The TV industry was caught off-guard last week by the surprise resignation/ouster of ABC chief Paul Lee, who’d led the network for nearly six years. Internal Disney politics played a major role in his departure, but a recent string of bad decisions — or bad luck, depending on whom you talk to in Hollywood — seemed to seal his fate. It was a stunning change of fortune for the affable British-born executive, who just a year ago was (rightly) boasting about how much was going right at ABC. What’s more, it underscored how, for all the massive changes sweeping over the TV landscape, and despite all the different ways networks now make money, those who work at the Big Four broadcasters continue to live or die by the ratings report cards issued by Nielsen. We analyzed the pros and cons of ABC’s performance under Lee on the day of his exit, but what about the Alphabet network’s main rivals? A little more than halfway through the 2015–16 season, and less than three months before the networks announce yet another crop of new programming, Vulture dug deep into the ratings trends and talked to industry insiders to see where things stand.
What’s Working: When it’s on the air, Empire. Sure, the show’s sophomore season couldn’t keep up the white-hot buzz (and weekly ratings growth) that accompanied its first three months of life last winter. Same-day ratings for the show’s October and November episodes were noticeably smaller when compared to the Nielsen high notes Empire hit last March. And yet, including DVR replays, the first ten episodes of season two actually outperformed the show’s season-one average by 9 percent among audiences under 50. (This is mostly because the comparison includes the show’s relatively lower-rated early January 2015 episodes, but: Up is up!) Having Empire in the fall also helped Fox boost new detective caper Rosewood, which benefited from a Wednesday night adjacency. What’s more, with eight episodes set to begin unspooling late next month, Empire will be a powerful bookend to the start and end of the network’s season.
Contrast this with what we wrote last week, namely, ABC’s inability to keep the lights on, ratings-wise, when its biggest hits are gone. Fox has done a much better job managing the so-called winter “gap” months when Empire is off the air. Its six-episode revival of The X-Files has been an unabashed success, making Fox a player on Monday nights and, perhaps even more important, providing liftoff for new drama Lucifer. It’s too soon to call the latter drama a hit, but it’s done quite well behind X-Files and could end up a decent utility player for Fox. Also helping Fox survive its current Cookie-free diet: Programming stunts such as the enormously successful Grease: Live! and the upcoming Tyler Perry–produced live Easter week musical, The Passion. And finally, the network turned up the hype (and the nostalgia machine) to send off American Idol, the show that has given Fox a mid-season tentpole for a decade.
What’s Not: The network’s Tuesday comedy strategy has basically been a disaster. Fall newbies Grandfathered and The Grinder have gotten lots of good reviews (with Grinder generating even better buzz as the season has progressed), but both shows in the 8 p.m. hour are struggling mighty to find an audience. (Grandfathered is doing a bit better, but not by much.) Their failure to launch did no favors to Fox’s 9 p.m. Tuesday fall show, hour-long horror comedy Scream Queens, which eked out a renewal based on the network’s love for the concept (and its relationship with producer Ryan Murphy). SQ at least managed to do pretty well with one important demo: women under 35. Both the network and Murphy have admitted the need to broaden out the show’s base in season two, but there’s at least something to build on.
What It Needs Most: While a fix for the Tuesday comedy slump is obviously required, the network’s biggest immediate goal is finding one (or several) programs to make up for Idol’s upcoming exit. The talent competition, even in its current diminished form, is still a decent-size draw for Fox five months of the year. And because Idol airs two episodes (and up to three hours) each week, it accounts for around 50 hours of original programming— a big scheduling hole that needs to be filled with something come 2017. Anticipating this, Fox has already started developing a series of smaller tentpoles to fill the second half of next season. Reboots for Prison Break and 24 are in the works, as are possible TV adaptations of well-known movie franchises (Lethal Weapon and The Exorcist). But it’s pretty clear what Fox execs want most: Chris Carter, Gillian Anderson, and David Duchovny signing on for another (hopefully longer) season of The X-Files. The thirst is out there.
What’s Working: The best thing going for CBS is that it’s been able to maintain a sense of stability across its entire schedule, despite failing to come up with any huge new hits. Procedural dramas such as NCIS, Criminal Minds, Scorpion, and Blue Bloods aren’t sexy, but they make huge profits for CBS and have prevented the network from seeing its ratings totally crater on any night of the week. (The same is true of long-running reality hit Survivor and comedy stalwart 2 Broke Girls.) This is no small accomplishment at a time when broadcast and cable networks alike have been battered by audiences rejecting the decades-old notion of linear viewing (i.e., watching a show the night it airs, as God and William S. Paley intended it) in favor of on-demand consumption.
While nothing the Eye network has debuted in the past year can be described as a massive success, a few shows can be categorized as promising. On Monday nights, Supergirl has held its own against big guns such as The Voice and ABC’s unscripted tentpoles (The Bachelor and Dancing With the Stars) and Fox’s own superhero entry, Gotham. Its overall audience is actually small for a CBS drama, but it’s doing decently with millennial viewers, an audience segment the network often struggles to attract. It will almost certainly be renewed for a second season, barring a late-season ratings dive. Odds also favor, though just slightly, a second season for freshman drama Limitless. Though its numbers are hardly spectacular, it’s done decently behind a sagging NCIS: New Orleans and currently stands as the network’s top-rated 10 p.m. drama among adults under 50.
What’s Not: Ten o’clock dramas, for one thing. It’s telling that the aforementioned Limitless stands as CBS’s top drama in the late time slot (among younger viewers), and yet still doesn’t even rank among the top 30 shows for the season. By contrast, NBC boasts three 10 p.m. dramas in the top 30, while ABC has two. CBS tried shoring up the hour by shifting spinoffs of the NCIS and CSI franchises to 10 p.m. on Sundays and Mondays, but it hasn’t worked. (CSI: Cyber is almost certainly a goner.) Elementary, already getting demolished by ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder on Thursdays, is now losing to NBC’s Shades of Blue, too.
The bigger headache for CBS is that the audience erosion other networks have been experiencing for years is now plaguing the Eye, too. Every scripted show on the network’s Sunday through Thursday lineup is down by double digits among adults under 50 (even the heretofore gravity-defying The Big Bang Theory). This wouldn’t be so bad if the CBS development factory were churning out a couple of new hits every year, as it once did reliably for years. But that’s just not happening. While Supergirl and last year’s Scorpion have helped CBS stay competitive on Mondays, neither is a game-changer. And on the comedy front, CBS keeps striking out in its efforts to find a companion for Big Bang. This year’s attempt, Life in Pieces, is getting a smattering of buzz but still loses half of its lead-in’s audience and remains an odd fit on the night. (Another new Thursday comedy, Angel From Hell, has already gone to TV heaven.) The Eye’s other veteran comedies aren’t in good shape, either. Mike & Molly ends this spring; The Odd Couple, its return delayed until April, likely won’t last; and Mom, while a favorite of critics, only survives because it’s from Big Bang creator Chuck Lorre. As noted earlier, 2 Broke Girls retains a loyal base of viewers, but at this point, it’s no more than a utility player for CBS, albeit a valuable one.
What It Needs Most: New buzz magnets, preferably ones with lots of viewers who don’t ordinarily watch CBS. The Eye already has plenty of safe, reliable, old-school series — the kinds of shows people who still decide what to watch each night by flipping through the channels make sure to catch every week. Where it’s lacking is in series with urgency, addictive fare that people rush to see and can’t wait to dissect. Empire is the biggest example of this, but ABC’s Shonda Rhimes dramas and newcomer Quantico also fit the bill, as does NBC’s Blindspot. If CBS wants to look closer to home for guidance, it might emulate The Good Wife, which was never a massive hit but brought a slew of advertiser-coveted upscale viewers to the network’s Sunday lineup.
What’s Working: Quite a lot, actually. With a major assist from super producer Dick Wolf, the Peacock has completely rebuilt its drama brand around a trilogy of Chicago-based first-responder hours (Fire, P.D., and Med), all of which average over 10 million viewers each week. The Voice, while slowly fading from its supernova status of a few years ago, remains a big unscripted hit and has provided a strong launching pad for new dramas on Monday and Tuesday nights. The singing competition helped establish The Blacklist as a force in 2013, and this fall, it’s made Blindspot the top-rated new network show of the season. Yes, NBC had to move Blacklist to Thursdays to make that happen — resulting in a 40 percent year-to-year ratings drop. But shifting the James Spader crime caper has made the Peacock a player on Thursdays again, and it provided a springboard to successfully introduce the J.Lo newcomer Shades of Blue (already renewed for another season). More important, NBC now has two young, solid dramas on a night where ABC and CBS’s fortunes are fading (even if the latter two networks remain strong overall on Thursday).
There’s even good news for NBC on the comedy front. Mid-season newcomer Superstore has seen better than respectable numbers Mondays at 8 p.m., despite fierce competition from The Bachelor and The X-Files and having to lead off the night. It’s hardly a “hit,” but given the long list of NBC comedy failures in recent years, there’s cause for hope (and a second season). Ditto summer comedy The Carmichael Show, which got amazing reviews during its limited run and returns next month. And outside of prime time, this season saw NBC’s late-night leadership mantle challenged by heavily hyped new hosts on CBS and Comedy Central. So far, it hasn’t even been a contest: At least in the Nielsen ratings, Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers remain the undisputed champs among the post-prime-time hosts.
What’s Not: Despite making progress on the comedy front, NBC has yet to establish anything resembling a “brand” in the sitcom space. Its Friday night comedy hour was a predictable disaster, and while Superstore has surprised on Mondays, companion series Telenovela isn’t working at all. Thursday night comedy newcomer You, Me and the Apocalypse, a British import, got some good reviews and started off decently, but has faded some. (See also: hour-long drama Heroes Reborn, which did okay Thursdays at 8 but won’t be reborn again.) NBC’s biggest bomb of the season, however, has to be the Neil Patrick Harris vehicle Best Time Ever. The network sank tens of millions into making and then marketing the show, and ended up with a one-season flop. One of the many mistakes involved in the production: It was marketed as a “variety” series when, in fact, it was basically a game show.
What It Needs Most: Comedy remains NBC’s most glaring weakness, and a big half-hour hit — along with growth for Carmichael and Superstore — would be quite welcome by execs at the network. But the Peacock could also really use one or two prestige series to balance out the meat and potatoes it’s already serving up so well with the Dick Wolf shows, Blacklist and Blindspot. Last year saw the departures of Parks and Recreation, Parenthood, and Hannibal, which, yes, were all low-rated, but also among the most well-reviewed shows on TV. They brought upscale viewers (and advertisers) to the network, and helped NBC hold on to whatever tiny threads of the Must-See TV brand remain. With the network in a much stronger space than it’s been in nearly a decade, it should now find space for one or two shows it supports simply because they’re really, really good.