Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Network Upfront Preview - CBS: Next Year's Champion

CBS's Scorpion was a decent hit this year, but it won't return the network to the top

Network upfronts – where the networks all come together to announce their fall schedules and pitch their new shows to advertisers – are here, which means the 2014-15 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 before upfronts hit.  Next up is the network which will almost certainly be the 2015-16 champion: CBS

I made be getting a bit ahead of myself crowning CBS as next year’s champion in May, but it isn’t too hard to subtract the ratings NBC got for the Super Bowl this year, add them to CBS’s ratings average (since they will air the Super Bowl next year), and realize that CBS would be sitting about two-tenths of a point ahead of NBC at this point if they had the rights to the previous Super Bowl.  Absent a schedule-consuming megahit like American Idol, sports have begun to rule the broadcast landscape and both NBC and CBS have taken advantage of the shift.  For that reason, they’re going to finish 2015 in first and second place, respectively, and look to hold those positions for the foreseeable future.

All is not clear skies ahead for CBS, though.  The network that I once lauded for its pure, top-to-bottom strength has developed serious flaws throughout its schedule.  Fridays are a disaster (though this is an industry-wide issue) and Sundays haven’t been much better.  Throw in quickly diminishing 9:00pm ratings and more than half the network’s fall schedule pulled below-average ratings, something unheard of even two years ago. 

Exacerbating CBS’s issues is the failure of its shows (The Big Bang Theory excepted) to repeat respectably.  As recently as three seasons ago, the network was able to pull repeat ratings that other networks would kill for.  Just picking one random Monday night in January 2012, CBS’s lineup looked like this:

How I Met Your Mother – 2.5 rating
2 Broke Girls – 2.7
Two and a Half Men – 3.0
Mike & Molly – 2.3
Hawaii Five-0 – 1.7

And those were for repeats.  Compare that to CBS’s best repeat night this season, in December, when NCIS and NCIS: New Orleans topped out at a 1.4.  Certainly, this is not a phenomenon that is unique to the eye network, but more than any other in recent years, CBS has relied on decently-performing repeats to buoy its schedule.  Last year, the network aired fifty-seven percent more repeat hours than ABC (NBC’s and Fox’s numbers were even lower).  But as those numbers decline, CBS will need to start airing more original programming and will need to figure out how to boost those shows’ ratings.

The Question
How does CBS fix Friday and Sunday?  In recent years, the network has been willing to settle for low-rated, syndicated or near-syndication dramas.  While this might be a sound corporate strategy, especially as they air more and more in-house productions, it’s not having a great impact on their overall numbers.  CBS renewed four of its five fall shows from those nights, none of which averaged better than a 1.4 rating.  Maybe they’re fine with this.  After all, there’s money in cranking out twenty-two episodes of a CBS-produced procedural that has a syndication deal guaranteeing $1m to $1.5m per episode.  But it's not helping their current numbers at all.

The Numbers –
CBS is cruising for a second-place finish in Live+Same Day ratings, currently averaging a 1.78 rating and likely to finish around a 1.75, about an eight percent drop from 2014-15.  We’ve talked about the network’s problems on Friday and Sunday nights, but they did have a few successes this year.  Scorpion and NCIS: New Orleans both debuted to big numbers and settled in as solid successes.  The Big Bang Theory, while no longer the monster it once was, is still the second-highest-rated show on network television and was successfully able to build both Mom (up ten percent year-over-year) and The Odd Couple.  CBS still has a lot of hits, which is maybe why it can afford to give so much time over to low-rated syndication babies.

The Schedule –
Monday –
7:00pm – The Big Bang Theory (4.32 average rating)/The Millers (1.68) – 2 Broke Girls (2.05)/Mike & Molly (2.07)
8:00pm – Scorpion (2.30)
9:00pm – NCIS: Los Angeles (1.62)

The trouble with projecting CBS’s schedule is that I always predict them to stay mostly steady and they always end up making big moves.  For example, I never would have predicted they would pull comedies from the 8:00 Monday hour last year, but here we are and it looks to have worked.  Scorpion came out of the gate hot before cooling off a bit in the spring, but it was a solid, reliable player that, when paired with NCIS:LA, really helped boost the night.  Some strange, early season shuffling* probably hurt The Millers a bit, but once 2 Broke Girls and Mike & Molly settled in, this turned into CBS’s strongest top-to-bottom night.  For next year, I don’t expect this lineup to change at all.

* Mom was originally slated to follow The Big Bang Theory but just days before the season began, CBS announced that the show would shift to Thursdays instead, once the NFL games finished and that, following three weeks of Big Bang repeats, The Millers would move to Mondays.  The move worked for Mom, not so much for The Millers.

Tuesday –
7:00pm – NCIS (2.44)
8:00pm – NCIS: New Orleans (2.10)
9:00pm – Person of Interest (1.55)

NCIS and its newest spinoff did pretty much exactly what was expected of them.  The big surprise here was how much Person of Interest dropped throughout the season, ultimately hitting a 1.1 rating for its finale.  CBS’s renewal announcements were delayed several days apparently because the network was in tense negotiations with Warner Bros. over the future of the show.  Current rumors have Person of Interest getting renewed for only thirteen episodes, indicating a possible planned final season, a la The Mentalist this past season.  That likely means a trip to Friday or Sunday or maybe Wednesday night as a bridge program between Survivor seasons.  The only other question then is whether a new drama slots in at 9:00 or NCIS: New Orleans shifts down to make room for a new show at 8:00.

Wednesday –
7:00pm – Survivor (2.30) – The Mentalist (1.34) – Survivor (2.30)
8:00pm – Criminal Minds (2.14)
9:00pm – Stalker (1.52) – CSI: Cyber(1.44)

This spring lineup could come back entirely intact, though Cyber has taken a recent downturn in the ratings.  I’m a little surprised that Criminal Minds has never found its way to 9:00 but, if CBS hasn’t done it yet, I don’t see why they would now.  It’s also, frankly, amazing that Survivor manages to remain a top-five show on the network even after sixteen years.

Thursday –
7:00pm – Thursday Night Football (4.58) – The Big Bang Theory (4.32)/Mom (2.28) – The Big Bang Theory (4.32)/The Odd Couple (2.25)
8:00pm – Thursday Night Football (4.58) – Two and a Half Men (2.26)/The McCarthys (1.50)/Mom (2.28)
9:00pm – Thursday Night Football (4.58) – Elementary (1.29)

Thursday Night Football wasn’t the smash hit that CBS was likely hoping for, mostly thanks to terrible matchups and a surprising number of blowouts, but it still gave big numbers and allowed the network to cut down on repeats.  I’m assuming they aren’t planning to run regularly schedule Big Bang repeats in the fall as they did this spring but, honestly, the ratings weren’t that bad.  I expect this schedule to stay much the same with the possible exception of Elementary making room for a different show.  But, really, there’s nowhere else to put it except possibly on Sundays at 9:00.

Friday –
7:00pm – The Amazing Race (1.18) – Undercover Boss (1.39) – The Amazing Race (1.18)
8:00pm – Hawaii Five-0 (1.25)
9:00pm – Blue Bloods (1.27)

CBS renewed this entire lineup which makes me fairly certain that will it return relatively intact.  It’s not great and the ratings are likely to decline further, but it’s making CBS money on an across-the-board low ratings night so more power to them, I guess.

Sunday –
7:00pm – Madame Secretary (1.41)
8:00pm – The Good Wife (1.21)
9:00pm – CSI (1.31) – Battle Creek (0.79)

CSI has been more or less canceled, though plans are apparently being made for some kind of final movie or shortened season, so we may not yet have seen its end.  Frankly, this seems like a perfect spot to move Elementary in order to get in its fourth season needed for syndication since that’s all that Friday and Sunday nights seem to be good for anymore.  It seems like such a waste of an NFL lead-in, especially compared to how Fox handles its Sunday nights but, for whatever reason, CBS has been willing to more or less punt Sunday nights in recent years rather than try to shake anything up, so I can’t really predict anything else.

CBS almost certainly has the 2015-16 ratings title in the bag already in May.  But even if the Super Bowl can prevent an overall ratings decline, CBS is going to be seeing some very ugly ratings next spring if they don’t figure out their scheduling now.  I know that there are a lot of hidden factors that go into the financials of a company as vertically integrated as this, but those financials don’t make the numbers look any better to the public eye.  Then again, I guess that’s how television financials work now.

Tyler J 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, May 12, 2015

Network Upfront Preview - ABC: Small Steps in the Right Direction

The Goldbergs was an unlikely hit for ABC. Its fate is a big question.

Network upfronts – where the networks all come together to announce their fall schedules and pitch their new shows to advertisers – are here, which means the 2014-15 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 before upfronts hit.  Next up is the only network to not dip significantly: ABC.

“Flat is the new up,” NBC chairman Robert Greenblatt told critics at Press Tour two summers ago and, if that’s true, ABC must surely be celebrating this week as it currently sits within one percent of last year’s final rating while its competitors are all looking at 15-25% year-to-year declines.  What’s most impressive is actually how ABC has managed to maintain its numbers. 

More than any other network, ABC has embraced the mantra that repeats are dead and it appears they may have a point.  While many people mocked the network’s renewals of low-rated winter and spring filler in Galavant, American Crime, and Agent Carter, one need only look at the numbers for drama repeats to see the value in (hopefully) inexpensive midseason programming.  Even shows that are hits otherwise are incapable of pulling in decent ratings in repeats.  ABC’s big new hit How to Get Away with Murder averaged a 0.58 rating in repeats.  Fox's Gotham pulled a .6, NBC's Chicago Fire a .8.  Only CBS is capable of getting decent ratings with repeats at this point and even theirs are falling rapidly, The Big Bang Theory excepted.

ABC has figured out, then, how to make many small improvements on the margins to boost their overall average.  Throw in a couple of new hits and a lack of flat-out bombs and you have the makings for real growth.  Maybe it’s cheating, given that they’re having to spend more money for new episodes of low-rated fare, but they’re not the only ones with the same idea.  All four networks have been looking for ways to combat repeat programming, whether it’s sports, specials, or “bridge programming.”  But ABC has been the most aggressive, cutting its repeat programming hours from more than 300 150 hours just two years ago* to barely more than 100 this season.  It’s paid off.

* Bah, my math was bad.  300 hours of repeat programming would be crazy.  It was just over 150 hours.  Still a decline of almost one-third, but not crazy numbers.

The Questions
Last year, I asked if ABC could finally find a show they could successfully pair with Modern Family.  The answer to that question was a resounding “Yes,” as black-ish managed to hold much of the veteran’s audience throughout the season.  The question this year is almost the opposite: What is ABC going to do with all of its returning comedies.  The network has renewed six comedies including the entire Wednesday night lineup.  If ABC wants to stay at four sitcom hours in the fall it’s probably going to mean moving an established, reasonably successful show to Friday nights, debuting another new comedy there with Last Man Standing (which has already failed twice), or pushing something to the spring.

The other big question is how to handle Shondaland on Thursday nights.  Running Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder all together had massive benefits, especially in the fall when NBC and Fox were foundering against Thursday Night Football.  ABC’s recent history would seem to favor keeping them together, but they could make a big splash by moving one of the three.

The Numbers
ABC’s Live+Same Day season average currently sits at 1.62 and is probably going to end up around 1.60, a roughly two percent drop from last year, much better than the 15-25% drops that other networks are seeing.  The network is also threatening to sneak into second place in the Live+7 ratings, sitting just .1 behind CBS.  A big reason for the bump is likely due to the decrease in repeat airings, so ABC is probably going to need to increase its new program ratings to make further progress from here, something not easy to do in today’s television climate.

Monday –
7:00pm – Dancing With the Stars (2.10) – The Bachelor (2.30) – Dancing With the Stars (2.10)
9:00pm – Castle (1.57)

A big theme running through ABC’s schedule right now is how few legitimate trouble spots there are.  While I’m sure ABC would like more out of Castle, its pairing with Dancing With the Stars and The Bachelor has worked for seven years now.  It’s possible that a new show will find its way here, but a more likely scenario, I think, is to pair Castle with a bridge show to cover the winter months.  Castle doesn’t repeat especially poorly, but the ratings certainly aren’t good.  And bringing in, say, the second season of female-skewing Secrets and Lies to air after The Bachelor is the kind of marginal change that the network has made work a lot this year.

Tuesday –
7:00pm – Selfie (1.07)/Manhattan Love Story (1.00) – Fresh Off the Boat (1.72)/Repeat After Me (1.13)
8:00pm – Agents of SHIELD (1.61)/Agent Carter (1.50)/Agents of SHIELD (1.61)
9:00pm – Forever (1.12)

Tuesday was the only real troublesome night for ABC this year and Fresh Off the Boat managed to fix some of that trouble in the spring.  The Marvel hour is doing…something…for the Disney corporation even if the ratings aren’t necessarily what they expected.  It’s easy to think that this night will look much the same in the fall (comedies into Marvel into a new drama), but this is also the night with the most problems and could probably use some shakeups.  If ABC does decide to move a Shonda show off of Thursday, this is where it could turn up.

Wednesday –
7:00pm – The Middle (2.00)/The Goldbergs (2.19)
8:00pm – Modern Family (3.25)/black-ish (2.33)
9:00pm – Nashville (1.35)

Perhaps the most surprising ratings note of ABC’s season was how The Goldbergs blossomed after moving to Wednesday nights.  Its ratings weren’t terrible on Tuesdays last year, but they certainly weren’t good.  And they ended up drawing a better average rating than even lead-in The Middle.  It wouldn’t at all be surprising to see The Middle (which is not an ABC-produced show) sent off to Tuesday or Friday and The Goldbergs pushed up to the top slot.  As for the rest of the night, ABC would be crazy to move black-ish now that it’s found some success and, at this point, Nashville just seems to be playing out the syndication string.  They probably have one more season on Wednesday nights before being canceled.

Thursday –
7:00pm – Grey’s Anatomy (2.39) – The Taste (0.83) – Grey’s Anatomy (2.39)
8:00pm – Scandal (2.90)
9:00pm – How to Get Away with Murder (2.96) – American Crime (1.18)

The Shonda Rhimes trio was a smash hit for ABC this year.  It successfully counter-programmed the NFL on CBS and put the second-, third-, and fifth-best drama ratings on all of network television.  It’s not a perfect year-long lineup, as none of the shows repeats particularly well and midseason filler The Taste and spring series American Crime both underperformed.  It’s possible that the network will make some changes to this lineup, but I doubt it.  Don’t fix what’s not broken.

Friday –
7:00pm – Last Man Standing (1.27)/Cristela (1.00)
8:00pm – Shark Tank (1.92)
9:00pm – 20/20 (1.62)

ABC has developed a Shark Tank spinoff, Beyond the Tank, which will debut this summer.  It’s already been renewed for a second season, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it end up on Fridays during the season, either paired with, or as a bridge for Shark Tank during the winter.  The reality show has been a Friday hit for a few years now and is the only show capable of pulling decent ratings on Fridays anymore, so it’s not surprising that ABC would try to build on that.  What it means for the Friday comedy block and Last Man Standing, I don’t know.

Sunday –
7:00pm – Once Upon a Time (2.22) – Galavant (1.33) – Once Upon a Time (2.22)
8:00pm – Resurrection (1.25) – Secrets and Lies (1.49)
9:00pm – Revenge (1.16)

When I try to convince people that Once Upon a Time is a hit, they occasionally give me weird looks, but putting up a 2.22 average in the current Sunday night ratings climate is very impressive.  In fact, the 1.7 rating the show drew for its finale Sunday night was 25% better than anything else that aired.  The only real question is what will air alongside it next year.  ABC may have spoiled today that freshman series Oil (formerly known as Boom) will be getting the 8:00pm slot so we might see two new shows on this night, unless Secrets and Lies moves to 9:00 or a veteran drama switches nights. 

ABC made a lot of smart moves this past year and seems to be moving all-in on its “fewer repeats” strategy.  It’s paid off so far, at least in the Same Day ratings but there are only so many repeat hours to cut, so they’ll need to keep hitting on their new shows if they want to avoid losing ground next season.

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.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Network Upfront Preview: Fox - From First to Worst

"Empire" is Fox's new smash hit and they desperately need to build on that.

Network upfronts – where the networks all come together to announce their fall schedules and pitch their new shows to advertisers – are here, which means the 2014-15 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 before upfronts hit.  Next up is this season’s almost certain last place finisher: NBC.

It didn’t happen in one season or even two, as did NBC’s ascension from last place to the top, but in a span of three short years Fox has gone from a decade of ratings dominance to last place of the four major networks.  And, frankly, it wasn’t even close.  At the beginning of the season I posited that Fox and ABC would be in a head-to-head race for third place, but Fox is going to end up almost ten percent behind in nearly all measures. 

And the sad thing is, there’s a lot to love about the state of Fox programming right now.  The NFL gives the network a nice Sunday boost during the fall.  Empire is a runaway hit and is putting up the best relative numbers of any show in a decade.  Even American Idol, while not the mega-hit it once was, has been capable of keeping its average rating above 2.0, something few scripted shows can do anymore.  But now former executive Kevin Reilly’s plan to abandon pilot season in favor of upfront orders seems to have backfired massively.  The problem Fox found itself with this season was that most of its new shows tanked completely and there was nothing in the bullpen to replace them. 

And so it happened that Red Band Society, Weird Loners, Mulaney, Glee, Backstrom, Gracepoint, and Utopia combined to air 53 hours of sub-1.0 rated programming in 2014-15, roughly one-third of the total of all four major networks combined.  That doesn’t even count The Following, New Girl, The Mindy Project, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Bob’s Burgers, all returning series which, at some point this season, dipped below the Mulaney Line.

So what does Fox do?  How do they come back from what can only be described as a disaster of a season?  Clearly the first question is “What will Empire do in the fall”?  The show made ratings history this year, debuting to big numbers and only going up from there, literally.  Every single episode of Empire that aired drew more same day viewers than the episode before it.  Only once did the demo rating go down and only once did it stay the same from week to week.  I don’t think it will come back to the ridiculous 6.9 rating it put up in the finale, but Fox has a once in a decade, maybe once in a lifetime megahit on its hands and as goes Empire, so goes Fox with it.

The other big question is how will Fox build hits in the fall?  Sunday nights are likely to stay the same and Fridays have turned into something of a dead zone for the network.  That leaves four nights needing four lead-ins, but Fox really only has two: the aforementioned Empire and Gotham.  Sleepy Hollow dropped off tremendously this season, as did Bones and neither seems able to support new programming.  Both actually seem like they’d be a good fit for Friday night.  It’s likely that the network will need at least two self-starters this fall.  Unfortunately, they tried the same thing last year, only to see Utopia crater.

The Numbers
NBC’s Live+Same Day average currently sits at 1.47.  Given current trends, I expect it to end up somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.45, representing a 25% fall from last season and, I’m fairly sure, representing the worst annual average in the history of the four major networks.  Even the spring, usually a high point for Fox thanks to the return of American Idol, was incredibly unkind this year with the network currently on pace for a 1.0 average during May sweeps.  Outside of Empire, Gotham, and kind of The Last Man on Earth, there is no painting over just how dreadful Fox’s year was.  The good news, at least, is that they have a lot of room to grow, if they can find the right shows.

The Schedule (Titles in BOLD have already been renewed for next season; titles in strikethrough have already been canceled)
Monday –
7:00pm – Gotham (2.17 average rating)
8:00pm – Sleepy Hollow (1.54) – The Following (1.18)

Gotham did perfectly fine leading off Monday nights in its rookie season.  Sure, it would have been nice to see it hold its fall ratings into the spring, instead of falling about 40%, but given all of Fox’s other problems, it’s tough to complain about a show that can pull decent ratings for a full 22-episode season.  I fully expect to see Gotham right back here this fall.  The bigger question is what will get the lead-out.  After a stellar first season, both critically and in terms of audience, Sleepy Hollow backtracked quite a ways in both in its sophomore campaign.  And The Following, after debuting as the number one drama on broadcast two years ago, has been shown the door, continuing Fox’s now decade-long run producing only one drama that aired more than 50 episodes: Fringe.  Fox really doesn’t have a lot of options, so they’re probably just going to slot in one of their two best drama prospects.

Tuesday –
7:00pm – Utopia (0.80) – MasterChef Jr. (1.66) – Hell’s Kitchen (1.28)
8:00pm – New Girl (1.30)/The Mindy Project (1.05) – New Girl (1.30)/Weird Loners (0.62)

Tuesday and Thursday were complete dead zones for Fox this year so really anything is possible.  Current rumors have New Girl being held for midseason, which could indicate an intent to abandon comedy entirely in the fall.  I’m not sure of the production schedule for Gordon Ramsey’s shows, but with Hell’s Kitchen airing this summer, MasterChef Jr. seems like an obvious choice here as the one show that did halfway decently on Tuesdays last year.  Then again, this seems like the night Fox is most likely to abandon so, again, anything goes.

Wednesday –
7:00pm – Hell’s Kitchen (1.28) – American Idol (2.08)
8:00pm – Red Band Society (0.83) – Empire (5.09) – American Idol (2.08)

The big story here is Empire and its absolutely ridiculous 5.09 average rating.  Presumably it will be coming back to Wednesday nights in the fall, the only real question is whether Fox keeps it at the less-family friendly 8:00 hour or puts it at 7:00 in an attempt to create a lead-in for a new drama.  Clearly NBC is banking on the latter, renewing The Mysteries of Laura only to keep it at 7:00 as fodder for the Empire beast.  Either way, this looks to be Fox’s strongest night of the week next fall.

As for the spring, rumors have American Idol coming back for an announced final season.  The only question there will be if it airs two-hour episodes on Wednesdays again with Empire ending its season early, or if it moves to another night.  Don’t be surprised to see Idol move its two-hour shows to Thursday to accommodate the network’s new hit.

Thursday –
7:00pm – Bones (1.28) – American Idol (2.32) – Bones (1.28)
8:00pm – Gracepoint (0.84) – Backstrom (1.01)

As I mentioned above, Thursday was another black hole for Fox.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bones return here as it did okay in the fall but, again, anything’s possible on this night.

Friday –
7:00pm – Utopia (0.64) – World’s Funniest Fails (0.87)
8:00pm – Glee (0.66)

Fox has basically abandoned Friday nights in recent years.  There’s a chance that it could be revived at least a bit with the right combination of veteran dramas (I’m thinking Bones and Sleepy Hollow), much the way they did with Fringe for a few years.  But it’s just as likely that they’ll fill the night with reality and repeats and focus on fixing the more important holes elsewhere on the schedule.

Sunday –
7:00pm – The Simpsons (2.24)/Brooklyn Nine-Nine (1.74)
8:00pm – Family Guy (2.18)/Mulaney (0.75) – Family Guy (2.18)/Bob’s Burgers (1.26) – Family Guy (2.18)/The Last Man on Earth (1.64)

The spring schedule of The Simpsons, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Family Guy, and The Last Man on Earth actually did surprisingly well for Fox, given all of their other struggles this year.  I expect it to be back in its entirety.

So that’s the Fox network in a nutshell.  Unlike in past years I don’t really have a recipe for improvement for the last place network.  At least ABC last year had several hits to build its schedule around, but Fox really only has Empire and Gotham.  They’ll need to choose their new programming carefully to make sure they don’t waste their prime timeslots.

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