Nets swing, miss in midseason
New shows struggle as strike kills lead-in scripted fareScripted TV hits are slowly coming back from their strike-imposed hiatuses. The return couldn't have come soon enough for the broadcast networks, which have struggled with the launch of 10 new comedies and dramas during the past three months.
From NBC's "quarterlife" to Fox's "Canterbury's Law," this year's midseason battleground is strewn with programming casualties.
Midseason often is reserved for rolling out questionable shows that didn't make the networks' cut for fall (though Fox has regularly held off promising new entries to launch around midseason heavyweights "American Idol" and "24"). Still, at least a couple of shows typically find an audience. ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" and CBS' "Rules of Engagement," "The Unit," "Numbers" and "The New Adventures of Old Christine" are recent examples of successful midseason debuts.
But with the networks' scripted mainstays sidelined by the strike, often replaced by reality fare, midseason 2008 was far from typical.
"You want to launch midseason shows from other scripted shows," ABC executive vp scheduling Jeff Bader said. " 'Eli Stone' had 'Lost' as a lead-in and has done better than most, but other than that, shows were launching out of reality. That said, I don't know if this year is any worse than other years."
This season, the midseason scripted batting average has been modest: CBS took one bite at the apple with the February comedy "Welcome to the Captain." Airing amid repeats of its Monday night comedy block, "Captain" was sunk after five episodes.
NBC had its Internet-to-broadcast effort "quarterlife," which was yanked after a single episode in January. Soon after, the network debuted "Lipstick Jungle," which has limped along Thursday nights, averaging a 2.8 rating among adults 18-49.
ABC debuted the sitcom "Miss Guided" after "Dancing With the Stars" last week. When moved to its regular Thursday slot, the series dropped to a 2.2 rating in 18-49. The drama "Eli Stone," which airs against "Lipstick," has given lukewarm returns with a 3.0 average. Still, the network is creatively pleased with the show, and "Stone" looks likely to return next season.
But the network with the worst — and best — track record is Fox.
Now a lock to win the season, Fox's January-launched "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" remains the highest rated of the midseason scripted flock with a 4.5 average and is likely to return next fall.
On the downside, Fox recently threw four other shows against the wall that have largely failed to stick: the comedies "The Return of Jezebel James" and "Unhitched" and the dramas "Canterbury's" and "New Amsterdam."
"Canterbury's" (1.7 average) was pushed from its Monday slot to Friday after two episodes. "Jezebel James" (1.1) won't return after getting pulled off the schedule. "Unhitched" (2.3) is struggling on Sundays amid Fox's animated comedies, which post higher numbers in repeats than "Unscripted" does in originals.
"Amsterdam," which moved to Mondays after a two-night showcase following "Idol," has held up best of the quartet but still is ranked fourth in the 9 p.m. hour with a 2.9.
"I didn't want to have anything left in the cupboard in case something surprised us," said Preston Beckman, executive vp strategic program planning at Fox. "In the case of 'New Amsterdam,' we have evidence the show is catching on among viewers and we hope to see that translate into ratings."
Of course, with "Idol" powering the network to weekly ratings victories, Fox can shrug off the missteps. And Beckman likewise noted the amount of reality programming on the air gave scripted shows an uphill battle.
"As all the nets put on more unscripted, it's not the right environment to promote scripted shows," he said. "It's a different audience."
With scripted shows like CBS' Monday night comedy block returning to above-average ratings, networks are anticipating an influx of scripted TV fans as fall shows resume their runs. But whether any of the struggling midseason efforts will benefit from the on-air revival remains to be seen.