|Can "Resurrection" save ABC|
The Midseason Reviews were put on hiatus over the holidays, but with Press Tour over, the Olympics wrapped up, and most shows returning from hiatus, I thought it would be a good time to finish discussing where the networks stand. Previously, I discussed CBS . Today, ABC.
At Press Tour a few weeks ago, ABC Entertainment President Paul Lee proudly stood before the collected television critics and announced that, absent sports, ABC won November sweeps, which is a little like saying that, absent the Seattle Seahawks, the Denver Broncos were the best team in the NFL. It’s one of those disingenuously positive tidbits (I hesitate to even call it a fact) that network executives like to spout at this time of year to make their networks seem better. It doesn’t even have the mild relevance of Fox chairman Kevin Reilly’s constant nattering about Live+7, Hulu+, and On Demand ratings. At least he’s talking about actual viewers who are watching shows. Lee is saying, essentially, “If you get rid of the single most-viewed genre of programming on network television*, we’re number one!”
* In the 2012-13 television season, sports programming averaged a 4.05 rating, easily surpassing the 2.27 for reality, 2.17 for comedy, and 1.96 for drama, repeats excluded.
Lee’s statement, however, brings to the forefront a piece of the television puzzle that is not often discussed. ABC is not a standalone entity. It is merely an affiliate of The Walt Disney Company, who also just so happen to own the most popular sports entity in the world, ESPN. ABC is not bereft of sports programming by accident; it was an intentional decision made an organization much larger than just ABC. The fact is, Disney makes significantly more money by placing its prominent sports programming (Monday Night Football, NBA Basketball, etc.) on ESPN in order to extract more than $5 per month in carriage fees from the roughly 100 million pay television subscribers than they would earn by putting those programs on ad-supported network television.
It’s impossible to leave ABC entirely blameless. Absent sports programming, Lee has decided to steer into the skid, focusing the network’s schedule on attracting female viewers. In a few cases, that strategy has been a success. Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, both of which skew heavily female, are two of the network’s highest rated shows, behind only Modern Family. Unfortunately, limiting the network to one main demographic can drive viewers away and ABC has struggled mightily to launch new shows.
The last two seasons have been particularly difficult for ABC. The network renewed only two new shows from last season, Nashville and The Neighbors. The latter was shuffled off to hopefully survive on Friday nights while the former has limped along to an average 1.5 rating (1.4 this spring) that would almost certainly mark it for cancelation if ABC didn’t have many shows doing worse.
The shows that debuted this year haven’t fared much better. Agents of SHIELD premiered to huge numbers (17 million people watched the first episode within a week of its first airing) but has dropped precipitously since due to a likely mixture of mediocre quality. The Goldbergs is also doing reasonably well. But those two series are likely the only two that will be back next year. Every other drama ABC has debuted has tanked, terribly. In fact, at the current ratings level, it looks like the second-highest rated freshman drama for ABC will end up being Lucky 7, which was the first casualty of the season when the network pulled it after two episodes.
ABC’s new comedies have been little stronger. Half of the shows that premiered in September are already gone, Trophy Wife is, sadly, limping its way toward the exit, and midseason upstart Mixology is currently dropping half of its Modern Family lead-in. As mentioned above, The Goldbergs is doing fine, but at this point seems a better fit as a 7:30 or 8:30 comedy on Wednesday night (a la Suburgatory) rather than leading off its own comedy block on Tuesdays.
Is there any good news for ABC? I suppose. Shonda Rhimes continues to own Thursday nights with Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal trailing only CBS’s 7:00 comedy block. The Monday night trio of Dancing with the Stars, The Bachelor, and Castle are consistent if not spectacular. And Modern Family continues to be the second-highest rated comedy on television.
The problem they have is that there are just too many holes. ABC is essentially in the position that NBC was a few years ago in the wake of the Leno/Conan debacle. The peacock network fixed things by investing in NFL football and finding The Voice. That filled six hours of vacant real estate with top-notch programming. ABC, unfortunately, lost out to CBS on the Thursday Night Football package. They’re adapting “Rising Star,” an Israeli singing competition with a potentially fruitful live-voting feature, for this summer. It could be the next The Voice, or it could be the next The Taste.
However it shakes out, ABC needs a new hit. The network peaked in the mid-2000s because it had a hit on every night: Desperate Housewives on Sundays, Dancing with the Stars on Mondays, Lost on Tuesdays, Modern Family on Wednesdays, and Grey’s Anatomy on Thursdays. Two of those shows are gone now, a third is a shell of its former self, and Modern Family has proven unable to launch new shows. ABC needs either to find that reality show that can anchor two nights or do a lot better in their scripted development. It doesn’t take much to turn a network around (just look at NBC), but they are firmly in last and it’s a long way to the top.
Mid-season grade – D (only avoiding an F because SHIELD has done okay and Scandal has turned into a breakout hit)
UPDATE: Shortly before posting this review, the ratings for Sunday, March 9th were released and new spring show Resurrection debuted to a mammoth 13.31 million viewers and a 3.6 rating, easily the best numbers of the night and making it the most-watched drama this past week. Obviously, this is only one week (it's the second-best spring debut since Smash, which should tell you about the certainty of its future), but it was basically a self-starter and actually seemed to lift ABC's other two shows from that night, which both returned to much improved ratings from their previous airing. It's just one episode, but it's a start.