Back in the fall of 2000, CBS executives noticed that a new crime drama they’d kinda-sorta buried on Friday nights was doing really, really well in the ratings after just a few weeks on the air. It was doing so well, in fact, that they thought the show might be of better use to the network on Thursdays, where CBS had been getting walloped by NBC’s mighty Friends and ER. Their plan: Take this new show, pair it with the second season of unexpected hit Survivor, and see if the combination might get some traction. The crime drama was, of course, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and the plan worked better than anyone at the network could have dreamed: Both shows instantly became top ten hits, and CBS was soon challenging NBC’s long-held Thursday night dominance. While no decision TV executives made this past season was as big a game-changer as that Thursday-night gambit by the Eye, there were a handful of particularly impressive chess moves. Below, we’ve identified four of the smartest strategies executed by broadcast, cable, and streaming players this season — and one bone-headed maneuver we just don’t understand.
THE GOOD …
NBC Doubles Down on The Voice
When NBC opted to expand its singing competition to twice per season, it seemed like a classic case of killing the golden goose. After all, self-restraint was one of the reasons Fox was able to keep American Idol a juggernaut for more than a decade: It limited the show’s run to just five months every year. So far, however, the Peacock’s choice has proven, on balance, to be a smart strategy. Yes, ratings for the show did dip this season, perhaps because some folks have quickly grown tired of so many spinning chairs (and of TV singing competitions in general). But The Voice’s ratings drop is in line with the Nielsen decline almost all returning shows suffered this season. What’s more, NBC and producer Mark Burnett wisely decided to have their spinning chairs spin in two new judges (or mentors — whatever!) for the spring cycle, with Shakira and Usher subbing for Xtina and Cee-Lo. Sure, it’s the same show, but the tweak allowed the two editions to stand on their own, while possibly inducing new viewers to sample. What really demonstrated why NBC’s choice was so smart, however, is what happened in the first three months of 2013, when The Voice wasn’t on the air: The network’s ratings tumbled, resulting in a flood of negative stories and killing whatever mild momentum NBC had built up. Imagine how much worse things would have been for NBC had it decided to do just one cycle of The Voice this season?
ABC Lets Shonda Be Shonda
ABC’s Scandal was arguably the most buzzed-about broadcast show of the season that just ended, as well as one of the most impressive ratings growth stories, scoring double-digit ratings gains at a time when almost everything else on network TV was losing viewers. Most of the credit for its success, along with Thursday companion Grey’s Anatomy (still a top ten hit!), goes to creator Shonda Rhimes, her writing staff, and a stellar cast. But ABC deserves props, too. In last month’s New York Times Magazine profile of Rhimes, the showrunner revealed that ABC no longer gives her notes on Scandal (in part because she stopped listening to them). “What were they going to do, fire me?” Rhimes joked. Well, maybe: AMC sacked Glen Mazzara from The Walking Dead despite the show’s blockbuster ratings. And ABC just parted ways with Revenge creator Mike Kelley, even though its ratings were relatively stable versus last season (the show’s creative direction is a different matter). It may seem pretty logical to let an established showrunner such as Rhimes do whatever she pleases, but it’s actually something that happens less often than it should in broadcast TV. And it’s particularly gutsy given the decidedly cray cray story lines Rhimes threw at viewers this season. Given the tens of millions of dollars networks and studios sink into shows, it’s understandable that they want to be a part of the creative process. But sometimes, the Reagan approach to management is the best for creative endeavors: Hire the best possible people, then sit back and let them do their jobs. ABC’s decision to not do something was one of the smartest moves any network made this season.
Netflix Makes Its Own Rules, Doesn’t Care What You Think
More than a few TV critics (and other media reporters) have mocked Netflix for its decision to drop full seasons of Arrested Development and House of Cards on viewers all at once, rather than parceling them out week by week, or at least in smaller clumps. People will forget about the shows in a few weeks, they kvetched. It’ll be impossible to build buzz since there’ll be no communal viewing experience, no mass tweeting of twists and turns. With all due respect to the naysayers, we wish they’d all go away/stay away/getaway. Such theories seem short-sighted, and based on early evidence, just plain wrong. A filmed spoof of House of Cards, featuring Kevin Spacey, was a centerpiece of the 2013 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, held nearly four months after the show debuted, and while there’s no guarantee Spacey will snag an Emmy nomination next month, his name is very much in the mix of possible nominees. And Arrested dominated the pop-culture conversation in the weeks before and immediately after its Memorial Day weekend launch, in part because of the hoopla surrounding fans marathoning the show in the wee hours. None of this, of course, proves that Netflix’s strategy is the best strategy. Maybe there’d be more cumulative buzz or a bigger boost in subscribers if episodes were parceled out. But Netflix deserves to be praised, not pilloried, for experimenting with new distribution methods. There are dozens of broadcast and cable networks churning out literally thousands of hours of original content each year, unleashing it much the same way CBS gave the world I Love Lucy six decades ago. Like Kickstarter-funded movies or pay-what-you-want album releases, radical departures from the Way It’s Always Been Done are almost always a good thing and, quite possibly, very smart as well.
Cable Embraces the Miniseries
A year ago, TV industry insiders were left slack-jawed when they woke up to Nielsen numbers showing the first installment of History’s Hatfields & McCoys had been seen by nearly 14 million viewers. Broadcasters had long ago abandoned multi-night miniseries, deciding the numbers didn’t justify all the marketing work needed to get people to tune in for an event that was over within a few days or weeks. History proved otherwise, and not just with H&M: This spring, the Mark Burnett–produced adaptation of The Bible drew huge audiences, beating first-run fare on broadcast TV. Meanwhile, over at FX, Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story has all the DNA of a miniseries, even if FX doesn’t exactly promote it as such. All three projects have proven there’s a big audience for shorter stories, and rivals are now (predictably) rushing back into the genre, from Discovery’s Klondike to Fox’s upcoming “limited run” thriller from M. Night Shyamalan.
… AND THE BAD
Meanwhile, not everything small-screen suits did this summer was so smart. TNT, for example, continues to baffle us with its insistence on making its programming brand even more generic than “Blue Skies” rival USA. Southland and Men of a Certain Age brought tons of attention and upscale viewers to TNT, but the cabler killed both shows prematurely, at least in part to make room for yet another ampersand crime drama (King & Maxwell), as well as a third season of Dallas, despite the reboot’s massive season two audience collapse. We also still haven’t figured out why NBC opted to renew Smash — and then promptly do everything it could to kill the once-strong show by moving it away from The Voice and sacking its creator. Neither of these questionable decisions, however, qualifies as the season’s biggest head-scratcher. That strategy belongs to (drum roll, please!) … ABC.
ABC Loses Its Comedy Self-Confidence
Having a smash hit comedy like Modern Family can be a mixed blessing for a network. It’s great to have a monster on your schedule, but networks can go crazy trying to find the perfect companion series to follow it. (Remember all those shows that followed Friends, only to disappear a year or two later? Exactly.) ABC, though, has sunk to a new level of madness with its management of the shows surrounding MF. Consider that just fourteen months ago, back in April 2012, the network seemed to have succeeded in building a great Wednesday comedy block. MF was the anchor, of course, with The Middle leading off the night at 8 p.m. At 8:30 p.m., freshman Suburgatory was building on its Middle lead-in, while at 9:30 p.m., Happy Endings was one of the most buzzed-about sitcoms on broadcast TV. Ratings were good, critics were happy — and then ABC, greedy for even more success, went and messed it all up. It hated the fact that Happy lost about 40 percent of the MF audience, so the show was pushed to Tuesdays last fall (to battle New Girl and NBC’s briefly hot Go On). Suburgatory was moved into the 9:30 p.m. slot on Wednesdays, and ABC slipped a wacky show about aliens in America into the 8:30 p.m. slot. But ABC didn’t like the results of that lineup, either: Last month, it canceled Happy, put Suburgatory in purgatory (it has been renewed but has no time slot), and shifted Neighbors to Fridays. Two new shows will fill the 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Wednesday slots come fall.
If we may borrow a message from nineties fitness guru Susan Powter: Stop the insanity, ABC! Nielsen data shows that a big chunk of the Modern Family audiences watches the show not at 9 p.m., but at 9:30 or later Wednesday nights — which means that shows like Happy Endings and Suburgatory are actually competing with MF for viewers, rather than simply benefiting from being adjacent to the show. What’s more, if you’re going to mess up a lineup that’s sort of working in the hopes you’ll find one that works better, you’d better be sure the new shows are so good, so much of a slam dunk, there’s no way you won’t do better. Did ABC really think The Neighbors would do better than Suburgatory or Happy Endings? Does it really think Rebel Wilson’s Super Fun Night, which has had not particularly good post-upfront buzz, will be a bigger hit than Suburgatory? You can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It probably killed CBS suits to “waste” this past season’s huge ratings for The Big Bang Theory on the way-past-its-prime Two and a Half Men. But after a realistic assessment of its comedy crop, CBS made the right call to play it safe, and it did fine on Thursdays. Even NBC has practiced patience in recent years, keeping Community and 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation alive for years, even when it became clear none was going to break out or be the perfect fit with The Office. ABC’s strategy of constantly remaking Wednesdays, particularly when the network has much bigger problems, just doesn’t make sense.