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.

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