TV Ratings Struggle: How ABC Became the New NBC

Illustration by: John Ueland

ABC's dramas are down double digits, its lone fall hit slipping, "Modern Family" with no friends -- so why is the Peacock's punching-bag status not threatened?

This story first appeared in the Dec. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

For all of NBC's triumphs this season, the network is haunted by the ghost of Thursdays past. Even as it enjoys its second fall atop the Big Four ratings race (thanks to The Voice, The Blacklist and even The Sound of Music Live!), the beleaguered block that once was "Must-See TV" has prompted weekly "Sad New Low" headlines as the network and its entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt get raked over the coals for milestones like finishing seventh in primetime on the night -- a status it suffered in October.

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But even if NBC can't shake the banner of industry whipping boy (after all, when Voice and Sunday Night Football disappear in January, so will many NBC viewers), a quiet but persistent narrative has been emerging among ratings-watchers: ABC actually is much worse off. CBS and Fox aren't doing so hot either this season, but ABC, the No. 4 network of the past two seasons, increasingly has grown vulnerable to the criticism typically reserved for the Peacock.

"There's no real secret to it," Disney CEO Robert Iger told analysts ahead of the May upfront. "On the network front, we'd like a stronger primetime schedule, particularly with programming that we own."

Consider the evidence: The network's fall offerings fell mostly flat, and its splashy launch, Agents of SHIELD, premiered to a huge 4.7 rating among adults 18-to-49 in September but was down almost three points from its bow in its most recent new episode. ABC's reality franchise, Dancing With the Stars, is down again this season, as are several of its trademarked female-skewing dramas, including Revenge and Nashville.

Most alarming, observers note that the Alphabet net's biggest successes, Modern Family and Scandal, have failed to serve as a launchpad for other programs the way The Voice has at NBC. Scandal, pacing 61 percent north of last season, does nobody any favors at 10 p.m. Thursdays, and Modern Family, though not for any lack of trying, apparently is incapable of building another comedy. (Modern is down 24 percent in its fifth season, finally showing its age.) The network's latest stab at 9:30 p.m. Wednesdays, the Rebel Wilson vehicle Super Fun Night, seems destined to go the way of failed occupants Happy Endings, Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23 and How to Live With Your Parents (for the Rest of Your Life) after steep drops from its lead-in prompted an abbreviated back order. Many critics consider ABC's inability to find a partner for Modern Family as its biggest shortcoming.

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So why has ABC largely escaped the type of venom directed at NBC?

"NBC still seems to be the focal point of negative press, while others, like ABC -- or have you seen Fox's ratings this season? -- are largely ignored," notes one TV exec.

One reason could be that Paul Lee, ABC Entertainment Group's genteel Brit president, maintains a low profile, and his misses -- there are many -- have not been as spectacular as, say, Greenblatt's megaflop Smash (snarky tweeters still were making Smash jokes Dec. 5 even as 18.5 million watched the Sound of Music telecast). Plus, NBC's Thursday night, middling as ever this season with Sean Saves the World and The Michael J. Fox Show, serves as a painful reminder of the block's fall from the boom years of Seinfeld, Friends and ER.

CBS, which celebrated its first season atop the demo heap in 20 years in 2013, indeed is down by the same measure as ABC this season. But the steady tenures of CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves and entertainment chief Nina Tassler and what is regarded as the most defined brand in broadcast largely keeps them out of the debate. Fox entertainment chief Kevin Reilly is well-liked and is able to deflect the brunt of criticism for his network's dramatic drops (22 percent last season) to its ailing flagship American Idol.

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Some suggest ABC has received its own executive pass thanks to Disney's Iger. The parent company CEO appears to inspire an appreciation for the bigger picture he's trying to paint. Iger's sprawling TV strategy, after all, in many ways sets up ABC for a certain amount of failure. The network lost Monday Night Football in 2006 to Disney sibling ESPN (TV's most-lucrative property, achieving a projected $10 billion in ad revenue in 2013), leaving ABC the lone broadcaster unable to capitalize on the booming NFL ratings. With sports taken out of the equation, ABC actually would have topped the Big Four among adults 18-to-49 during the recent November sweep.

Still, ABC's successes are becoming few and far between. The play to reinvigorate Dancing With the Stars by cutting it down to a single two-hour weekly broadcast failed to curb declining ratings. It closed its 17th cycle down 5 percent, with its average viewer a not-so-ad-friendly 62.1 years old. Worse off are two of the network's boldest scripted names: Sunday duo Once Upon a Time and Revenge. Halfway into their third seasons, the former darlings are pacing a troubling 24 percent shy of last season. Things are so rough for Revenge, the breakout soap from the 2011-12 season, ABC is shuffling it from its prime 9 p.m. Sunday slot (once home to yesteryear behemoth Desperate Housewives) to the network's deeply troubled 10 p.m. hour. Current occupant and latest non-starter Betrayal will end very quietly before midseason.

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Yes, ABC has had a triumph in Agents of SHIELD, which has boosted the Tuesday 8 p.m. slot. But it comes with the caveat of largely underperforming lofty expectations -- both creatively and in viewership -- for Marvel's TV foray into Disney synergy. Still, it ranks as broadcast's No. 5 show with an average 4.9 rating among adults 18-to-49, both significant feats.

It's that creation of a viable new time slot that many consider integral to NBC passing its pariah status on to somebody else. And while the network readies more attempts at a success that can't be chalked up to The Voice or football, its competitors will play hot potato, hoping not to be next. "As long as Thursday night is as bad a problem as it is, it's going to be hard for NBC to turn perception," says one insider. "NBC was built on Thursday night."