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THR's Midseason TV Report Card: Where the Networks Stand Heading Into TCA

The article appears in the Jan. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

A fall season sprinkled with much-needed breakout hits -- from Fox's New Girl to ABC's Revenge to CBS' 2 Broke Girls -- will give the broadcast chiefs some talking points at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour, Jan. 4 to 15 in Pasadena.

There is one conspicuous exception: NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt, who is largely peddling his predecessor's fare, saw ratings for his network drop 11 percent during the first 13 weeks of the 2011-12 season. Still, he has high hopes for the musical Smash, part of a wave of big midseason bets that also includes ABC's spooky thriller The River and Fox's J.J. Abrams mystery Alcatraz.

"The biggest criticism last year was lack of imagination," says Horizon Media senior vp research Brad Adgate. "This year, there has been much more effort made to invest in the shows, and so far it's paying off."

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ABC

Where It Stands: After a rocky 2010-11 season featuring such flops as My Generation, Off the Map and Mr. Sunshine, the network's fall slate served up promising freshman building blocks: the soapy drama Revenge, satirical comedy Suburgatory and fairy-tale fantasy Once Upon a Time. "We know that we have some aging franchises," says Jeff Bader, ABC's executive vp planning and scheduling, referencing long-in-the-tooth dramas Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy and its spinoff, Private Practice. "So the fact that we have three new shows that seem to be getting some traction is fantastic." (Missing from that list are the fall misfires Man Up!, Charlie's Angels and Pan Am.) While Paranormal Activity director Oren Peli's The River, clearly a favorite of chief Paul Lee, has the potential to broaden ABC's female-skewing viewership, GCB -- another sexy soap -- is more likely to draw eyeballs to its 10 p.m. Sunday slot. Ashley Judd's thriller Missing won't debut until March, a post-Academy Awards strategy that benefited the Dana Delany coroner drama Body of Proof last year.

What It Needs: ABC must breathe new life into eroding franchises or find ways to launch new ones. Dancing With the Stars and The Bachelor were down during their previous cycles, but like many reality franchises, ratings can spike with a bit of inspired casting or a storyline that catches the zeitgeist. (Is Bristol Palin available again?) At the same time, Lee must convince audiences to sample six new midseason shows competing for attention ("Too many," says one network insider).

What to Look For: If the cross-dressing comedy Work It fails -- rather, when Work It fails -- expect Lee to sub in new episodes of Cougar Town, Bill Lawrence's third-season comedy that is waiting in the wings. Bader suggests the projects left off the schedule -- Shonda Rhimes' drama Scandal and the Krysten Ritter comedy Don't Trust the B-- in Apartment 23 -- will debut after the Feb. 26 Oscars, allowing ample promo time from what many consider the Super Bowl for female viewers.

Next page: CBS

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CBS

Where It Stands: CBS remains the picture of stability. Even discounting the quickly canceled sitcom How to Be a Gentleman, the network hits the season midpoint with the No. 1 new comedy (2 Broke Girls) and a resurgent Two and a Half Men, which is up a staggering 33 percent in the coveted 18-to-49 demo with the substitution of Ashton Kutcher for Charlie Sheen. CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler has given full-season orders to two of her three new dramas: Unforgettable and Person of Interest. Meanwhile, the supernatural drama A Gifted Man, which is struggling on perennially low-rated Friday, is getting a fighting chance with an order for three more episodes. Given CBS' midseason status as the most-watched network and No. 1 (tied with Fox) in the 18-to-49 demo, it has just one new show for midseason: the Rob Schneider/Cheech Marin comedy ¡Rob!, which displaces Rules of Engagement on Thursday. Waiting on deck is an ensemble cop drama, The 2-2, from executive producers Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal.

What it Needs: Despite its success in comedy, CBS could use a sitcom worthy of pairing with The Big Bang Theory on Thursday. Like $#*! My Dad Says last year, Gentleman certainly was not it. Fielding successful comedies, notes Kelly Kahl, senior executive vp, CBS Primetime, "is difficult for everyone."

What to Look For: While the CSI franchise is showing its age and onetime hot drama The Mentalist has declined, there's still plenty of life -- and ancillary revenue -- in the veteran procedurals. Insiders hope Elisabeth Shue's addition to the cast of CSI beginning Feb. 15 can compensate for the departure of Marg Helgenberger from the long-running forensics drama. On the comedy side, that explains the big marketing push for ¡Rob! in advance of its Jan. 12 debut; if it plays well, it could finally be curtains for Rules. The network also is hoping a third cycle of Undercover Boss, which debuts Jan. 15, will return to the ratings it enjoyed during its first season.

Next page: Fox

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FOX

Where It Stands: Simon Cowell shot himself in the foot by declaring that anything less than 20 million viewers would be "a disappointment" for The X Factor. Still, the singing competition's average of 12.4 million viewers, coupled with New Girl, Fox's first live-action comedy breakout in years, has helped chief Kevin Reilly stake out a rare 18-to-49 tie with No. 1 network CBS. On the downside, new dinosaur drama Terra Nova put up a middling 10 million viewers considering its high cost and Steven Spielberg pedigree. But the network has the still-formidable American Idol helping to launch its midseason dramas: Bones spinoff The Finder gets the post-Idol slot beginning Jan. 19, and Kiefer Sutherland's Touch will get a preview behind Idol on Jan. 25 and return in March on Mondays, where Sutherland's 24 thrived. Beginning in March, the network will try an all-comedy block Tuesday, sandwiching Christian Slater's Breaking In between reruns and fresh episodes of New Girl.

What it Needs: After striking out with I Hate My Teenage Daughter and the animated Allen Gregory, Fox must find at least one more live-action comedy to field a four-comedy Tuesday night. And insiders are hoping Napoleon Dynamite -- based on the big-screen cult hit -- will catch on with younger viewers who still flock to Fox's Sunday animation block. More critically, the network needs to build up its drama coffers as House's ratings show signs of flagging; Abrams' thriller Alcatraz could benefit as Monday counterprogramming to ABC's reality and CBS' comedies.

What to Look For: If Fox can grow Breaking In with help from New Girl, it's possible Glee could relocate from Tuesday to anchor another night. Meanwhile, all eyes will be on Idol as it attempts to retain its crown as the top-rated singing competition. "There are real differences between Idol and [NBC's] The Voice," says Preston Beckman, Fox's executive vp program planning. "We're cautiously optimistic that the show's going to remain the top show on television for another year."

Next page: NBC

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NBC

Where It Stands: Greenblatt has yet to put his stamp on the fourth-place network, and the only Nielsen feat worth touting in recent months was the strong debut of Fear Factor, a reality revival from the Jeff Zucker era. (It plummeted in week two.) Worse, the network is heading into the spring without its only top-30 series: Sunday Night Football. But NBC is hoping for big numbers out of last spring's breakout The Voice, which will premiere after the Super Bowl before moving to Monday as a lead-in for Greenblatt's pet project Smash, a big bet for the network. "It's the type of show that could become a huge hit or go down in flames," Horizon's Adgate says of the Spielberg-produced musical drama, adding,"It could be Lone Star or it could be Glee."

What it Needs: Ratings, plain and simple. NBC has high hopes for the John Grisham adaptation The Firm, which will run repeat-free for 22 episodes on Thursdays at 10 p.m. "In previous years, we've loaded up our fall with every piece that we had," acknowledges Lisa Vebber, NBC's senior vp scheduling and programming. "I'm proud of the fact that this year we've exercised some patience and are focused on the longer-term play." Its viewers-challenged 10 p.m. hour and once-must-see-TV comedy block on Thursday remain big questions, with 30 Rock subbing for Community. Expectations are even lower for NBC's female-skewing Wednesday block, where Whitney will be paired with the Chelsea Handler sitcom Are You There, Chelsea? in an attempt to cement a comedy foothold on a second night.

What to Look For: Expect hefty Super Bowl promotion for Voice and Smash. But don't get too attached to NBC's Wednesday lineup, which houses a mishmash of comedies (Whitney and Chelsea), a news-magazine (Rock Center in the uber-competitive 9 p.m. slot opposite ABC's Modern Family and Fox's American Idol) and an aging procedural (Law & Order: SVU). And don't forget The Donald. Trump's Celebrity Apprentice will no doubt draw buzz with Lisa Lampanelli, Clay Aiken and a Real Housewife (Teresa Giudice). Greenblatt hopes it draws viewers, too.

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TOTAL VIEWERS

  • 2 Broke Girls (CBS): 13.6 million
  • Unofrgettable (CBS): 13.5 million

TOP FIVE SHOWS OF THE FALL: Two and Half Men has boosted Girls

  • 2 Broke Girls (CBS): 5.4 rating
  • New Girl (Fox): 5.0
  • The X Factor -- Wed. (Fox): 4.3
  • The X Factor -- Thurs. (Fox): 4.1
  • Once Upon A Time (ABC): 4.1

HOW THE NETS STACK UP SEASON-TO-DATE

  • CBS: 18-49 rating: 3.3 (+3%) | Total viewers: 12.5 million (+1%)
  • FOX:  3.3 (+14%) | 9.0 million (+15%)
  • ABC: 2.6 (-4%) | 9.1 million (-1%)
  • NBC: 2.5 (-11%) | 7.3 million (-11%)

18-49 demo. Source: Nielsen, most-current data Sept. 19-Dec. 19