Five Lessons of Fall Television
Six weeks into the new season, a look at the takeaways amid the dearth of hits, declining ratings and a growing reliance on advertiser-unfriendly DVRs.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
№ 1: Don't Be Afraid of Dark
Rougher subject matter is working for several networks. Arrow, which centers on a billionaire who returns home to exact violent revenge, delivered The CW's highest premiere figures since The Vampire Diaries bowed in 2009. Same goes for AMC's The Walking Dead, which is outrating broadcast fare with about 10 million viewers tuning in -- and, according to Ad Age, isn't scaring away advertisers, who are willing to shell out as much as $375,000 for a 30-second spot. Boundary-pushing breakouts Sons of Anarchy and American Horror Story are performing particularly well for FX, too.
№ 2: Patience Is a Virtue
Overnight ratings don't matter the way they once did, say execs, who cite a 30 percent increase in DVR usage compared with a year ago. The Big Five reportedly averaged a 29.7 percent bump per show in the 18-to-49 demo during premiere week, when live-plus-seven-day was factored in. One exec suggests that patience should extend beyond seven-day viewing habits. "The DVR is allowing shows to grow year-to-year," he says, likening the bounce to syndication's impact (see The Big Bang Theory). "People like finding shows that are still on so they can catch up and watch live."
№ 3: Mimic the Cable Model
Nobody was impressed with this year's crop of broadcast shows -- least of all, the viewers. Without a true breakout hit, some are blaming the tedious broadcast model. "Do 12-episode seasons and the caliber of writers and actors will go up," says one prominent source, who argues that cable has better material because of the genre's schedule and freedoms. (The downside: an inability to amortize costs across 22- or 24-episode seasons.) In several cases, there wouldn't be too many content cuts needed. Walking Dead, after all, originally was developed at NBC.
№ 4: Deploy Assets as Needed
Expanding NBC's spring phenomenon The Voice to the fall was risky. But even if the singing-competition show takes a hit this spring (and beyond), it has proved a significant help to a schedule badly in need. For the first time in 10 years, NBC has claimed the top spot of the season in the key 18-to-49 adult demographic thanks to Voice (and the behemoth Sunday Night Football), with ratings up 24 percent year-over-year. On Monday and Tuesday nights, Go On, The New Normal and Revolution have benefited, but it's not all good news: NBC's Wednesday and Thursday ratings fell off a cliff.
№ 5: Be Prepared to Fill Holes
A month and a half into the fall season, two shows have been axed (CBS' Made in Jersey and NBC's Animal Practice), with Fox's Mob Doctor on its death bed. The takeaway is to have backups. CBS pushed CSI: New York into Jersey's 9 p.m. slot, airing repeats at 8 p.m. until this month's return of Undercover Boss. Fox isn't armed with the same filler -- Kevin Bacon's January drama The Following is too precious to just throw on the air -- which explains why Mob hasn't been pulled. "It's the elephant in the room," says one source, suggesting that Fox didn't order enough product this past spring.