Friday, May 9, 2014

Network Upfront Preview: Fox - We Really Want You to Care About DVR Ratings

Network upfronts – where the networks all come together to announce their fall schedules and pitch their new shows to advertisers – are coming next 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.  Next up is the free-falling FOX.

Fox announced most of its renewals several weeks ago, so there isn’t much suspense over returning shows going into upfronts week.  But the network has had a disastrous spring and is renewing some of the lowest-rated shows of any of the four major networks.  The already-renewed Tuesday comedies have all dropped to a 1.1 at some point this spring and last season’s two-year renewal for Glee is looking more disastrous by the day.  If Tuesday night’s preliminary ratings hold, Glee’s 2.16 million viewers will make it the least-watched non-Saturday show airing on any of the four major networks over the last two weeks, including NBC’s 6:00pm burnoff of American Dream Builders on Sunday. (Update: Glee dropped to 2.10 million viewers in the final ratings)

The Questions
Fox is hemorrhaging live viewers and, while their Live+7 DVR numbers are pretty good for scripted shows (The Following for one regularly doubles its 18-49 audience), the fact is that advertisers aren’t yet paying for those delayed viewers.  Fox’s audience continues to be the youngest of the four major networks – with a median viewer age of about 45 compared to 54 for the broadcast networks as a group – and those younger viewers are increasingly moving to DVR viewing, on-demand, and online platforms where Fox is not able to monetize their eyeballs.  So the first question is “How can Fox bring back live viewers”?

The second problem facing Fox is what to do with their singing competitions.  Fox has already canceled The X-Factor but the slumping American Idol will be back in the spring.  This opens up three hours for new programming, but only in the fall.  Fox has already been experimenting with short-run seasons for Sleepy Hollow and The Following but are they really willing to dedicate four to five hours in the fall to shows that won’t air in the spring?

The Numbers
Back in September I predicted that Fox would fall from first place in 2012 to last in 2014, owing mostly to disastrous scripted development and the collapse of The X-Factor and American Idol.  I didn’t quite hit the mark but I came pretty close.  In Live+Same Day ratings, Fox is on pace to finish with a 1.74 rating, only about .1 ahead of last place ABC and even that lead is going to be entirely thanks to the Super Bowl  and the NFC Championship game.  Fox will finish last in scripted drama and second-to-last in scripted comedy.  The Live+7 numbers are better, with Fox currently holding a .1 lead over CBS for second place, though that may not hold over the last few weeks.  But sans primetime NFL next season, Fox could very well finish in last place unless they manage to find another hit or two among their new shows.

The Schedule (Titles in BOLD have already been renewed for next season; titles in strikethrough have already been canceled)
Monday –
2013-14 Schedule –
7:00pm – Bones (1.54) – Almost Human (1.73) – Bones (1.54)
8:00pm – Sleepy Hollow (2.25) – The Following (1.75)

The Bones numbers are deceptive because of the episodes it aired on Friday, but I’m still a little surprised that Almost Human was canceled.  It seemed like the perfect filler show.  You can debut it in September or November or February, air it for 13 or 18 or 22 episodes, and it will still probably pull the same ratings.  I can only assume that there were production cost issues at play that made the show less profitable for the network.  Also deceptive here is The Following’s average, which is boosted significantly by the 4.4 rating it received for its season premiere following the NFC Championship Game.  With that single episode factored out, the series averaged a 1.56.  It’s tough to predict Fox’s schedule for the Fall because of how much real estate the cancelation of The X-Factor has freed up, but I imagine we will see some consistency on this night with the only question being whether Bones and Sleepy Hollow remain paired together or if the network thinks Sleepy Hollow is strong enough to carry its own night with a new drama.

Tuesday –
7:00pm – Dads (1.41)/Brooklyn Nine-Nine (1.50) – Glee (1.27)
8:00pm – New Girl (1.70)/The Mindy Project (1.30) – New Girl (1.70)/Brooklyn Nine-Nine (1.50) – New Girl (1.70)/The Mindy Project (1.30)

I have to imagine there will be some shake-up on Tuesday nights in the fall because the spring ratings were disastrous.  New Girl and The Mindy Project both managed to tick up for their season finales this week, but prior to that had been regularly drawing a 1.1 rating and fewer than 2.5 million viewers.  And Glee hasn’t bested a 1.0 rating since the first day of April and would have been canceled without question were the show not renewed for two seasons last spring.  I guess they could continue running a two-hour comedy block here next season, but the ratings will likely be just as terrible.

Dads was one of three comedies canceled late Wednesday night (we’ll pour one out for the late, lamented Enlisted in a bit) and was easily the least-mourned.  Its final ratings are inflated by virtue of ending its run in February, before Fox’s ratings cratered.  When compared with the network average at the time of their finales, Dads and The Mindy Project basically ended up with the same numbers.

Wednesday –
7:00pm – The X-Factor (1.73) – American Idol (2.71)

The cancelation of The X-Factor has opened three hours during the fall, giving Fox essentially limitless possibilities for their schedule.  They could take the easy road and just slot three new dramas into these spots, though that’s unlikely to be successful.  They could move Bones or Sleepy Hollow over to try to build a new night.  We might even see American Idol move in the spring.  The last few weeks have been brutal for what is still the network’s highest-rated show as its ratings have been under 2.0 for the past several weeks.  We already saw Fox move Idol away from The Big Bang Theory in the second half of the spring this year.  They may decide to pull it from Thursday altogether.  There’s even a non-zero chance that Fox cuts it back to one night a week as they did with So You Think You Can Dance and ABC has done with Dancing with the Stars.

Thursday –
7:00pm – The X-Factor (1.73) – American Idol (2.71) – Hell’s Kitchen (2.05)
8:00pm – Glee (1.27) – Rake (0.92) – American Idol (2.71)/Surviving Jack ()

I pretty well covered The X-Factor and Idol already, so I’m going to use this space to talk about Glee.  It’s been falling for a while, but airing after the singing competitions kept it at least competitive.  On its own, Glee has bombed, the most recent episode drawing the fewest viewers among the Big Four networks for any show airing outside of Saturday in a month.  I have no idea what Fox can do with it next season.  The show is clearly incapable of leading off a night and the fact that it will be airing its final season means that it would be a waste to give it any kind of a decent lead-in when you can give that lead-in to a show with growth potential.  The obvious move seems to be to put it on Friday night, but if it can only barely pull two million viewers on Tuesday the ratings are sure to be atrocious on Fridays.

Friday –
7:00pm – MasterChef Jr. (1.39) – Bones (1.65) – Rake (0.92) – Kitchen Nightmares (1.38)
8:00pm – Raising Hope (0.64)/Enlisted (0.67) – Kitchen Nightmares (1.38)

Fox screwed up with Enlisted.  I don’t say that often about network scheduling.  In fact, I’ll only say it once more in this series when we get to ABC and discuss Trophy Wife and Mixology.  Here, though, Fox had a charming and funny series full of established television actors and with an established and popular writer pulling the strings (Kevin Biegel was a writer with Scrubs before running Cougar Town with Bill Lawrence).  It seems like Fox was holding Enlisted back in case one of its Tuesday comedies failed, but none of them really did.  Sure, they were all pulling disastrous ratings by April, but for the most part they were doing okay in the fall.  So when January rolled around and the network wanted a sitcom to pair with the final season of Raising Hope, Enlisted got the call. 

The problem was Raising Hope was basically already dead.  The show received a fourth season renewal almost entirely to make it eligible for syndication (shows with three seasons and 66 episodes aired are almost always renewed for a fourth season to get to the 88-episode barrier typically needed for daily syndication).  It pulled in very weak ratings in the fall airing back-to-back episodes and was basically just playing out the string by the time Enlisted was slotted behind it.  The results were pretty much exactly what you’d expect.  Enlisted lost a little bit of Hope’s lead-in each night, but not so much that there wasn’t the possibility that it could be more successful in a better timeslot.

Then, Fox made a smart move.  They swapped the timeslots for Hope and Enlisted to give the rookie the surprisingly successful Bones as a lead-in and it sort of worked.  Enlisted’s ratings grew from a weak 0.6 and 0.7 in its first two airings to a 1.0 in its first post-Bones episode.  The network then ruined the whole thing by shifting Bones back to Monday one week later.  After that, Enlisted never had a chance and it was pulled from the schedule in April.  I don’t know that Enlisted would have been a hit elsewhere, but it sure seems like Fox did everything in its power to keep the show from finding an audience.

Sunday –
7:00pm – The Simpsons (2.36)/Bob’s Burgers (1.86) – The Simpsons (2.36)/Family Guy (2.38)
8:00pm – Family Guy (2.38)/American Dad* (1.94) – Cosmos (1.61)

Animation Domination continues to dominate the schedule for Fox.  I’m not sure the Cosmos experiment worked well (at least in the ratings, it’s been a critical success) if only because it bumped Bob’s Burgers and American Dad up to 6:00 where they’ve been drawing meager numbers.  I wouldn’t expect much to change here next year, though there have been some rumors that Fox might try to bring live-action comedy back to Sunday.  The last time they attempted that was in 2009-10 when they used the 6:00 hour to burn off the last episodes of Brothers and ‘Til Death and when Sons of Tucson managed to air all of four episodes before being pulled.  Maybe five years is long enough to wait before trying again.

* American Dad will no longer air episodes on Fox but will be moving to TBS.  And Family Guy hasn’t officially been renewed yet but has enough episodes ordered that its renewal is more of a formality at this point.

How close is Fox willing to come to running a cable-like schedule?  Will they air five shows (or more) this year with shortened seasons?  Will they cut back on Idol or find another reality show to take up that valuable schedule space in the fall?  We’ll know just what the network plans to do when they release their fall schedule next week, most likely on Monday morning.

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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