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TV's Midseason Ratings Catastrophe

1600 Penn Midseason Catastrophe - H 2013
NBC
"1600 Penn"

With record-low debuts across the broadcast networks -- unless you've got Kevin Bacon in "The Following" -- execs are rethinking one of the calendar's biggest launch pads.

This story first appeared in the March 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter

If fall is the television season's sink-or-swim deep end, then midseason is the kiddie pool. Fewer launches, lower ratings expectations and softer competition often pave the way for such slow-growing hits as Grey's Anatomy, The Office and, most recently, Scandal.

But nearly all of the 2012-13 midseason entries have drowned so far and, with the exception of Fox's renewed Kevin Bacon hit The Following, have done so in rather gruesome fashion.

"There used to be the same reset button after Christmas that there was over the summer," says one network insider. "You don't see that anymore. If you don't have Kevin Bacon, you're going to have some issues."

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Observers blame the low quality of midseason offerings and increased competition from a slew of new shows and the usual cable players (AMC's The Walking Dead, for instance, scored a huge 6.1 rating in the key 18-to-49 demo for its Feb. 10 midseason premiere, besting American Idol, The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family). It used to be surprising when a cable series topped broadcast; now it happens nightly.

NBC, falling below Spanish-language broadcaster Univision during the February sweep and seeing a historic low for its swiftly canceled drama Do No Harm, no doubt has suffered most. The comedy 1600 Penn and drama Deception continue to air on borrowed time, and when The Silence of the Lambs prequel Hannibal premieres in April, it will enter a grim 10 p.m. Thursday slot.

On March 1, ABC yanked its thriller Zero Hour after three episodes; it pulled in half the audience that the ill-fated Last Resort did in that Thursday hour. Red Widow, in the equally troubled 10 p.m. Sunday slot, is estimated to have matched Zero Hour's middling debut rating of 1.4 in the 18-to-49 demo. The Carrie Diaries, The CW's Sex and the City prequel, recently bottomed out with a 0.4 rating. It's barely outperforming Gossip Girl, which languished on Mondays during its last seasons. And Cult, falling short of the low bar set by Emily Owens, M.D., has been shuffled to Fridays.

Making these newcomers look somewhat better by comparison are returning scripted series pushed from the fall. Fox's Touch and NBC's Smash and Community, all of which saw big changes behind the scenes, seem to be free-falling.

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CBS remains relatively immune to the midseason curse, if only because it seldom has leftovers. Lone newcomer Golden Boy performed OK in its Tuesday sampling; the cop drama officially bows March 8. (CBS also had an unscripted launch in The Job, which was axed after two weeks.)

Insiders attribute the success of Following (3.0 rating and a 57 percent boost to a 4.7 in Live+7) to Bacon's star power, as well as Fox's marketing efforts to persuade viewers to DVR the premiere. "Once we saw how the fall was going, that there wasn't even sampling among new series, we wanted to get that season pass in ahead of time," says Fox COO Joe Earley.

Some believe other nets will follow Fox's lead and launch bigger, safer shows at midseason next year. Notes one insider: "Maybe you launch your first-tier shows that are buzzworthy and have the big stars in January, and you hold your second-tier shows till the fall, when people are willing to experiment a little more."

How low can they go? Here's a snapshot of diminishing returns for new and returning shows...

  • Body of Proof* (ABC) - 1.2
  • Deception (NBC) - 1.1
  • Zero Hour (ABC) - 1.0
  • 1600 Penn (NBC) - 0.9
  • Smash* (NBC) - 0.8
  • Do No Harm (NBC) - 0.7
  • The Job (CBS) - 0.7
  • Touch* (Fox) - 0.7
  • The Carrie Diaries (The CW) - 0.4
  • Cult (The CW) - 0.3

Source: Nielsen. Lowest-rated airings in the 18-49 demo.
*Returning series