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upfronts 2014

Upfronts Pregame: Fourth-Place ABC Still Won’t Admit It Has a Problem

Broadcasters will be showing off their spanking new schedules next week, which is why this week Vulture is bringing you up to speed on how they’ve been doing this season. (The answer in three words can be found here.) We kicked off our yearly report cards yesterday with NBC, which has transformed from a pathetic Peacock into the Phoenix network over the past 12 months. On deck today is ABC, where a few hopeful developments haven’t been able to pull the network out of its prolonged Nielsen slump. 

Where It Stands
Not even Olivia Pope and a gang of Marvel superheroes could rescue ABC from its never-ending troubles: When the 2013–14 season ends in a few weeks, the Alphabet network will, for the third year in a row, be stuck in fourth place among viewers under 50. In terms of sheer numbers, ABC didn’t do all that poorly, falling “just” 5 percent in the key demo versus last season, even as CBS and Fox suffered double digit declines. And while it’s convenient to dismiss ABC as “the new NBC,” particularly now that the Peacock has plucked its way back to the top, such shorthand ignores ABC’s residual strengths: It still has seven entertainment shows in the broadcast top 20, Grey’s Anatomy remains broadcast TV’s No. 1 drama among viewers under 50, Scandal and Shark Tank are on fire, and the network was able to assemble big audiences for the premieres of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Resurrection. Also, despite facing NBC’s The Voice, ABC’s Monday night unscripted franchises — The Bachelor and Dancing With the Stars — did very well this season. When ABC chief Paul Lee stands up in front of advertisers at the network’s upfront next week and paints an impossibly rosy picture of where his network stands, he won’t be totally lying. But he’ll also almost certainly ignore all of the depressing developments at the Alphabet of late.

The most troubling thing about ABC right now? How easily, and often, the network can completely crater in the ratings on any given night — and how ABC’s own actions seem to make matters worse. Its attempts to launch a new 10 p.m. Tuesday show this season have been breathtakingly botched: ABC tried out three dramas in the time slot this season — Lucky 7, Killer Women, Mind Games — and all three debuted to a successively smaller audience before being yanked a few weeks later. On Wednesdays, the network’s quest to find the Perfect Companion to Modern Family, a never-ending effort now entering its fourth season, has been more comical than many of the sitcoms it has tried on the night. Even though Super Fun Night clearly wasn’t ready for prime time, let alone in one of the best time slots on TV, Lee rushed Rebel Wilson’s half-formed half-hour on the air last fall anyway, then kept it on as ratings plummeted. And despite having previously declared the edgy, adult-oriented Happy Endings a “failure” behind Modern Family, Lee decided to try another edgy, adult-oriented comedy, Mixology, in the 9:30 p.m. Wednesday slot this spring. Critics loathed the show, but viewers hated it just as much, particularly men: Last week, roughly two out of three guys watching Modern Family changed the channel the minute Mixology came on.

Even when ABC has a good idea, it’s figured out how to muck things up: A spinoff of Once Upon a Time, still one of TV’s top dramas, seemed like a no-brainer, particularly when early reports had ABC planning to air the new show in OUaT’s Sunday time slot as a bridge between fall and spring seasons of the mothership. But ABC, greedy to snatch up as much ad revenue as possible in the lucrative fourth quarter of the year, rushed producers to have Once Upon a Time in Wonderland ready for a fall premiere — and then slotted it against TV’s No. 1 show, The Big Bang Theory

As noted earlier, ABC did manage to draw crowds for S.H.I.E.L.D. and Resurrection, which both had massive premieres (or at least massive by the diminished standards of 2014). But big chunks of the audience quickly grew disinterested in both, with viewership near the end of the shows’ respective seasons 40 to 50 percent lower than at premiere (and that’s even when counting folks who watch via DVR). By contrast, while NBC’s The Blacklist has also shed some viewers over the course of its freshman year, its same-day audience in April of around 11 million viewers isn’t dramatically lower than the 12.6 million who caught the show’s premiere live back in September. Still, while S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t the megahit ABC prayed for going into this season, the show remains a big asset, as well as a self-starter that gives the network a launching pad for other shows on Tuesday. (The Blacklist, by contrast, got a big boost from The Voice.) Also, in what’s been a difficult year for new comedies on the networks, ABC deserves credit for developing the season’s biggest sitcom success: The Goldbergs. NBC and CBS both have higher-rated first-year comedies, but those shows are time slot hits. Goldbergs has a modestly rated and totally incompatible lead-in with S.H.I.E.L.D., yet still manages to pull very solid ratings Tuesdays at 9, even beating Fox’s New Girl and, some weeks, NBC’s new About a Boy among viewers under 50. ABC also developed what’s arguably the most critically acclaimed new comedy of the season with Trophy Wife, which has languished with little promotional support behind The Goldbergs.

Buzziest Prospects
ABC has a new Shonda Rhimes legal thriller starring Viola Davis called How to Get Away With Murder; it might as well be called How to Get a Spot on the ABC Schedule, because there’s no way ABC is saying “no” to its most important producer. The Hollywood Reporter is also reporting that the Alphabet’s comedy Keep It Together, from exec producer Kevin Hart and starring comic Romany Malco, “skyrocketed to the top of ABC’s pilots” after execs saw its pilot, though our sources were a bit more reserved in describing the network’s enthusiasm. Deadline has been pushing hard for another sitcom with a nonwhite lead, saying Cristela Alonzo’s self-titled sitcom is “the little pilot that could.”  

Biggest Headache
While finding a 10 p.m. Tuesday drama that works may be ABC’s biggest single challenge next season, figuring out what to do on Wednesday is actually the most important task for Lee and his team headed into upfronts. The constant churn of shows in the 8:30 and 9:30 p.m. slots behind, respectively, The Middle and Modern Family has weakened what should be a very successful comedy block. And with Modern Family not getting any younger, the Alphabet doesn’t have any more years left to use the show to create a new generation of comedy hits. Fortunately for ABC, there’s an easy fix right in front of its nose: Move The Goldbergs and Trophy Wife to 8:30 and 9:30 p.m., respectively (while keeping Suburgatory on deck for midseason).

The Goldbergs is at heart a blue-collar family comedy which would pair perfectly with the straight-ahead humor of The Middle, while The Trophy Wife shares Modern Family’s sharply observed comedy about the Way We Live Now (With Our Families). ABC might even consider changing The Trophy Wife’s name, which has likely turned off some potential female viewers who (wrongly) think the show is some chauvinist fantasy. Of course, there’s a very good chance ABC will simply cancel Trophy rather than take our advice, since the show’s Tuesday ratings have admittedly been horrible. (Goldbergs is a lock for renewal). But at some point, you’d think ABC would have confidence in its own comedy development team and give its shows time to find an audience in a very tough environment for new half-hours. CBS is bringing back The Millers even though it loses more than half of its lead-in from The Big Bang Theory and relatively few folks bother to DVR it. If the most watched broadcast network realizes it needs to be patient, shouldn’t the least watched?

Bottom Line
Since Paul Lee arrived four years ago, ABC has done no worse, and arguably has done better than its broadcast rivals at developing interesting, well-crafted new shows. He’s leaned into the fact that his network is the only one of the Big Four without a regular NFL footprint and made ABC a destination for female viewers. (Indeed, take all sports programming out of the Nielsen equation, and ABC is ahead of Fox and just one tenth of a ratings point behind NBC for second place among viewers under 50.) But Lee has also stubbornly refused to admit, even to himself, it seems, that ABC is a network in rebuilding mode. Rather than patiently fixing its problems year by year, the way NBC has or as CBS did 20 years ago when the Eye was in the crapper, Lee has chosen a throw-it-all-against-the-wall-and-hope-something-sticks strategy of programming. That’s not an exaggeration: ABC debuted a whopping 14 new shows in the seven-month frame between late September and April, more than any other broadcaster. It’s hard to see how such a strategy is going to lift ABC out of the Nielsen basement.

Photo: ABC