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.

No comments:

Post a Comment