upfronts 2012

ABC Will Be Better Off With Its New Schedule

Photo: Vivian Zink/ABC

Buzz is great, but it don’t pay the rent: That’s the underlying message of ABC’s new fall lineup, a smart, multi-pronged scheduling gambit engineered to accomplish several goals simultaneously. While there are no bombshell moves — particularly to Vulture readers, as we’ve been lobbying for the relocation of Revenge to Sundays since March — Alphabet brass wisely realized that while the network launched a bumper crop of much-talked-about newcomers, many of those young series had yet to develop into stand-alone hits. The new schedule aims to change that, either by moving shows to potentially more advantageous time slots or redeploying other series assets to parts of the schedule where they may improve the network’s performance. Throw in an aggressive expansion on the comedy front, and there’s a good chance ABC will be at least a little better off a year from now.

As mentioned, the Alphabet’s most significant shift is Revenge to Sundays. The logic behind this play remains the same as when we pitched the idea two months ago (and yes, we’re about to quote ourselves): “Here’s the dirty little secret of Revenge: Its ratings don’t match its massive buzz and good reviews.” Sure it competes for first or second place at 10 p.m., but it’s struggled to get about a 2.3 rating in the key demo this spring (at least in overnight ratings), and 10 p.m. has become a tough time for all dramas in an age when people use the later hour to empty the contents of their DVRs. Sundays make sense because ABC’s 8 p.m. show that evening, Once Upon a Time, actually is a breakout hit, doing much better with young women than any of the comedies ABC has aired at 9:30 p.m. Wednesdays this season. And as ABC chief Paul Lee pointed out to reporters today during a conference call, the number of homes watching TV Sundays at nine is larger than any other time of the week. If ABC mounts a big campaign to get viewers to catch up on Revenge over the summer, there’s no reason the show can’t improve its ratings by double digits next season — and in the process help ABC replace the hole left by the departure of Desperate Housewives.

Elsewhere on the drama front, ABC’s decision to shift Private Practice to Tuesdays on a permanent basis is also smart. Keeping the show behind Grey’s Anatomy for so many years was a mistake, since it kept ABC from using the latter show to launch more hits. But Scandal has shown promise, and as Grey’s begins its final couple of seasons, ABC needed to capitalize on whatever spark still remains to grow a new Shonda Rhimes soap. At the same time, while Private is unlikely to light the world on fire on Tuesdays, it should do better bringing in young women than Body of Proof: “It’s a win-win,” Lee correctly said of the move. As for ABC’s new dramas, they also seem wisely scheduled: 666 Park Avenue, a spooky soap, seems well-paired with Revenge while the idea of Connie Britton returning to her American Horror Story time slot (10 p.m. Wednesdays) is almost poetic. Finally, ABC will try to make some noise, particularly with young men, by putting Shawn Ryan’s action thriller The Last Resort as the lead-off to its Thursday. With NBC and CBS offering comedies, and Fox offering more Simon Cowell, this could be effective counterprogamming, offering an exciting alternative to the other networks.

As logical as ABC’s other moves are, its decision to jump into the Great Sitcom Stimulus of 2012 by expanding half-hours to Tuesdays and Friday could be a bit more problematic. Relocating Happy Endings and Don’t Trust the B–- to Tuesdays was not at all unexpected; after all, the network had said it planned to do that this spring, before Fox struck gold with New Girl. Lee says the change didn’t happen because of Zooey fear, but rather because he loved B—-  so much, he wanted to give it some exposure behind Modern Family. Lee’s love, however, may not be enough to help it survive against a slightly weakened, but still strong New Girl and what’s likely to be one of the buzziest new half-hours of the fall, The Mindy Project. At the very least, it promises to be a messy battle of the hipster half-hours. Part of us wishes ABC would try again to get audiences to check out Happy at 10 p.m.; paired with B—-, it feels like the network could find the same sort of success FX has had with adult comedies in the later hour. We’d love to see Shark Tank Tuesdays at nine after the Dancing With the Stars results show, where it could bridge the gap between older-skewing DWTS and ABC’s younger comedies.

By contrast, Lee’s decision to relocate Last Man Standing to Fridays, pairing it with a Reba McEntire comedy, was a no-brainer. Fact is, Tim Allen’s show wasn’t doing much business at all on Tuesdays, and given the star-power involved, it was a bit of a disappointment. But if Allen can bring most of his audience with him to Fridays, and Reba can bring her heartland following as well, ABC will be better off. And like NBC’s shift to put comedies at eight, and Fox’s relocation of Touch as a replacement for reality, ABC’s ad sales department will pull in extra coin because of the addition of two more comedies.
During his session with reporters today, Lee said his network’s upfront pitch to advertisers will begin with a sizzle reel featuring the tagline “Why watch when you can feel?” a riff on the network’s penchant for emotion-laden dramas and comedies. Catchy? Sure. But a better slogan for the broadcaster, however, would probably be “Keep Calm and Carry On”: Next week, ABC will end a TV season in fourth place with the key ad demo of viewers under 50, the first time that’s happened in eight years. And yet, between the new schedule the net revealed today and the upbeat demeanor of Brit-born Lee during his call with reporters, the Alphabet exudes nary a whiff of the desperation and panic that characterized NBC’s Jeff Zucker–era residency in Nielsen’s cellar. This is not a criticism of ABC or Lee, however. Keeping a stiffer upper lip, slowly developing new hits, giving shows time to find an audience? That’s how you manage tough times at a TV network — and why we think ABC won’t be residing at the bottom of the ratings for very long.

ABC Will Be Better Off With Its New Schedule