TCA Report Card: The State of the TV Networks

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In the aftermath of the TCAs, The Hollywood Reporter's television critic analyzes what each broadcast net did right and wrong, what will be skewered (and celebrated) and why Fox vs. CBS is heating up.

NBC

Nobody realistically expects NBC to be anything more than No. 4 in the ratings race by the end of next season, not even Robert Greenblatt, the network's entertainment president. At least that's the lowered-expectation mantra he's spreading around. But NBC could turn around earlier than expected if one or two of the series Greenblatt has inherited actually work. Consider two half-hour comedies airing Wednesday nights: Free Agents -- created by a talented team including writer John Enbom (Party Down, a series a lot of critics adored) and executive producer and director Todd Holland (Malcolm In the Middle, The Larry Sanders Show) -- and the potential sleeper hit Up All Night, starring Will Arnett, Christina Applegate and Maya Rudolph.

Beyond that, The Playboy Club isn't likely to work and Whitney is dreadful, but Grimm could get some genre traction, and despite the annoyance over Prime Suspect's lack of relation to the original, Maria Bello should not be underestimated.

Credit Greenblatt for artificially lowering the bar. "I don't know if in the next one, two, three years we're going to see any kind of significant lift," he told USA Today. Is he good or what? Because he's completely right. And if he's not, he's the new king.

CBS

You can't blame CBS for having a chip on its shoulder. It has long been a target for cheap jokes. Good but boring, unsexy, a network watched by old people.

"We're the No. 1 network in viewers," said entertainment president Nina Tassler. "We're the No. 1 network in upfront market revenue, and this season -- surprise, surprise -- we are the No. 1 broadcast network in Emmy nominations, and I'm really happy about that."

Someone then brought up recent jokes by ABC's Jimmy Kimmel and NBC's Joel McHale about the age of CBS viewers.

"Well, first, I think they should probably stick to comedy and check their stats a little better. We still have more 18-to-49s than NBC and ABC," Tassler said. "Now, if we can get the love from the TV critics, life would be perfect."

That might be a little harder. CBS does have a small roster of shows liked by many critics -- The Good Wife, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, Survivor and The Amazing Race -- but it's otherwise a schedule full of "meh." And yet, the Eye probably wouldn't have it any other way. It's the best run broadcast network for a reason -- it understands its audience. Would getting a big bear hug from critics make life perfect? You'd have to think such a gesture would be met with stiffness and a worry we'd put a shiv in its back.

Two new series are garnering something more akin to the love Tassler is looking for: drama Person of Interest from J.J. Abrams and Jonathan Nolan and comedy 2 Broke Girls from Michael Patrick King and Whitney Cummings. (And then there's the matter of Ashton Kutcher on Two and a Half Men, and how Ted Danson's arrival on CSI might perk up that franchise.) But even with lukewarm reaction to new series Unforgettable, How to Be a Gentleman and A Gifted Man, CBS will land in the win column most nights.

So what do you call that if "sexy" is not even remotely in consideration? Oh, right -- "successful."

ABC

In terms of programming, ABC clashes like plaid on plaid with TV critics. That's because most of the slate new entertainment president Paul Lee offered is "big tent" broadness that critics don't go for -- plus some of it is heinously bad, thus obscuring the good parts.

But Lee, who launched BBC America (he's no stranger to quality) and then turned ABC Family from nothing into something very important in the tween world is perfectly willing to give Americans something they want to digest easily, even if the critics are going to gag on it.

Put aside the why-even-bother of Charlie's Angels and ABC still has series that could work for viewers and critics: The River, a drama about a wildlife expert and TV personality who goes missing; funny and potential-filled fall sitcom Suburgatory; and midseason comedy Apartment 23. Fairy tale alterna-world drama Once Upon a Time could break out in the fall, as could Revenge and the glossy era-obsessed Pan Am.

Some have suggested there's a chance that ABC's fall schedule could slip so badly that the Peacock will get out of fourth place. I think that notion vastly underestimates ABC's current strengths and Lee's programming acumen. I'm still going to hate sitcom Work It from start to hopefully-fast-finish, but I'm also a firm believer that the audience always decides.

FOX

If Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly looked more relaxed facing the nation's TV critics on Friday, it's because he finally has two weapons in his pocket: Simon Cowell's ambitious The X Factor and the Steven Spielberg-associated Terra Nova. If those take off, watch out, because Fox routinely starts slowly in the fall and then goes all gladiator on everybody midseason with American Idol.

Although nobody at Fox said a word about it, you can bet they have a secret goal after winning the No. 1 title again in the 18-to-49 demo: to also beat CBS in overall viewers.

Beyond the big guns, Fox has the delightful Zooey Deschanel vehicle New Girl as a possible breakout hit, and midseason series Alcatraz and Bones spin-off The Finder also have good buzz. On the downside, the animated series Allen Gregory's clips haven't been particularly encouraging and I Hate My Teenage Daughter only gets one thing right -- using "hate" in the title.

If the network wants House to have this be its final season, there's time for a ratings-magnet exit story. Couple that with Reilly's promise that Glee will go back to basics (read: fewer big-name cameos, fewer tributes, hopefully less baffling detours), and it will be more difficult to spot the weak rivets in the armor.

Is it really that rosy? Of course not. If Terra Nova tanks, that'll be like burning piles of money in a public square, plus it adds embarrassment. If X Factor doesn't bust out big, bad press will follow, and if it dilutes audience interest in yet another season of Idol, there's a separate hand-wringing moment. And Glee producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk may spend too much time on their American Horror Story over at FX.

But rarely does Reilly boast, so you know he's feeling confident when he says this: "I feel like we're sitting on a hot hand this year." CBS, do you think he's boasting? Because by the sound of it, you are in his sights.

THE CW

It sure looks odd to see 50-something Mark Pedowitz as the face of the CW, the broadcast network best known for catering to all things young and female. And yet there he was onstage at TCA, being asked how in the hell he was going to find a way to think like a female in the 18-to-34 demo. Pedowitz -- who always seems to have "well-liked executive" before his name in any story -- said: "I am in my fifties, and I do have my feminine side at this point. So I am perfectly comfortable with this."

He might be the only one. It's not like CBS Corp. and Warner Bros.-owned CW is printing money; most of its shows get beaten by cable channels who have done a better job of attracting that core audience (hello, MTV and ABC Family) and, institutionally, there has to be some belief that the young-girl demo might be a tad limiting. Does the CW need to exist at all?

Vampire Diaries draws viewers, and Ringer might as well. Beyond that, One Tree Hill is entering its final season (that makes, what, 17 seasons?) and Supernatural did not exactly get a ringing endorsement from Pedowitz when he was asked if this, too, was its final season. Look, everybody wants the young female demo. The CW has toyed with this niche idea since 2006 but hasn't really landed a blockbuster scripted series, or even something like Jersey Shore on the reality side. Close? Sure, some years. But not with any volume or consistency, which is precisely why a man with gray hair just took charge of a network that needs to be more mature about its viability.          

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