Sunday, May 11, 2014

Network Upfront Preview: ABC - Stars and Scrubs

Network upfronts – where the networks all come together to announce their fall schedules and pitch their new shows to advertisers – are this week, which means the 2013-14 television season is quickly coming to a close.  I’ll probably have a season wrap-up post at the end of May, but I wanted to take a quick look at each network and its shows (and maybe make a few renewal/cancelation predictions) before upfronts hit.  Previously I discussed NBC and Fox. Next up is last-place ABC.

Dead last.  For the second straight year, ABC will finish at the bottom of the ratings rankings.  The crazy thing, however, is how much it feels like they shouldn’t be there.  For example, ABC is going to finish the season with the best scripted drama average of any network.  Crazy, right?  After all, they debuted eight new dramas this season and canceled six of them, four after airing a combined 15 episodes.  But while their lows may be really low, their highs are better than any other network.  ABC had five dramas finish with better than a 2.0 rating, as many as the other three networks combined.*  And while their comedies may not be as successful as CBS’s, they still well outpaced what Fox and NBC produced.

* SHIELD, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, Once Upon a Time, and Resurrection versus Sleepy Hollow, NCIS, NCIS Los Angeles, Criminal Minds, and The Blacklist.

Where ABC falls down is in two areas.  First, they have no sports.  I talked about this a couple of months ago in my midseason review, but ABC’s lack of sports is almost certainly a conscious decision on the part of its parent company, Disney, to prop up its sister network, ESPN, and sporting events are, by far, the highest-rated live programming left for television.  NBC has Sunday Night Football.  CBS and Fox are the beneficiaries of regular NFL overruns on Sunday and the attendant ratings boosts that come with.  And all three networks get primetime playoff games annually and the Super Bowl once every three years.  Fox supplements its football coverage with the World Series while CBS gets the NCAA Tournament.  ABC, however, is left with college football on Saturday nights in the fall and a handful of NBA playoff games (though the Finals air in June outside of the television season).

The second place where ABC struggles is in depth.  CBS is canceling three sitcoms this spring that had better average ratings than any of ABC’s comedies but Modern Family and The Middle.  And the dramas that weren’t successful bombed, with the network airing seven different shows that averaged a 1.0 rating or worse, more than the other three networks combined.  There is tremendous value in schedule filler shows that can pull down average or even slightly below-average ratings, but right now ABC has very few of them.

The Questions
The biggest question, then, is if ABC can find that depth.  There are two ways to create depth.  You can either develop shows that will meet your network average or you can develop new hits that make your old above-average shows into average shows.  Either method will work, so long as they don’t create a half-dozen bombs again. 

The second question for ABC is “Can the network finally find a show to follow Modern Family.Since it debuted in 2009, Modern Family has been an unmitigated success, earning stellar ratings and winning the Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series in each of its first four seasons.  And yet, ABC has run eight different series after its biggest comedy over the last five years and only Cougar Town has a) been allowed to air for a second season in the post-Modern Family timeslot and b) survived past the next season.  For all of Modern Family’s success, it has been positively Lost-esque in its failure to develop new comedies.  Can ABC change that trend?

The Numbers
ABC’s 1.65 Live+SD average is, as discussed above, the worst of the four major networks.  The good news is that, aside from finishing first in new scripted drama average and second in new scripted comedy average, ABC has actually increased its season average since the Winter Olympics ended, the only network to do so.  There is potential here.  They just don’t have the ability to dedicate 1/4 to 1/3 of their schedule to a pair of shows like Fox has done with The X-Factor and American Idol or NBC has done with The Voice and Sunday Night Football. Nor do they have the overall depth that CBS does. 

The Schedule (Titles in BOLD have already been renewed for next season; titles in strikethrough have already been canceled)
2013-14 Schedule –
Monday –

7:00pm –Dancing With the Stars (2.23) – The Bachelor (2.70) – Dancing With the Stars (2.36)
9:00pm – Castle (1.94)

There’s nothing special about ABC’s Monday night lineup but, at the same time, there’s nothing wrong with it.  Both Dancing with the Stars and The Bachelor perform admirably while Castle is one of the few “average” shows the network has.  For years, a segment of the ratings population insisted that Castle should be moved so that DwtS could be used to launch new shows, but as the seasons have progressed it’s become clear that Castle is capable of standing on its own.  While it hasn’t grown over the years, it has kept along with the network average, remaining one of those non-stellar filler shows that can boost a network’s average without standing out.  Worth noting here, also, is that DwtS has actually posted better ratings in the spring than it did in the fall, which is very unusual for any network show.

Tuesday –
7:00pm – Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD (2.44)
8:00pm – The Goldbergs (1.71)/Trophy Wife (1.16)
9:00pm – Lucky 7 (1.00) – Killer Women (0.72) – Mind Games (0.78) – Celebrity Wife Swap (0.90)

In 2009, ABC debuted an entirely brand new slate of shows on Wednesday nights.  The experiment was about half successful.  They found a huge hit in Modern Family, a sturdy, solid performer in The Middle, a three-season filler in Cougar Town, and a pair of duds in Hank and Eastwick.  This year, they tried the same, hoping that SHIELD would become the mega-hit and prop up the rest of the night.  Unfortunately, they were far less successful this time around, with SHIELD slightly underwhelming and the 9:00 hour just absolutely tanking.  SHIELD is still a hit, don’t get me wrong, but I have to imagine that ABC was hoping for quite a bit better than 5.5-6.0 million viewers and a rating in the high ones, which is where the show has been all spring.  They have found one of those average filler shows in The Goldbergs, but it will be interesting to see if they try to turn it into something more by pairing it with The Middle or Modern Family next year.

7:00pm – The Middle (2.10)/Back in the Game (1.75) – The Middle (2.10)/Suburgatory (1.61)
8:00pm – Modern Family (3.56)/Super Fun Night (1.80) – Modern Family (3.56)/Mixology (1.45)
9:00pm – Nashville (1.50)

And here’s where I talk about the travesty that was ABC’s treatment of the Trophy Wife.  As I discussed earlier, ABC has been trying for five years now to find a spiritual and ratings match for Modern Family and have thus far failed.  It’s not that the shows they’ve put on were bad (in fact Happy Endings and Cougar Town were quite good), but it’s become clear that the Modern Family audience is its own thing and that it’s not going to stick around for a hangout comedy like Happy Endings and Cougar Town or a quirky comedy like Suburgatory and Don’t Trust the B.  But they have yet to try another family comedy in that timeslot.

Trophy Wife seemed like the perfect fit.  It’s a genuinely sweet comedy about a blended family (a husband, his new wife, and his two ex-wives with whom he shares three children).  It features a cast of adults and children who are all equally capable of carrying an episode and who can be grouped together in myriad combinations to tell different stories.  It even had that “upper class but not quite 1%” vibe that kept the characters relatable but also meant that they never struggled with money and could afford to take the entire family on a vacation to Australia or on a last-minute flight to Great Aunt Marge’s funeral without breaking the believability barrier.  The two shows would have made for a perfect pairing.

But ABC chief executive Paul Lee had other plans, giving the timeslot first to Rebel Wilson’s Super Fun Night, a charming enough show that wasn’t nearly as good as Trophy Wife nor did it share Modern Family’s comedic sensibility, and then to the hopelessly dour and dreadful Mixology, which had an interesting structural idea (13 episodes telling the story of one night at one bar) but which was populated by a group of loathsome characters whose sole purpose on the show is to get laid.  Fast forward nine months and all three shows are now dead and ABC will be going back to the well again, hoping to find something that hold even most of Modern Family’s lead-in.

Also worth noting is the cancelation of Suburgatory, a perfect example of schedule spackle, filling the holes left by failed fall shows.  I can only assume that renewing only four comedies indicates that ABC is intending to cut its comedy offerings back to three hours, something we’re likely going to see from CBS as well.

Thursday –
7:00pm – Once Upon a Time in Wonderland (0.98) – The Taste (1.06) – Once Upon a Time in Wonderland (0.98)
8:00pm – Grey’s Anatomy (2.68) – The Taste (1.06)
9:00pm – Scandal (3.05) – The Assets (0.65) – Scandal (3.05)

I almost titled this post “Everything’s Coming Up Shonda” because not only does producer Shonda Rhimes have two of the three highest-rated shows on ABC, she has a third in production for next year as well.  Grey’s Anatomy has continued to generate great numbers in its tenth season and Scandal has become one of the biggest and most buzzed about shows on television.  The only question at this point is whether or not ABC will let Scandal fly on its own.  The network could conceivable move either one to a new night (though Tuesday seems like the only really option without upsetting other established nights) and use them both as lead-ins to new dramas.  Or they could leave the night alone, hoping that these female-skewing shows will serve as effective counter-programming to the more male-oriented Thursday Night Football.

Friday –
7:00pm – Last Man Standing (1.33)/The Neighbors (0.95)
8:00pm – Shark Tank (2.01)
9:00pm – 20/20

ABC has actually been surprisingly successful on Friday nights.  Last Man Standing pulls in decent, if unspectacular ratings.  Shark Tank is the number one show of the night.  And 20/20 is, like all news magazines, incredibly cheap and easy to produce.  If the network can find a second comedy that will hold Last Man Standing’s audience, this schedule could run for years.

Sunday –
7:00pm – Once Upon a Time (2.18)
8:00pm – Revenge (1.57) – Resurrection (2.57)
9:00pm – Betrayal (0.89) – Revenge (1.57)

Prior to the debut of Resurrection, I remarked that Lucky 7 was on pace to be ABC’s second-highest rated drama of the season, and it was canceled after two episodes.  Luckily for the network, Resurrection debuted to huge numbers and, while it dropped a bit in subsequent weeks, it helped revitalize what had been a flagging Sunday night.  I’m not certain, however, what ABC does with the show next year.  It was presented as an eight-episode miniseries originally, so will they try to expand it to a full 22-episode series, keep it at eight, or maybe find somewhere in between?  I can’t imagine them being content with only eight episodes but I have to think they’ll also want to debut a new show on Sundays using either Resurrection or Once Upon a Time as a lead-in.  Something’s got to give here. 

So that’s where ABC sits heading into upfronts.  Can they find depth and claw their way out of last place?  Will they finally find a partner for Modern Family?  Will they cut back to only three hours of comedy?  We’ll know just what the network plans to do when they release their fall schedule next week, most likely on Monday night.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and amateur television critic.  You can reach him at tytalkstv AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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