2010’s over — but for the broadcast networks, December marks only the halfway point of a season-long campaign to capture viewers. Before the ratings race starts up again next week, Vulture is taking a look at where each of the Big Four broadcasters stands mid-season. Today: ABC.
The Numbers: At first glance, things don’t look so bad for ABC: Thanks in no small part to the massive number of grandmas and grandpas who couldn’t get enough Bristol Palin on Dancing With the Stars, it’s the No. 2 network in overall viewers through mid-December (9.25 million). But unlike CBS, the Alphabet’s ad sales team doesn’t really care all that much about that number; it’s focused on adults 18 to 49. And in that key measure, ABC is dead last among the Big Four. Worse, it’s down around 9 percent in the demo. ABC’s average age will almost certainly get younger over the next two months, however, when the much younger-skewing The Bachelor replaces DWTS on Mondays.
What’s Working: The aforementioned DWTS continues to impress: With ratings up nearly 20 percent vs. last fall, it now frequently draws American Idol–size audiences and is a major driver of the pop-culture conversation during the fall. DWTS (and admirable patience on ABC’s part over the past two years) also helped turn Castle into a bona fide success; it was up 10 percent this fall. The best success story for ABC this season, however, has been its returning Wednesday comedies. Megahit Modern Family is up over 30 percent, The Middle has shown healthy gains, and Cougar Town has stabilized after losing some audience last spring. “Our best move was to not move some of our key programs,” ABC scheduling chief Jeff Bader told Vulture via e-mail. “In an environment where growth is difficult, we are seeing double-digit increases in our Wednesday comedy performance.”
What’s Not: Bader says the biggest surprise of the season for him has been that, across all the networks, there “are no real new breakout hits this season.” ABC certainly had its share of lemons this fall: Newcomer My Generation died upon arrival, while Jerry Bruckheimer’s name couldn’t get anyone interested in The Whole Truth. Fellow frosh No Ordinary Family, Better With You, and Detroit 1-8-7 haven’t been much more successful at drawing viewer interest, though ABC is trying to be patient. Unfortunately, with Lost gone and shows such as Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives not getting any younger, ABC needs to find a new one-hour hit fast.
2011 Resolution: New ABC chief Paul Lee took over suddenly during the summer, but network presidents don’t get long honeymoon periods. Bader says his goal for ABC during the next half of the season is simple: “Find that hit!” Look for a flood of new programming between now and April, starting with the return of V. The alien adventure started strong then faded; ABC is hoping the show’s growing pains are over and it can attract that sci-fi audience still mourning the passing of Lost (good luck with that). A better candidate for success might be the Dana Delany drama Body of Proof, which Lee decided to pull from the fall in order to launch it behind the spring season of DWTS starting March 29. The show may not be sexy, but it’s the sort of meat-and-potatoes fare that’s worked with Castle. The network has also been promoting the hell out of the third installment in the Shonda Rhimes medical trilogy, Off the Map. On the comedy front, ABC is pulling an NBC and extending its Wednesday block into the 10 p.m. hour in order to make room for newcomers Happy Endings and Mr. Sunshine. As with NBC, it’s not at all clear that ABC has the goods to keep people laughing for three full hours.