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How ABC Could Relegate NBC to Fourth Place -- Even Against the NFL (Analysis)

Football is the new Death Star, but ABC's fall shows are both better and scheduled smarter, so Paul Lee and company could make a push into solidifying third place.

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD Pilot Episodic Blue - H 2013
ABC
ABC's "Agents of SHIELD" needs to win early.

Based on the quality of its programming slate for the fall -- it arguably had the best development of any network -- ABC should crawl out of fourth place in the four-network broadcast race.

Ah, but then there's this thing called football (and later the Olympics) over at NBC, a network that would likely be glued to the cellar floor without sports. But despite the daunting presence of the NFL, which will bloat NBC's early season numbers, don't count out ABC. Here's why.

The network has very good shows, mostly scheduled strongly, and NBC, in turn, has taken its two best fall programs and scheduled them against one of CBS's powerhouse shows and against CBS's best new drama. Given the way CBS has, without pity, crushed its rivals, I would call that a dubious decision.

Of ABC's new fall offerings, I liked six of eight -- and it's certainly conceivable that the other two could surprise (just as it's true that a critic liking a series doesn't mean it will be a hit).

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Agents of SHIELD, the fantasy franchise Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, and the comedies Trophy Wife, The Goldbergs, Back in the Game and, to a lesser extent, Super Fun Night were all pilots I liked in some capacity -- The Goldbergs being one that I really laughed at. The Sunday panel here at TCA with Jeff Garlin only solidified that (as did the room-winning wit of Sarah Haskins, who created Trophy Wife).

I wasn't particularly moved by either Betrayal or Lucky 7 (though I was endlessly amused by the promotional gimmick for the latter, which was a fake lottery card from ABC that read "Sorry, Not a Winner" when you scratched it off).

Still, six of eight for fall shows is a winning percentage. And remember, the goal isn't for ABC to go from fourth to first -- just from fourth to third (which will be hard enough), while also showing either the kind of growth or momentum that would signal the network has figured things out.

That's essential only because nobody lasts forever in these entertainment president positions, and as much as I like and respect Paul Lee, there's only so much patience a monstrosity like Disney can muster for anyone.

To size up this Battle to Not Be Last, take a look at the night-by-night opportunities that are there for ABC vs. NBC. On Mondays, the weakening Dancing With the Stars is unlikely to dent The Voice on NBC, and the equally infirm Castle would normally be no match at 10 p.m. against NBC's buzz-heavy drama -- and one of the best two freshman dramas for the fall -- The Blacklist.

Ah, but NBC chose to put The Blacklist up against the other best freshman drama, CBS' Hostages. That's the kind of thing that drives viewers at home insane, fuels DVR battles and, in this case, brings up the question of why NBC would do something that risky with its best chance.

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Both of those dramas are intense, so maybe the perky Castle gets enough viewers to help.

On Tuesdays, Agents of SHIELD absolutely has to beat NBC's Biggest Loser. There is no other goal. After that, The Goldbergs and Trophy Wife need to make a stand against the results show for The Voice. Nobody said it was going to be easy, but this night is absolutely essential for ABC.

ABC's Wednesday night lineup should mop up against NBC's offerings, though scheduling-wise you could quibble that Super Fun Night in the post-Modern Family slot isn't quite the fit that Trophy Wife would be. But we make our bets on the hands that have been dealt. NBC's Ironside at 10 p.m. shouldn't be in the race with Nashville, particularly if the soapier, Scandal-esque direction of Nashville continues.

I would give Thursdays to ABC as well, because Once Upon a Time in Wonderland could be a hit right out of the gates, smothering NBC's comedies. Plus, NBC's second most interesting fall offering is The Michael J. Fox Show, which NBC has slotted against CBS' Two and a Half Men. Say what you will about the latter creatively, but that's not a matchup I'd want for a new series that, despite the heralded return of Fox, offers no guarantee of instant success (in fact, it will likely take viewers several episodes to find out what tone The Michael J. Fox Show is going for, and whether that tone is what they want from him; it's a very intriguing sitcom that probably should have been protected better, particularly since the lead-in is the dreadful Sean Saves the World).

Fridays should also be an easy ABC win over NBC (where the latter has repeats and Dateline until Grimm returns in late October), as should Saturday night, where NBC (like most other nets) punts while ABC airs popular college football games.

That leaves Sunday, where NBC will destroy everybody with NFL football (while ABC counters with female-friendly Once Upon a Time, Revenge and Betrayal).

Look, NFL football is a colossal boost for NBC and will mean that ABC has to win at every opportunity elsewhere. If it doesn't get immediate traction with Agents of SHIELD, the race may be a non-starter. But the pieces are in place for an upset of sorts -- if moving from fourth to third can even be conceptualized as an upset of any kind. Still, this Battle to Not Be Last may be the most interesting to watch come fall.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine