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If this broadcast season were a TV crime drama, one would know whodunit during the first five minutes but be utterly shocked by the twists and turns along the way.
As expected, Fox has clinched its sixth ratings victory in a row, setting a record for the most consecutive wins by a broadcast network, and for the seventh time in eight years, CBS dominated among total viewers. Both networks, along with the CW, managed to match last year’s average adult demo rating for the season. Meanwhile, ABC and NBC faced erosion because of aging programs and a plan to radically redesign 10 p.m., respectively.
The poor got poorer, in other words, and the rich remained about the same. But 2009-10 nonetheless was a surprisingly positive season. Success stories not only were fairly widespread, but they also inspired the industry.
Comedy, long presumed dead, came back. Reality, presumed stagnant, came back.
And dramas, well, dramas were like Jack Bauer: getting long in the tooth and running out of time. Still, aging shows, despite sagging numbers, haven’t cast a negative light on the genre’s potential.
Even award shows, which during recent years were considered creakily orchestrated throwbacks, managed to reverse their downward viewership trends.
Sports programming, too, set records, with CBS airing the most-watched Super Bowl of all time and NBC’s Vancouver Olympics coverage posting gains.
But it was comedies that made the biggest splash. The season’s top success stories among scripted programming all were of that ilk, whether single camera (ABC’s “Modern Family”), multicamera (CBS’ ratings sensation “The Big Bang Theory”) or hourlong musical (Fox’s “Glee”).
While the achievements of “Modern Family” and “Glee” have been oft-cited, the ratings climb of the third season of “Big Bang” has been equally remarkable. The ensemble, which CBS will use to launch a comedy block on Thursdays in the fall, is up 39% this season, the most by far of any show.
Reality also made a comeback. CBS’ “Undercover Boss,” which the network launched with a Super Bowl lead-in, will close the season as the fourth-highest-rated program. “Boss” breaks a lengthy streak during which broadcasters seemed unable to get a breakout unscripted hit off the ground.
Although Fox behemoth “American Idol” continued to soften (down 9%), many strong contenders including Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” ABC’s “The Bachelor” and CBS pair “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race” either held steady or posted gains.
Because TV programming trends are cyclical, it perhaps isn’t surprising that dramas suddenly are having the most trouble. Although CBS successfully opened “NCIS: Los Angeles” and “The Good Wife” and the CW broke out with “The Vampire Diaries,” many older titles took severe hits.
“CSI” was down 25% in the adult demo, “Law & Order: SVU” was off 19% and “Desperate Housewives” was down 17% — and that’s just among renewed shows. The erosion of such costly dramas as Fox’s “24” (-16%), NBC’s “Heroes” (-32%) and “Law & Order” (-25%) prompted networks to cancel the shows. They went out with a whimper — more people watched the finale of USA Network’s “Monk” than “24.”
Along with the conclusion of ABC’s “Lost,” broadcast has practically ceded the serialized drama to cable, with networks relying heavily on procedurals in the fall. That disinterest will be short-lived if NBC’s heavily serialized “The Event” manages to make a splash.
Overall, the four major broadcasters launched 38 new shows this season, axed 20 and will bring back 16 for a second season (with a few reality shows in limbo). By broadcast standards, that’s a great haul for a year of work — if executives didn’t treat the bar for renewal like a limbo stick, easing it lower every year.
Meanwhile, DVR penetration has slowed. At the season’s start, DVRs were in 32.3% of households and now are in 36.4%, a mild gain compared with the leap of 10% a year from 2006-08.
Overall for the season, including current DVR data: Fox (9.9 million viewers, 3.7 average in the adults 18-49 demographic) came out in front in the demo, followed by CBS (11.8 million, 3.2), NBC (8.2 million, 2.7), ABC (8.6 million, 2.7) and the CW (2 million, 0.9).
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