In Search of the Midseason Miracle

Justin Lubin/NBC

Broadcast networks are hoping winter’s new slate will stem fall’s ratings slide.

Welcome to the throw-things-at-the-wall season. After a fall marked by a dearth of new hits, the broadcast networks head into midseason with high hopes but few sure things (save for steady CBS, which launches its Criminal Minds spinoff in February). Even Fox’s juggernaut American Idol is on tenterhooks with two new judges. Meanwhile, the end of NFL regular season means NBC loses the considerable lift from top-rated Sunday Night Football, and ABC is languishing between seasons of Dancing With the Stars. Midseason occasionally can launch hits — Grey’s Anatomy premiered in March 2005 — but it also can be a time to clear away inventory. “Every network overbuys for all kinds of reasons,” one executive says. “They do it for relationships. They do it so they can say, ‘Hey, look how great our development was; I bought all this stuff.’ And then they wake up and say, ‘Now what am I going to do with all of this stuff?’ ”

ABC

ABC and NBC will bust time-slot taboos by programming three hours of comedies Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. And while NBC will move 30 Rock to 10 p.m., followed by freshman Outsourced, ABC will put new comedy Happy Endings into the slot Wednesdays beginning in April, followed by a rerun of Modern Family.

“We started to have these conversations before NBC announced their 10 o’clock comedies,” says Jeff Bader, ABC executive vp planning and scheduling. “Ten o’clock is unconventional for comedy, but the measure of success has changed over the years.”

And the bar at 10 p.m. has declined markedly in the face of competition from cable and DVRs.

“If you can get a comedy to work in the 10 o’clock hour, it would be great because they repeat much better than dramas,” Bader adds. “So in success, it’s a great model.”

Shonda Rhimes’ latest medical drama, Off the Map, from Rhimes protoge Jenna Bans, which bows at 10 p.m. Jan. 12, could be the next Grey’s. “You hope for ABC’s sake it’s not another Private Practice,” says Brad Adgate, senior vp research at Horizon Media.

But with the next iteration of Dancing not expected until March, and a season that produced no new hits (though No Ordinary Family and the Wednesday comedy Better With You did get full-season pickups, and the net has 10 episodes of V to burn off), ABC’s biggest problem is finding new successes to replace aging ones like Grey’s and Desperate Housewives.

The Matthew Perry comedy Mr. Sunshine will join the lineup Wednesdays beginning Feb. 9, and The Bachelor, which still does well even in its 15th cycle, can’t fare worse than Skating With the Stars did.

NBC

The Peacock heads into midseason without the ratings powerhouse of football but with a new leader. Robert Greenblatt will replace Jeff Gaspin as head of NBC Entertainment once Washington approves of the Comcast/NBC Universal merger. Greenblatt clearly has his work cut out for him.

“It’s kind of like Obama taking over after Bush,” says analyst Shari Anne Brill, adding that the fallout from the Jay Leno experiment lingers. “They still have lots of problems at 10 o’clock.”

NBC’s new shows — fanboy drama The Cape (9 p.m Mondays), David E. Kelley’s Kathy Bates drama Harry’s Law (10 p.m. Mondays), the reality competition series America’s Next Great Restaurant (9 p.m. Wednesdays) and the comedy Perfect Couples (8:30 p.m. Thursdays) — are not expected to be game-changers. Privately, network execs worry that Cape is too narrow. And while NBC could use a tentpole reality series, it’s too early to judge whether Mark Burnett’s The Voice, slated to bow in the spring, is it. Plus, Fox’s move of the Idol results show to 8 p.m. Thursdays will make an already competitive night that includes CBS comedies The Big Bang Theory and $#*! My Dad Says and, beginning in February, Rules of Engagement even more so. NBC’s Community, still finding a foothold at 8 p.m., and Perfect Couples will have a hard time standing out.

“Thursday is going to be a real battle,” says Mitch Metcalf, executive vp program scheduling. But he expects veteran NBC comedies including 30 Rock, The Office and Parks and Recreation to hang on to their “very loyal core audiences.”

CBS

CBS is the only network that has posted reliable gains this season. Although the net is flat year-over-year among the ad-coveted adults 18-49 demographic, it is up 3 percent in total viewers, largely on the back of new scripted series rather than football, like NBC, or a scuttled programming experiment that brought down year-ago ratings, like NBC.

CBS will make minimal changes, moving the Tom Selleck drama Blue Bloods to a more high-profile slot at 10 p.m. Wednesdays for four weeks beginning Jan. 19 before ceding the hour Feb. 16 to Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior. The new comedy Mad Love bows Feb. 21, and the dramedy Chaos is targeted for April. The net also has Paula Abdul’s Live to Dance, which might benefit from the curiosity effect — at least at first. Insiders aren’t expecting Dance to do too much heavy lifting; respectably bridging the gap between cycles of Survivor (the 22nd bows Feb. 16) will  be enough.

FOX

Of course, Idol doesn’t come with such moderate expectations. And the new season brings a big question: Can new judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler achieve the chemistry Abdul had with Simon Cowell? 

Idol heads into its 10th season with a 9 percent decline year-over-year but still-impressive ratings; last year, it posted an 18-49 average that was 65 percent ahead of TV’s second-highest-rated scripted show (CBS’ Big Bang Theory). Even if it continues to decline 10 percent each year, and all other entertainment shows remain exactly where they are, Idol still would be a top-three show through Season 13. So Fox executives reject the “blood-in-the-water narrative” that rival networks are spinning.

“Of course it will go down — it’s the 10th season,” says Preston Beckman, Fox’s executive vp strategic program planning. “But to say that you smell blood in the water. … We would have to lose every ounce of blood in our body, and the show would still be one of the top 10 shows in television.”

Fox also has several scripted series premiering: the animated comedy Bob’s Burgers on Jan. 9, Shawn Ryan’s police drama The Chicago Code on Feb. 7, the Tuesday comedy Traffic Light on Feb. 8 and the comedy Breaking In in April.           

PRIMETIME AVERAGES: Year-over-Year Ratings

CBS            3.2 (No change)
FOX            2.9 (-14%)
NBC            2.8 (No change)
ABC            2.7 (-10%)

For first 12 weeks of the season. Source: Nielsen; most current rating 18-49 demographic Jan. 20-Dec. 12

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