|Viola Davis launched "How to Get Away With Murder" to huge ratings.|
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):
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.