Sunday, September 28, 2014

2014-15 Network Television Preview - ABC: It's Shonda's World and We're All Just Living In It

Viola Davis launched "How to Get Away With Murder" to huge ratings.
I have to confess to being a bit of a coward when it comes to writing these final two previews for ABC and Fox.  The reason is that my projections have them extremely close (within .01 A18-49 ratings points) and I wanted to see how the first week of shows played out before making any predictions.  We are now five days into the 2014-15 television season and I feel like I can say with some confidence that ABC will finish in third place.

It’s not guaranteed, certainly, that ABC will finish ahead of Fox in the ratings standings.  I feel much more confident that NBC and CBS will finish a distance first and second.  But ABC has had a significantly better premiere week thus far, and I see only one glimmer of hope on the horizon for Fox, whereas ABC has a number of reasons to be excited about the year.

ABC has finished in last place each of the past two years, but it’s not for a lack of hits.  Scandal was the highest-rated drama on television last year while Modern Family was still strong, finishing behind only The Big Bang Theory as the highest-rated comedy.  Additionally, ABC had fully half of the season’s Top Ten dramas and actually finished first among the networks in new drama average as well as second in new comedy average.  Where ABC really falls short is in its lack of sports and a top-notch reality show.  CBS and NBC (and Fox before American Idol dropped significantly) are surging to the top of the rankings race by anchoring their schedules around sports and The Voice (and the not insubstantial lead-in that football gives CBS every other week during the fall).  ABC has none of those – except for much weaker college football ratings on Saturday night – and suffers for it.

My theory goes, however, that the lack of a huge, schedule-consuming block of programming means that, while it’s easier for ABC to fall to last place, it will also be easier for the network to climb back out.  Look at Fox.  The network dropped The X-Factor this year and has American Idol flagging, meaning that they have to figure out how to fill a quarter of their schedule with highly-rated programs within the next two or three years.  The Voice is down pretty significantly from last year and, if that goes, NBC will likewise have to fill three hours of highly-rated programming on top of its normal problems.  ABC, meanwhile, has a stable of solid hits that can run on each night and be used to build new programs far better than sports or American Idol ever proved able to do.

The best example of this is ABC’s embracing of ShondaLand on Thursday night.  For years, Shonda Rhimes’s Grey’s Anatomy was a monster hit and the anchor of the network’s Thursday slate.  Two years ago, they moved Scandal to 10:00 behind Grey’s and turned it into an even bigger hit.  Now, How to Get Away with Murder slots into 10:00, with Grey’s and Scandal each moving up an hour and ABC now has the fourth-most watched night of the week, behind only two nights of NFL football and NBC’s Monday night (and only barely on the last one).  Combine the strong Thursday showing with an improved Wednesday and a surprising, if modest success on Tuesday, and ABC has all the makings of a third place network on the rise.

Let’s take a look at the night-by-night schedule (new shows in Bold):

Monday –
8:00pm – Dancing with the Stars
10:00pm – Castle

Last spring, Dancing with the Stars rebounded to its best ratings in two years.  It was a great showing for the aging veteran, now in its nineteenth season.  Its three airings so far this fall have been down a touch, but it looks to be holding steady year-over-year, which seems to be ABC’s goal for Monday nights.  The combination of DwtS and Castle has been running strong for five-and-a-half years now and, while the latter never felt worthy of the former’s lead-in, DwtS’s ratings have come down significantly in recent years while Castle has stayed fairly stable.  ABC has much larger holes to fill, so it makes sense that they would stand pat on Monday nights.

Tuesday –
8:00pm – Selfie/Manhattan Love Story
9:00pm – Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD
10:00pm – Forever

ABC tried to launch an entirely brand new night on Tuesdays last fall with modest success.  SHIELD debuted huge but couldn’t hold a sizeable audience.  The Goldbergs did well enough to earn a move to Wednesdays (more on that in a bit). And the 10:00pm hour absolutely cratered, claiming three canceled dramas and only four times (in 35 weeks) managing to break a 1.3 rating.*  The network hopes that moving SHIELD to 9:00 will help boost the final hour of the night and, so far, they’ve been right.  SHIELD debuted to a respectable 2.1 rating this past week while new series, Forever, drew a 1.7 in a special Monday debut and a 1.8 on Tuesday.  We still don’t have any data on the two comedies being sacrificed to NCIS and The Voice, but it doesn’t seem like they’ll do all that well.  Still, Tuesday at 10:00 was a huge hole for the network and, if Forever and SHIELD can hold up, they’ll be happy with these results.

* A David Blaine magic special, New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, and the two finales for Dancing with the Stars.
Wednesday –
8:00pm – The Middle/The Goldbergs
9:00pm – Modern Family/Black-ish
10:00pm – Nashville

For years, ABC resisted putting a family sitcom after Modern Family, much to the dismay of fans of the late, lamented Trophy Wife.  But this year, Black-ish gets the nod and appears to have solved the problem of finding a compatible lead-in for Modern Fam.  The rookie debuted to a mammoth 3.3 rating, holding on to 97 percent of Modern Family’s viewers and 85 percent of its demo audience.  To be sure, other comedies have performed just as well in the same timeslot in the past, but through one week, this matchup is a success.  Just as importantly, The Goldbergs made the move from Tuesdays with aplomb, actually building on The Middle’s young audience.  It’s still very early, but this comedy lineup is a smash hit, even if it can’t really boost Nashville.

Thursday –
8:00pm – Grey’s Anatomy
9:00pm – Scandal
10:00pm – How to Get Away with Murder

Now we come to ShondaLand.  The creator and showrunner for Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal is executive producing another show this fall and ABC decided to just line the three up on Thursday nights.  The results couldn’t have been better.  Scandal remains the highest-rated drama on television, but the Murder debut tied it in the demo and actually beat Scandal in total viewers.  More importantly, Grey’s returned to a 3.0 rating in the 8:00 slot, which has been largely vacant for five years now.  The last show to earn a renewal out of the hour was Ugly Betty, back in 2009.  It has to be a huge relief to ABC execs that the Shonda Rhimes trio is standing up so well to Thursday Night Football.  There are obviously challenges still to come, as The Big Bang Theory will come back to the night in a few weeks and The Blacklist will challenge Scandal in the spring, but this is nothing but good news so far.

Friday –
8:00pm – Last Man Standing/Cristela
9:00pm – Shark Tank
10:00pm – 20/20

Shark Tank has been a surprisingly strong performer for ABC on Friday nights and even has been turned into ABC’s prime seat-filler, airing repeats at 10:00 on pretty much every night of the last week of the summer.  Last Man Standing has thus far been steady, if unspectacular, on Fridays and ABC would really like to find a steady, if unspectacular, comedy to pair with it.  Cristela is a diverse, out of the box choice and I really hope it succeeds.

Sunday –
8:00pm – Once Upon a Time
9:00pm – Resurrection
10:00pm – Revenge

Sundays could be a problem for ABC this fall.  The other networks aren’t changing all that much, but Once Upon a Time and Revenge have both experienced extended droughts in the past.  And while Resurrection debuted huge last spring, its ratings sunk nearly in half by the end of its brief run in May.  ABC needs OUaT to get a solid boost out of the Frozen storyline and for that to carry over to Resurrection as well.  If those two shows can return up from where they ended last spring (say in the 2.5-3.0 range), I think the network can be happy.  If they return to the same ratings they finished with in May, it could be a long year for ABC Sundays.

It will be nearly impossible for ABC to finish higher than third this year.  Without a consistent sports presence, they can’t catch NBC or CBS.  But they have gotten nothing but good news so far this fall and they have to be considered the favorite to finish third.  The schedule isn’t perfect, but if they’ve figured out the solution to their Tuesday and Thursday problems, it will be the start of what will hopefully be a ratings comeback.

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

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

2014-15 Network Television Preview - CBS: The Next Contender

I'm predicting big things for CBS's new drama, "Scorpion"

Last year I predicted CBS to repeat as television’s ratings champion.  In hindsight, I should have known better.  With the Winter Olympics, The Voice, and Sunday Night Football on NBC it was virtually impossible for CBS to finish the season with the highest same-day ratings.  Still, with how poorly Fox performed, especially in the spring, CBS should have been able to manage second place, even in spite of Fox airing the Super Bowl and primetime NFC Championship Game.  But they struggled to find viewers, especially among dramas.  The big offseason move – Person of Interest to Tuesday nights to open up a fourth comedy hour – mostly failed and the network continued to shed viewers at 10:00.  Worse still, CBS’s Sunday lineup completely fell off the map without a cushy NFL football lead-in, with ratings for The Good Wife and The Mentalist falling below even the network’s Friday offerings in the spring.

Thursday Night Football changes all of that.  It doesn’t have the matchups that NBC’s Sunday Night Football has, won’t pull in the same ratings, and will only air for six weeks, but it will give a decent boost to the non-Big Bang Theory Thursday night ratings and will eliminate about a week’s worth of repeats throughout the year.  Just ask NBC how valuable that can be.  I’m predicting a two-horse race this year between NBC and CBS, but the latter definitely has some ground to make up. 

CBS once was defined by its depth, able to trot out show after show with solid ratings, even if it didn’t have any blockbusters like American Idol or Sunday Night Football.  But depth has increasingly become an issue for the network in recent years and will likely be exacerbated in 2014-15 with the loss of How I Met Your Mother.  The problem is particularly noticeable at 10:00, where not a single show managed to rate above the network average.  10:00 has become an increasing problem for all three networks that schedule there, but ABC and NBC have both been able to develop big 10:00 hits while CBS has seen its numbers slowly erode.  They’ve tried moving established 9:00 successes like Person of Interest in an effort to boost the hour with modest success, but none have shown the ability to be a runaway hit like Scandal or The Blacklist.  CBS is making another of those moves, with NCIS: Los Angeles coming over from Tuesday nights hoping to fill the hole at 10:00 on Mondays, but the best chance for a home run in the late hour is likely Stalker.  It’s getting horrid reviews, but it is right on brand with what the network has in Criminal Minds and will likely earn similar, respectable ratings.

The other disaster area is Sunday nights, which CBS is hoping to shore up with Tea Leoni’s Madame Secretary and CSI.  The network is clearly hoping that sandwiching critical darling The Good Wife in-between two higher-rated shows will help lift the entire night.  We’ll have to see how successful they’ll be.

I used to consider CBS to be the network without any holes in its schedule.  It was always the one canceling shows whose ratings other networks would kill to have.  But that’s starting to change.  CBS still has the strongest comedy lineup, but neither of its two new dramas last year (Hostages and Intelligence) drew ratings that would have kept them alive on other networks and both Friday and Sunday are right on par (or a little behind) with what the other networks are putting on.  These holes aren’t yet critical, thanks to strong ratings throughout the rest of the schedule.  But with ABC and NBC down, CBS has a chance to stamp itself as the dominant network on television, especially next year when it will again have the Super Bowl.  If they want to get there, however, they need to figure out how to fix 10:00 and Sundays.

Let’s take a look at the night-by-night schedule (new shows in Bold).

8:00pm – (The Big Bang Theory/2 Broke Girls [October 27th])/Mom
9:00pm – Scorpion
10:00pm – NCIS: Los Angeles

Monday is an almost entirely brand new night this year.  With the NFL consuming the first six Thursdays of the season, CBS needed a home for The Big Bang Theory, which it certainly wasn’t going to leave on the bench for a month-and-a-half, so it returns to Mondays, this time in the lead-off spot.  It will likely continue to draw incredible ratings and might just be able to give a nice boost to Mom. 

For the first time in more than fifty years, CBS won’t be airing sitcoms at 9:00, instead hoping to launch Scorpion, a Big Bang-meets-NCIS drama that I’m predicting will be a massive hit, and the highest-rated new show this season.  It’s received fabulous marketing and will get a one-hour Big Bang lead-in for its premiere.  Closing out the night will be CBS’s second attempt to shore up a 10:00 timeslot with a former 9:00 show.  The plan worked reasonably well last year, with Person of Interest pulling modest, but better ratings than its predecessors in the Tuesday at 10:00 timeslot, but the show lost viewers overall from its previous Thursday airings.  NCIS: LA will likely lose viewers as well, but if it can stay in that 1.8-2.2 range that Person of Interest held for most of last year, CBS will probably consider that a success. 

8:00pm – NCIS
9:00pm – NCIS: New Orleans
10:00pm – Person of Interest

The only change on Tuesdays is the slotting in of a new NCIS spinoff in place of an old one.  With so few changes, it stands to reason that ratings will likely be the same.  The big thing to watch will be whether the NCIS mothership continues its pattern of erosion, as it's fallen by double-digit percentages each of the last two seasons.

Wednesday –
8:00pm – Survivor
9:00pm – Criminal Minds
10:00pm - Stalker

As much as I would like another outcome, I’m resigned to Stalker being a modest hit, likely holding down most of the still impressive Criminal Minds audience.  As much as I’ve criticized CBS’s 10:00 performance, the truth is that they obviously realize their own issues and have a pretty solid plan to combat them.  They tested the “9:00 to 10:00” waters with Person of Interest last year and this year are doubling down with NCIS: LA and Stalker, which might as well be a spinoff of Criminal Minds.  So far, it’s been a solid plan.

Thursday –
8:00pm – Thursday Night Football/(The Big Bang Theory/The Millers [October 23rd])
9:00pm – Two and a Half Men/The McCarthys (October 23rd)
10:00pm – Elementary (October 23rd)

It will shock nobody to say that Thursday Night Football will pull in perfectly acceptable viewership numbers.  I should caution, however, those who think will succeed on the level of Sunday Night Football.  The caliber of games for Thursday night is much lower than on Sunday (just witness last week’s debacle with the Falcons dismantling the Buccaneers).  The ratings are typically lower as well. 

Things don’t really get interesting until late October, when football goes away and the normal schedule returns.  CBS is marshalling its resources elsewhere this fall, so Thursday remains largely unchanged.  I expect the ratings to be likewise.  I do think, however, that The McCarthys is a little more on brand than was The Crazy Ones, so it may have a little more success.

Friday –
8:00pm – The Amazing Race
9:00pm – Hawaii Five-0
10:00pm – Blue Bloods

Five-0 and Blue Bloods make a really good pairing on Friday nights.  They don’t necessarily draw monster ratings, but they do well enough to win their timeslots or finish second most weeks.  I honestly don’t know what effect The Amazing Race will have on the night, though I expect it’s not much.  I view this less as a negative move for TAR and more as a move to protect The Good Wife and Sunday nights, which the Race is no longer capable of doing.

Sunday –
8:00pm – Madame Secretary
9:00pm – The Good Wife
10:00pm – CSI

Sundays have been cratering for CBS in recent years, so it’s no surprise that the network is trying something new here: The Amazing Race and The Mentalist departing to make way for new drama Madame Secretary and veteran CSI.  The first two hours of this trio launched this past Sunday to decidedly mixed results.  Secretary drew a 2.0 in the preliminary ratings while The Good Wife bombed to a 1.3.  That number could come up in the final ratings, but it’s still well below expectations.  The big question is going to be if The Good Wife’s low ratings affect CSI and, if CSI comes back low too, how long CBS allows that to continue.

I’m being harsh on CBS, but the truth is that I’m still predicting them to finish, at minimum, in second place with a decent chance for first.  It just feels odd to see them with so many problem spots in the schedule because, for so many years, they had the most consistent schedule, beaten out in the ratings race only because Fox had the juggernaut that is American Idol.  I have to say, though, CBS’s fall schedule impresses me.  They’ve recognized their weaknesses and seem to be patching them well.  I predict good things for the eye network in 2014-15.

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

Saturday, September 20, 2014

2014-15 Network Television Preview - NBC: The Reigning Champ

NBC hopes "The Blacklist" can anchor Thursdays in the spring

NBC won the 2013-14 season.  I didn't predict that, but in retrospect, it should have been obvious.  Combining a strong early-week combination of Sunday Night Football and The Voice in the fall with the ability to replace two weeks of repeats in the winter with the highly-rated Olympic Games (Olympics average: 5.67, NBC repeats average: 0.86) meant that NBC should have been a virtual lock for at least second place, if not first.  But I will not be making that same mistake this year.  NBC loses the Winter Olympics but gains the Super Bowl which, regardless of how well their new shows perform, should guarantee them at least second place, and marks them as the front-runner for 2014-15 network champion.

I should make clear at this point that the numbers I’m using for these discussions are the final Live+Same Day ratings that are generally released the following day during the season.  The “official” numbers that most people use at the end of the season are the Live+7 statistics, which include DVR usage up to one week after a program airs.  The only functional difference it makes for these discussions is that last year, using Live+SD numbers, Fox finished in second with a 1.96 average compared to CBS’s 1.83 average.  When factoring in DVR usage, the networks ended up tied at 2.4.  In either case, NBC finished well clear in first place (.3 ahead of Fox) and ABC finished a distant fourth (.3 behind CBS).

It cannot be understated the amount that NBC relied on sports and The Voice for its victory last year.  For starters, were the Winter Olympics simply replaced by NBC’s repeat average, the network would have finished in second, behind Fox, though the same could be said for Fox, which would have nearly finished in last were it not for the Super Bowl and the NFC Championship Game.  Additionally, the network finished last among the four major networks in both new drama and new comedy ratings.  In fact, if you remove repeats and sports from the ratings equation, NBC barely finished second, just ahead of ABC but well behind CBS.

In my season preview last September I wrote that NBC had three goals:
  1. Maintain the ratings for Sunday Night Football, The Voice, and their returning dramas.
  2. Find one new hit drama.
  3. Get something out of their new comedies
On point one, the network mostly succeeded.  Sunday Night Football was its usual juggernaut.  The Voice was down 10-15 percent but remained strong overall.  Chicago Fire got a nice bump in the fall by airing after The Voice and its spin-off, Chicago PD did perfectly well in the spring.  Law & Order: SVU rose year-over-year and only Revolution and Parenthood dropped off significantly.  As for the other two, The Blacklist easily filled the “new hit drama” requirement, finishing the season as the number two network drama, but none of NBC’s new comedies became hits.  Three bombed out of the schedule before February sweeps while only About a Boy managed a second season renewal, coasting largely on carryover audience from The Voice.  Still, finishing two for three along with the Winter Olympics carried NBC to a first place finish.

For the 2014-15 season, the Super Bowl will make up a lot of the ground NBC loses without the Olympics.  It should be enough, even, to turn the year into a two-man race between the network and CBS, with Fox and ABC duking it out for a distance third place.  Where NBC really needs to concentrate is on building a sustainable schedule for 2015-17, when they will be without the Super Bowl and the Olympics, the 2016 summer games taking place in between seasons.  Realistically, what that means is that NBC needs to build out Thursdays.  The most profitable night on television in terms of ad sales, and once the home of NBC’s “Must See TV,” Thursday has largely gone fallow for NBC in recent years, with The Office representing its last major player.  Last year in particular was a disaster, as not a single Thursday show could match the network’s scripted average and only Parks and Recreation and Parenthood merited renewals, with both receiving abbreviated final seasons.

NBC obviously recognizes this problem as their big move for the 2014-15 season is to push The Blacklist to Thursdays in the spring, opposite Scandal and CBS’s 9:00pm comedy block.  Ideally, this will allow them to use the monster audience for The Voice as a lead-in for the new Katherine Heigl drama State of Affairs while using The Blacklist to boost its other new drama, Allegiance.  Winter and spring debuts are always dicey propositions (only three of last year’s seventeen spring premieres across the four major networks were renewed), but by using their best shows to launch them, NBC is putting almost all of its new dramas in positions to succeed.

I still like NBC to win the season ratings title, but their over-reliance on sports and The Voice leaves them vulnerable three nights a week (and four during the spring).  They will certainly end 2014 with the highest overall rating, but their long-term success will depend on whether they successfully diminish the impact of the loss of the Olympics and the Super Bowl.  In 2013, the NBC spring schedule tanked.  Last year it held up.  If the network wants a chance at winning in 2015-16 or 2016-17, they need to find more hits now.

Let’s take a look at the night-by-night schedule (new shows in Bold).

8:00pm – The Voice
10:00pm – The Blacklist (State of Affairs in November)

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  The second-highest rated show on network television and the second-highest rated drama make for a great pairing and there’s no reason to switch things up early.  Clearly, NBC needs to use The Voice to build hits, since nothing else on the network can really do that, so State of Affairs will launch in this spot during November sweeps.  Really, I think that move is all about The Blacklist avoiding Thursday Night Football (more on that in a bit), which is a perfectly sensibly decision.  In the meantime, I expect both Monday shows to be down a bit from last autumn, though still strong overall.  The big question will be what happens in November.  The Voice’s audience generally drops one-third from the beginning of the season by mid-November, when State of Affairs will hit the air.  This is going to give it a lot smaller lead-in and put it probably in close approximation to what Chicago Fire was doing last year, when it had The Voice as a lead-in on Tuesday nights.  Expect Affairs to debut in the high-twos, maybe a 3.0, but to quickly settle in the low-to-mid-twos during the winter.  I don’t think this strategy will successfully launch another hit drama, but it will likely keep The Blacklist going strong.

Tuesday –
8:00pm – The Voice
9:00pm – Marry Me/About a Boy
10:00pm – Chicago Fire

Chicago Fire got a nice bump last fall from airing after The Voice.  Without said bump in the winter and spring, the show dropped from a 2.25 average to a 1.85.  Granted, that’s perfectly acceptable for NBC and made Fire the network’s second-highest rated drama last spring, but I fully expect the show to be at or below that spring number this fall, meaning that NBC will need to make up ground in its comedies.  I’m a little surprised the network is giving Marry Me the precious post-Voice slot, rather than trying to give About a Boy a sophomore boost, but it clearly has faith in the new series created by Happy Endings creator David Caspe.  I don’t think Marry Me is going to be a hit (NBC has had a lot of trouble launching comedies out of The Voice), but so long as it doesn’t tank completely, the hour should rate perfectly well thanks to that cushy lead-in.

Wednesday –
8:00pm – The Mysteries of Laura
9:00pm – Law & Order: SVU
10:00pm – Chicago PD

The Mysteries of Laura slots into the spot filled by Revolution last year while the rest of the Wednesday schedule stays the same from the spring.  Wednesdays aren’t really a problem spot for NBC, even if it’s not necessarily a strength, so it makes sense that the network would try to hold steady on the night while fixing other, more important problems first.  Laura had a good debut, giving its pilot a special airing after the America’s Got Talent finale.  It earned a 2.1 there and if it can maintain a rating somewhere between 1.5 and 2.0 for the fall, I think NBC is happy.

Thursday –
8:00pm – The Biggest Loser
9:00pm – Bad Judge/A to Z
10:00pm – Parenthood

Thursday is definitely the biggest problem facing NBC right now.  It’s the most profitable night on television in terms of ad revenue and both CBS and ABC are airing highly-rated programs in NFL Football and the Shonda Rhimes trio, respectively.  For the fall, it really seems like NBC is just throwing in the towel, airing the final, shortened season of Parenthood, the aging but stable The Biggest Loser, and a pair of new sitcoms that are almost certain to tank.  Things get a little more interesting in the spring, when The Blacklist comes to Thursday, but this night is going to tank in the fall, and I think NBC is okay with that.

Friday –
8:00pm – Dateline NBC
9:00pm – Grimm
10:00pm – Constantine

Grimm has been a solid performer on Friday nights for three years now, but NBC has yet to find a show that pairs well with it.  In its first season, the show was left all on its own, surrounded by news magazines.  Last year, they tried both Dracula and Hannibal without much success in either case.  Hannibal will be back at some point late in the spring or in the summer because it’s a very cheap international production, but this year, it’s Constantine, based on the DC comic title Hellblazer that is paired with Grimm.  It feels like the most compatible combination yet, and if NBC can find a show that will pull in ratings in the 1.5-2.0 range that Grimm gets, that will make for a very successful Friday night lineup.

Sunday –
7:00pm – Football Night in America
8:30pm – Sunday Night Football

It’s NFL football.  It will get the best ratings on television for yet another year.

So that’s NBC’s outlook for the year.  They’re almost certain to finish in the top two and may even win the season again, thanks to the Super Bowl.  But this year is all about building for 2015-2017, and they need to find at least one new hit, while keeping pace with everything else.

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