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upfronts 2013

ABC’s New Schedule: A Big Bet on Branding Over Ratings

Scandal will stay right where it is

Give credit to ABC Entertainment chief Paul Lee: His network is about to finish its second consecutive season in fourth place, but you would never know it from the way he talks about the Alphabet. "ABC is the No. 1 television brand in America," he confidently told reporters Tuesday during a conference call unveiling his new schedule. "In a fragmented world, [that's] a crucial advantage." Screw the ratings, says Lee; we've got brand awareness! (CBS is likely happy to be No. 1 in just about every Nielsen-measurable metric.) And yet, ABC's boss has a point: In 2013, Nielsen's annual rankings are hardly the sole (or even the most important) measure of a network's actual health. The strength of ancillary revenue streams, like a deal with Netflix or lucrative international sales agreements, can matter just as much to the bottom line as a ratings report card. More important, programming assets such as Scandal or Shark Tank or Once Upon a Time — noisy series that generate buzz and extraordinary viewer loyalty — go a long way toward compensating for schedule craters where viewers have abandoned a network. Lee likes to call such properties "sticky," because they boast a tail longer even than their overnight ratings might suggest. And it's that theory of stickiness that, for better worse, is driving a new ABC schedule Lee correctly notes is filled with both "stability and out-and-out ambition."

Our first, pre-caffeine take on the sked this morning was that Lee's lineup was a radical remaking of its current schedule. That's not quite right. As one commenter correctly noted, and we didn't immediately notice, those shows with ABC's best ratings and biggest buzz are almost all returning to the same slots as last year, minimizing the risk of viewer defection. If a show is sticky, it sticks right where it's been. No big move of Scandal in order to build a new night of dramas. No demotion of Nashville to a less high-profile night, despite its modest ratings, because of all of ABC's new shows, this was the one that got the most attention. No rest for Dancing With the Stars, which continues to hit ratings lows among viewers under 50, because … well, actually, in this case, the logic is hard to fathom. Does anybody even know or care which non-celebrities are dancing this season on the show? Are the tabloids even still covering it? (Probably, but not as much as in years past.) It's hard to see why ABC didn't decide to rest DWTS for a beat and make it once a year, a strategy that resurrected the then-fading Bachelor franchise about five years ago. Bachelor would've been a bold move in the fall, with DWTS delayed until January and Bachelorette shifted out of the summer and into spring. Instead, Lee compromised: DWTS will shrink to a single two-hour episode on Mondays, replicating its first season launch. It's hard to see how this will energize DWTS at all, but Lee chose to keep Mondays stable so that he could tinker with other nights of the week.

And oy, what tinkering! ABC is debuting a whopping eight new shows in the fourth quarter, more even than NBC's six or Fox's four (five, if you count the November debut of Almost Human). The pockets of stability for the sticky shows will help, and most of the time slots that ABC is messing around with are slots where it's currently struggling. Still, ABC's marketing team will have lots of heavy lifting to do trying to build awareness of all those newbies. Or, maybe not: ABC also debuted eight new shows nearly a decade ago, in the fall of 2004. It made the decision to focus virtually all of its promotional energy that summer on just two freshmen: Lost and Desperate Housewives. Things worked out okay, with another hit coming midseason (Grey's Anatomy, which remains the top-rated drama among viewers under 50 nearly ten years later). ABC has already started airing ads for S.H.I.E.L.D, so perhaps the concentrated marketing strategy will be repeated. The Marvel spinoff will anchor Tuesday, which will be brand-new from top to bottom. Even though established comedies flopped Tuesdays at nine last fall, Lee will try once again, this time with two unknowns. "It's a pretty aggressive play," Lee said, in what stands to be the biggest understatement of upfront week.

The Tuesday night moves, risky as they are, make some sense. They will likely make ABC's overall audience profile younger on the night, what with the disappearance of DWTS and the somewhat sexier Lucky 7 replacing Body of Proof (though, honestly, ABC's cancellation of that show makes no sense, given that it's actually been drawing more young viewers than DWTS of late and does better in the demo than CBS's The Good Wife). Much more of a head-scratcher is Lee's continued insistence on remodeling Wednesday nights every fall. At the end of the 2011–12 season, ABC had nearly perfected its comedy block, with Suburgatory building on its The Middle lead-in, and Modern Family a massive hit. Happy Endings was not doing great behind MF, but it did okay (and improved on what Cougar Town had been doing). Lee wasn't satisfied. He added The Neighbors in the mix and took Suburgatory out of a slot where it had been thriving. And he's still not happy: Suburgatory isn't even on the schedule, The Neighbors has been shifted to Friday, and two new shows will air at 8:30 and 9:30 p.m. (Back in the Game and Super Fun Night). These shows may be great — and betting on Rebel Wilson is a good thing — but the constant churning on Wednesday seems to be counterproductive to any hope of ABC building a coherent, consistent four-comedy block.

The rest of ABC's schedule is pretty stable. Once Upon a Time in Wonderland will air Thursdays at eight, and if it can capture even half the audience Once debuted to on Sundays two years ago, ABC will have dramatically helped itself in the slot. (One word of caution: Lee is forcing the Once producers to rush the spinoff on the air; it had been designed as a midseason effort. That's often a recipe for trouble.) Moving The Neighbors to Fridays is a very logical move; its broad humor will fit in well with Tim Allen's Last Man Standing. And on Sundays, the news isn't that a new, soapy show called Betrayal will follow the old, soapy Revenge: The real headline here is that Lee said he'll air his Sunday soaps (and possibly other shows) in batches of twelve episodes, eliminating the counterproductive on-off-on-off air pattern that makes it so tough for viewers to keep track of serialized programs. The creative content of a show is still most important, but there's no reason network scheduling should be hurting efforts to build an audience. Lee seems to get this, and if he can institutionalize this for all serialized shows at the network, it will be a very important (and impressive) accomplishment. We also like the idea of bridging the gaps between established shows with so-called "limited series." Scandal was basically that in its first season, and as History has proven with The Bible and Hatfields & McCoys, miniseries still have a place in TV.

Overall, like NBC's very smart new schedule, ABC's lineup (mostly) makes sense. Even if DWTS isn't being rested, it's wisely being reduced, allowing the network to build a new Tuesday filled with potentially buzzy shows. With S.H.I.E.L.D. and Wonderland, Lee is launching new shows that are also pre-sold titles. And by vowing to cut back on repeats, Lee serves the audience (and ultimately his network) well, even if it will cost more in the short term. That said, Fox has the Super Bowl; NBC has the Winter Olympics and The Voice; and CBS is, well, CBS. Unless a couple of ABC's new shows turn out to be very big hits, it may prove tough for the network to climb out of fourth place.

Photo: ABC