Fourth and Long: ABC Arrives at TCA With Work to Do, Faith to Restore (Analysis)

The fourth-place network is also the poster network for canceling shows and thus illustrates the challenge broadcast TV has in retaining viewers in the new world order.
Paul Lee, head of ABC entertainment

As the foundation of the old television industry crumbles and is replaced by a shiny new version with its limited, mini and event series, streamed shows, content coming from surprising new providers and an audience that is consuming all of it in new ways, there are some old reputations that are hard to shake.

For broadcast networks, it's the dubious reputation of killing off series without telling viewers or giving them closure -- leaving them feeling cheated, upset and wary about blowing another dozen or 22 hours on a show they can't guarantee will be there for them. The broadcast networks, sadly, are like the least reliable parents in history.

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And whether it's quantifiably accurate or not, ABC is the poster network for lack of patience -- and thus, show-pulling. It cancels series, throws a bunch of new ones out in the fall, cancels those and tosses a bunch more out in midseason, only to repeat the process again. Last season ABC tried 14 new series in an eight-month period, including three of them -- Lucky 7, Killer Women and Mind Games -- in the same Tuesday at 10 p.m. slot.

You can get a real reputation when you do stuff like that.

This fear of commitment helps cable, with its shorter runs and track record of finishing what it starts, whether its shows are having successful seasons or not. It helps streaming services like Netflix that drop full-seasons on the server for instant consumption. And it has created a wait-and-see mentality that now benefits a kind of curated viewing existence. Meaning, people will wait until entire seasons are available before starting to watch (and they'll sometimes even wait to make sure a second season is greenlit). By waiting, viewers create a surplus of choices that are sure-things and instantly accessible on streaming services. By opting out, viewers are bypassing the need/urge to sample the next hopeful entry every September or midseason on the networks. They are, in effect, telling parts of the TV industry to prove themselves first -- no trial periods (aka, the actual season) allowed.

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And maybe that's part of the reason that ABC lurches into TCA on Tuesday as the No. 4, network, as we go from first to worst by waving goodbye to NBC. As ABC tries to reverse its fate, it has given premiere dates and slots to 10 new series (and there could be as many as 14 total), with only Agents of SHIELD and The Goldbergs as returning scripted series.

Faith? Trust? It's certainly harder every season to build that case for any network, but ABC's shotgun approach definitely stands out. Yet as formerly embattled entertainment president Paul Lee said as he planted the seeds in January, ABC is rebuilding. And if you're rebuilding, you do get some passes (though, in this particular iteration, they won't exactly be free).

He's bringing How to Get Away With Murder, Selfie, Black-ish, Forever, Manhattan Love Story and Cristela to press tour, and each will need a strong panel to wipe away lingering worries. And there are worries. Lee has put a lot of faith in Shonda Rhimes for next season (she dominates all of Thursday); he's letting two freshman comedies (Selfie, Manhattan Love Story) kick off Tuesdays; he's seriously testing the notion that it's not too late for relatively young series still struggling to find and keep an audience (Nashville, Resurrection, Revenge); and lastly ABC seems content to not introduce fresh blood into the reality genre.

We'll see how it all works. Or doesn't. The X-factor in the network business is that even if you don't bust out for a comeback year, you can always fail upward if someone else fails harder. And we still have two networks to go.

Twitter: @BastardMachine