double-digits in age, but when it comes to midseason,
it’s still all about American Idol. “A lot of what’s riding on how
the broadcast networks will do is based on what happens—or doesn’t
happen—with the newly reconfigured, Simon-free American Idol,” says
Shari Anne Brill, an independent media industry analyst.

As the show (finally) has started to show its age with falling ratings,
and now with a new judging panel of Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Stephen Tyler, everyone is waiting to see what will happen. “It’s
strange to say that [Idol is] the wildcard, but I think it is because you
have two things going against it: it’s in its 10th season, and Simon’s
gone,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media. “The
question is how dominant are they going to be, and that will determine
how well Fox will do in adults 18-49 for the season.”

Midseason_Chart1.jpg

And Fox’s rivals may be ready to pounce. While the final Idol
schedule has not been announced, it’s possible that Paula Abdul’s new
CBS show Live to Dance, slated for Wednesdays at 8 p.m. starting in
January, may go up against her former series, at least in the beginning.

“The other networks will be looking to see if there’s any vulnerability
in American Idol, and at that point they might go counter-program
against that,” says Carroll.

CBS insists that scheduling Live to Dance on Wednesdays is not a
stab at Idol, but rather a bridge show for Survivor. In fact, CBS execs
say—in an opinion mirrored by other networks—that while they don’t know how the Death Star will fare with its new casting, they
wouldn’t dare expect a massive falloff.

While Idol will be down one acerbic British judge, it is adding music
industry executive Jimmy Iovine as a mentor; Brill thinks Iovine
could re-insert that missing element. “He also is bold and brash and
doesn’t mince words, and will dish out that brutal honesty that everyone
loved Simon for,” Brill says.

And Simon or not, Fox remains con! dent that the show will survive
this year’s road bumps. Network execs have long maintained the
contestants are the real key to Idol, not the judges.

“I don’t think any network could have handled Idol as well as we’ve
handled Idol. We know it inside, outside, upside-down—we know it,”
says Preston Beckman, Fox executive VP, strategic program planning
and research.

Even if Idol continues to drop off, that decline is still relative, and
no one doubts that it won’t still be the most-watched show on television.
American Idol will decline, but even if it loses 10% of its viewership,
it’s still going to be probably the top show among adults 18-49,”
says Brill. “It would have to be universally panned for that show to
be in trouble.”

CAN THE NETWORKS WAKE UP 10 P.M.?

Despite last year’s promising entry The Good Wife, a dominant 10
p.m. drama continues to elude the networks in a time slot where
NYPD Blue and ER once dominated. Good Wife has failed to greatly
build its audience from last season like Glee and Modern Family, and
two of this fall’s five casualties so far—NBC’s Outlaw and ABC’s The
Whole Truth—were 10 p.m. occupants.

Midseason_Chart2.jpg

Compared to this same time last year, CBS’ ratings are down 6% in
the 10-11 p.m. hour, and ABC’s have dropped 14%. NBC has managed
to climb 24% from last year’s failed Jay Leno experiment, though
its ratings still trail the other two nets with lackluster performers like
Chase and The Apprentice. “They haven’t been able to make signi! cant
inroads in the 10 o’clock time period, and I think that’s where the race
is going to be impacted the most,” says Carroll.

Perhaps the most likely midseason show with the potential to reverse
the trend is ABC’s Off the Map, the latest medical drama from
creator Shonda Rhimes, which will fill Truth’s time slot Wednesdays
at 10 p.m.

The network, seeing room for a big hit at the hour, hopes it is an aggressive move, says Jeff Bader, ABC executive VP, planning, scheduling
and distribution. “The 10 p.m. time period is a really interesting
time period right now because nothing has really broken out and
there is room for a big hit on Tuesdays and Wednesdays,” he says.

IS THERE A DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH?

In the absence of any breakouts this fall, the question remains
if any rookie show can break through the clutter in midseason and
emerge as a hit.

“There are a lot of midseason shows—maybe there’s some gem in
there on some network that even they’re not aware of,” Beckman says.

A midseason launch provides networks the opportunity to promote
the show in the fall, when TV usage is higher than the summer, and
possibly put it in a more strategic time period with the knowledge of
how the season has unfolded—a strategy that made hits like Grey’s
Anatomy and House. “There’s been a pretty good track record of shows
that have debuted in the middle of the season and have had successful
runs on television,” says Adgate.

Midseason_Chart3.jpg

This year Fox is throwing its weight behind midseason entry The
Chicago Code
, using the Super Bowl to launch the new cop drama the
following night in the troublesome 9 p.m. time slot. “We’re hoping to
get that going and get our Monday night back on track,” says Beckman.
“We stumbled out of the gate with Lone Star. We put Lie to Me
there, which at least helped us get our circulation going. But we need
to try to create another asset for us, and we’re hoping The Chicago
Code
will do that.”

Among other scripted hopefuls set to debut in midseason are ABC’s
Mr. Sunshine, CBS’ Mad Love and CriminalMinds: Suspect Behavior and
NBC’s Love Bites and The Cape.

FRESHMEN (ACTUALLY) GETTING
TIME TO BREATHE

After some swift cancellations (Fox’s Lone Star, ABC’s My Generation),
many of this year’s new entries are actually being allowed some
time to prove themselves. “If it’s anything, it’s going to be how patient
are the networks going to be with these shows that are right on the
cusp—will they hang onto them for a full year,” says Fox’s Beckman.

And in some cases not only are the networks giving them a chance,
they are actually actively trying to prop them up.

That is ABC’s plan for the Michael Chiklis drama No Ordinary Family,
which Bader notes is probably in “the most difficult time period on
the schedule” against The Biggest Loser, NCIS and Glee.

So ABC will move the series to 9 p.m. in December and run holiday
specials in front of it to try to pump a family audience into it. “We’re
hoping that come January with No Ordinary Family and then the return
of V, we have a block of programming that’s an alternative to the
very female programming that’s on the other networks,” Bader says.

Beckman names Raising Hope as the most important new show
on Fox’s schedule, one that has the potential to support a liveaction
comedy block in the future. “I think there’s a show there, and
if we nurture it and are patient with it, it can be the foundation for
a comedy block,” he says. “That’s been a tough nut for us to crack.
Glee allowed us a foundation;
we have to keep fanning the
" ames on Hope.”

The CW gave both its
freshmen, Hellcats and Nikita,
full-season orders despite
moderate ratings in hopes
their audiences will grow.
And CBS, which renewed all five of its fall rookies, had yet
to announce the bulk of its
midseason schedule at press
time, in favor of a wait-andsee
approach. “The success
of these shows has bought us
quite a bit of time to evaluate,”
says Kelly Kahl, senior
executive VP, CBS primetime. “We’re in the fortunate position of not
having to decide right now, so we’re going to take full advantage of it.”

AVOIDING THE SOPHOMORE SLUMPS

If this fall season lacks a breakout hit, perhaps it’s because last year’s
darlings are still holding onto the title. “You could say that the biggest
hits of this year, the programs that have gotten the biggest bounce upward,
are two-year shows like Glee and Modern Family,” says Adgate.

While Heroes was the most recent example that a big ! rst year does
not a hit make, the Fox and ABC critical and Emmy darlings are up
huge vs. last season. Glee has jumped 23% with adults 18-49 (4.4
to 5.4) and Modern Family has grown a whopping 45% (4.0 to 5.8).

Of the other big rookies from 2009-10, NCIS: LA is up 14% over
last season, while The Good Wife is up 7%. With the exception of the
franchised NCIS, all have benefitted from critical acclaim based on the
appearance of bringing something new and fresh to TV—something
this season’s rookies notably lacked. In a fall crop littered with spinoffs
(Law & Order: Los Angeles), remakes (Hawaii Five-0) and re-imaginings
(Outsourced, or The Office in India), the sophomores continue to attract
new fans.

“There’s still plenty to talk about on network TV—you just need
to take a little more of a risk,” says Brill. “When you play it safe, you
don’t win audiences that way.”

E-mail comments to anmora01@gmail.com
and follow her on Twitter: @andreamorabito

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