Fall TV Battlefield: Inside the 4 Hottest Time Slot Turf Wars
"Blacklist" or "Hostages"? Robin Williams or Sean Hayes? Scheduling execs sound off on who has the advantage in this season's fiercest matchups.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
As the five broadcast networks kick off the 2013-14 season, industry eyes will be as focused on ratings (How big will Agents of SHIELD launch? Will a new iteration of The X Factor shed still more viewers? And can big series such as Scandal, now up against Parenthood, and The Big Bang Theory get even bigger?) as they are on broader themes (Is there still juice left in the singing competition? Can dark dramas like Dracula lure a broad audience? And how much is too much when it comes to new comedies?).
While network execs are feeling more confident about their prospects -- led by Fox's Andy Samberg cop comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine and NBC's James Spader thriller The Blacklist -- than they did at this time last year, the competition is fierce and broadcast ratings continue to erode.
Collectively, the Big Four were down nearly 10 percent in the key 18-to-49 demo last season as cable efforts from A&E's Duck Dynasty to AMC's The Walking Dead stole buzz and ratings points. But for showrunners and audiences, there's a silver lining: The networks likely won't be as quick to pull the plug on soft starters as they've been in the past.
"Those days where a show is off after week two are probably [over]," noted Fox COO Joe Earley at a Sept. 9 ratings summit. "Everyone has a desire to declare a hit or a failure based on live-plus-same-day, but we're going to have to wait weeks for [DVR] numbers to come in and then see where they settle." With premiere week set to begin in earnest Sept. 23, THR offers a guide to what -- and how -- to watch, and what's really going on behind the scenes.
MONDAY 10 P.M.
The Blacklist vs. Hostages
In what surely is fall's biggest matchup, NBC and CBS are pitting their most ambitious dramas -- procedural Blacklist and serialized Hostages, respectively -- against each other.
And in a rare twist, NBC has the advantage because the critically praised James Spader effort has the Peacock's lone juggernaut, The Voice, as its lead-in. CBS execs have been managing expectations internally, say sources, with NBC scheduler Jeff Bader noting that he likes his odds. "Hostages will have to take off at the beginning, and if it doesn't, it will struggle because people will not join a serialized show in progress," he says, adding that NBC's criminal-of-the-week fare will be far more accessible.
But CBS' scheduler Kelly Kahl notes his network already has momentum in the hour with summer hit Under the Dome, which wraps its freshman season the week before Hostages' debut. "Under the Dome showed us that we can get people to a more serialized show in that hour," says Kahl. "It's a really good sign for us."
TUESDAY 8 P.M.
SHIELD vs. Dads/Brooklyn Nine-Nine
The two networks in search of male viewers, particularly on their female-friendly Tuesdays, are making their big play on the same night, at the same time. At ABC, Agents of SHIELD easily is the network's best (and priciest) bet at securing men -- and, it hopes, families.
According to ABC's scheduler Andy Kubitz, this is the first time in years that the network has been confident enough in a scripted drama to put it head-to-head with CBS giant NCIS. Fox's scheduler Dan Harrison is pleased with its chances with the controversial Seth MacFarlane-produced Dads and Andy Samberg's Brooklyn Nine-Nine to lure men without alienating women. "I think ABC will have a harder time getting women into that show than we will trying to sell women on our sitcoms," he says, adding, "That said, [SHIELD] will definitely open big."
WEDNESDAY 8 P.M.
Arrow vs. Revolution
Among returning shows, the fall's biggest question mark hovers over NBC's Revolution. Its freshman run averaged a robust 2.5 18-to-49 demo rating with the aid of The Voice. This season, the J.J. Abrams dystopian drama is being relied upon to open the night, which should all but guarantee double-digit declines. But the real concern is whether it will flounder the way Smash did when it was sent out on its own and dropped 71 percent before being banished to Saturdays.
Stakes may seem smaller for the less watched CW, but Arrow is equally vital to the fifth network, and sharing the hour with NBC's own genre entry could cause problems for one show's live-plus-same-day returns. "When you're looking at the numbers that Arrow is doing [a 1.0 demo rating], there's plenty of audience to go around," says Bader.
THURSDAY 9 P.M.
The Crazy Ones vs. Sean Saves the World
When NBC's Bader opted to sandwich its one multicamera comedy, Sean Hayes' Sean Saves the World, between single-cam half-hours at 9 p.m., he did so thinking the series could take advantage of the multicamera comedy audience coming from CBS as that network previously switched from The Big Bang Theory to dramas at 9 p.m. But then CBS decided it would try something new: extend its Thursday comedy block to 10 p.m. and program a rare single-camera comedy, Robin Williams' The Crazy Ones, at 9. Whoops.
"Since it's a single-camera comedy, we still think there could be some spillover from their block," says Bader. Still, NBC insiders quietly acknowledge concerns about the transition from single-cam to multicam and back, particularly as it relates to big bet The Michael J. Fox Show as Sean's 9:30 p.m. lead-out.
More worrisome, CBS has the sizable advantage of kicking off the evening with Big Bang (21 million tuned in last season), while NBC is relying on niche darling Parks and Recreation (4.6 million) to jump-start the night. Fox's younger-skewing Glee should prove a big draw -- at least out of the gate -- as viewers will be curious to see how the show handles the late Cory Monteith's absence. But will they stay?