Ad-supported network television is in trouble, and that is a problem for all four (or five, including The CW) broadcasters. The networks, burdened both by a mandated number of hours of airtime and by legacy ideas that simply don’t work anymore, are fighting a tide that will never reverse. So other than NBC, which was rebuilding last season and then was No. 1 this season, every network was down in 2013-14. And yes, in the future there will be new hits, and some of them will be big hits. But the more common threads are record-low ratings, and a storming-the-beach-at-Normandy approach to the fall rollout that results in few survivors. Yet as long as there is money to be made — and there still is — network television will stay pretty much the same. Until the end times are truly upon us. Which will happen soon enough! In the meantime, let’s take a look at how the networks fared during the past season.
3. Loser: Fox
The guy who was pointing these problems out more than anyone else is the guy who lost his job last week. Kevin Reilly, Fox’s chairman of entertainment, who has been sounding the alarm on ratings erosion and the money wasted on the yearly pilot process, was ousted from the network for reasons that aren’t totally clear. (Vulture and The Hollywood Reporter had good stories about it, though.)
Fox actually did fine in the fall, and then terribly in the spring, finishing second overall to NBC in the 18 to 49 demographic. It doesn’t sound that bad. But Fox, which spent eight seasons in first place thanks to American Idol, is in need of hit shows. Every network does, right? No, but really: During the years of Idol bounty, Fox — which broadcasts fewer hours of new content each week than ABC, NBC, and CBS because it doesn’t use the 10 p.m. hour — didn’t develop a stable of newer successes that can carry the network on other nights and when Idol isn’t on during the fall. House ended; Glee flamed out; The Following, a Season 1 smash last year, fell off a cliff in its sophomore season; The X Factor sucked up fall hours for three seasons and never worked; Bones, the network’s only procedural and a steady hit for years, was moved to Friday night in the 2013-2014 season; and New Girl and The Mindy Project have turned out to be niche comedies. Wednesday night’s Idol episode, which plummeted this past season, is still Fox’s most popular show — and that isn’t good.
On the scripted side, Family Guy and The Simpsons still do well, and Fox is hoping they can bolster the promising, low-rated Brooklyn Nine-Nine in its second season and Mulaney in its first when they bring those shows to Sunday night’s former all-animated lineup. The fun, snappy, smart Sleepy Hollow was Fox’s only real bright spot last season, and it will return. But other than Sleepy Hollow and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, every other new scripted Fox show was sent to the slaughterhouse. (Gordon Ramsay’s Masterchef Junior was a nice reality success, however, and the 24 reboot is doing decently so far.) Will salvation be found this fall in Gotham, the high-profile Batman prequel? I’m looking forward to it (as well as some of Fox’s other offerings). But if things turn around next season, Reilly won’t be there to get the credit — or to take the blame if they don’t.
4. Loser: ABC
Fox is at the top of this post because of Reilly’s recent departure — but it was ABC that for the third year in a row came in fourth. (AKA last place, since The CW is judged on a different, smaller scale.) Of all the networks, ABC’s problems are the most repetitive. Every year, starting when Stephen McPherson was still running the network before Paul Lee took over in 2010, ABC introduces a million new shows. And every year, 999,999 get canceled. This season, the network axed freshmen shows Killer Women, Back in the Game, Lucky 7, Betrayal, Mind Games, Mixology, spinoff Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, Super Fun Night, the beloved/little-watched Trophy Wife, and The Assets (which no one had even noticed they had ordered). They also canceled Suburgatory after its third season and The Neighbors after its second. The only new shows that were renewed were The Goldbergs, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Resurrection, none of which was a smash. All of this death happened while ABC’s successes — Modern Family, Grey’s Anatomy, Castle, and a few others — age into their sixth, eleventh, and seventh seasons respectively. For the coming season, ABC has made a real commitment to diversity in its (million) new shows. If there aren’t a few genuine hits among this new slate, I’m not sure what will happen. Shonda Rhimes can run only a finite number of shows. (Or can she?)
5. Winner: NBC
NBC had the Olympics in the winter, which gave the once-beleaguered network a boost. But even without them, they would have finished first among 18 to 49 year olds by a small margin. Yet perhaps even important than being No. 1 for the first time since 2004, which was Friends’ final season on the air, NBC has now ceased being a joke — an ineffable achievement, but a real one. Gone are the days when NBC Universal’s former chairman, Jeff Zucker, hired a parade — like, it was practically an actual parade, there were so many in succession — of entertainment executives whose achievements on your screen did not last. (But their in-house managerial mishaps did, especially on morale and the public’s perception.)
At the new NBC, Bob Greenblatt, the entertainment chairman, has steadied things. Even if The Voice burns out quickly at its twice-per-season pace, which certainly could happen, NBC is putting it to good use building up shows like The Blacklist, About a Boy, and Chicago Fire. If that sounds simple, remember that it didn’t work for some shows that have also run after The Voice, but failed to attract their own audiences and are now canceled: Go On (and its half-hour lead-out, The New Normal), Revolution, and Season 1 of Smash, for instance. Greenblatt is also taking chances. No, the Rosemary’s Baby miniseries remake did not work, but The Sound of Music live event truly did. The network has also engendered good will by sticking with low-rated shows with devoted, steady audiences, such as Hannibal and, for one more season each, Parks and Recreation and Parenthood. Yes, NBC has a way to go on its catastrophic Thursday nights; they’re abandoning the Thursday comedy block as an attempt at triage. (More on this below.) They need more comedies in general. And their win is in part because all of the networks are taking turns standing on a precipice, about to fall. But still! There was a real question as recently as last season whether NBC — an important and storied brand in the history of television — could ever come back. That question is now answered in the affirmative.
6. Neither Winner Nor Loser (But It Would Be Strange to Leave It Out): CBS
CBS was down in 2013-14 and, after trying out some new things with serialized shows such as the failed Hostages and Intelligence, is retrenching next season with more sure-bet procedurals. On the comedy side, the network fared poorly also. In addition to How I Met Your Mother coming to an end, they zapped Bad Teacher, The Crazy Ones, Friends With Better Lives, and We Are Men — only Mom and The Millers will make it to a second season. Don’t cry for CBS, though; they will be fine. Especially because they have Thursday Night Football in the fall.
7. Winner: The Big Bang Theory
Football on Thursday means Big Bang Theory, the most popular scripted network show among 18 to 49 year olds, will be moving temporarily to Monday nights, surely giving that night a boost. But more broadly, in its seventh season, Big Bang finally got its due, gracing the cover of New York magazine’s annual TV issue in May as one clear example of recognition. (The cover line: “How ‘Big Bang’ Defied All the Laws of TV Gravity.”) At this point, it’s really the only show that is both a huge hit in total viewers (16 million viewers Live+SameDay Nielsen ratings) and in the 18 to 49 demographic (a 4.4). And, as New York pointed out, it’s the biggest comedy since Friends. Will it be the last of its kind? Maybe.
8. Loser: New Shows
Other than NBC’s The Blacklist, the hits of 2013-14 were quiet. The Millers on CBS did well with its Big Bang lead-in; Sleepy Hollow on Fox drew a good amount of viewers and buzz. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC did well at first, then worse and worse, and then stabilized. Resurrection, also on ABC, started very strong, and then slipped. Will one of these shows spike in its second season, the way Scandal did? Maybe. Probably, actually! But still. If you want a good visual of what happens every year to network shows, the new movie Edge of Tomorrow, in which Tom Cruise’s character and a whole army keep trying to fight aliens only to get slaughtered again and again — well, that’s what it reminds me of. (Also, Edge of Tomorrow is really good and everyone should see it when it comes out Friday!)
9. Loser: Midseason Shows
January through April, also known as “midseason,” has become a busy time to premiere shows both on network TV and on cable. So busy that it’s quite dangerous. If networks used to be able to pick out one or two shows to treat specially out of the fall fray, that’s not really the case anymore. The more likely scenario is no one even knew the show was coming, and didn’t miss it when it went away. Even something promising like NBC’s Believe might it have fared better in the fall, as counterintuitive as that seems? Of the midseason shows that premiered this year, only NBC’s Chicago PD and About a Boy, ABC’s Resurrection, and The CW’s The 100 will live to see another day.
10. Loser: Serialized Dramas
At the upfronts in May 2013, the networks announced a lot of “limited series” — highly serialized concepts with shorter orders than usual (13 episodes, usually, but sometimes fewer). CBS had Hostages, for instance, in which Toni Collette’s character and her family were held, you know, hostage by Dylan McDermott’s character in order to force her to kill the president. (I have no idea what happened after the second episode; feel free to tell me!) There were a bunch of them: Crisis on NBC (about a crisis!), Betrayal on ABC (about a hot, forbidden affair!), and more. But in the end, only one — Resurrection — was renewed. (Note: I’m not counting last summer’s CBS success, Under the Dome, because we’re talking about September-May here. But I am curious what will happen with that show upon its return at the end of June, as well as with CBS’ new sci-fi show, Extant with Halle Berry.)
There are serialized shows all over TV, of course, from Scandal to the arcs of Modern Family. But I don’t know that a new network drama that has no case-of-the-week elements (which would exclude The Blacklist, The Good Wife, Scandal, Person of Interest, and, of course, huge shows like NCIS) will ever become a years-long mainstay. Cable obviously has the biggest serialized drama of all in AMC’s The Walking Dead. But on the networks? New entries pretty much never work anymore, and haven’t since Grey’s Anatomy peaked — just look at what happened to poor Revenge, which is limping into a fourth season when it should have ended after its first, plotting-wise. Again, Under the Dome might end up being the big exception! Also: I will hear arguments about Once Upon a Time being an exception. (The date of the hearing is TBD.)
11. Loser: The X Factor and American Idol
Never having worked, X Factor was finally canceled after three seasons. And American Idol, which will be on less next season, has maybe found its bottom. But it could still fall lower, in which case I think that will be the end.
12. Loser: NBC Thursday nights
As noted above, NBC did nicely this year. But, as also noted above, that was not the case with Thursdays, which were a mess. Both Michael J. Fox and Sean Hayes returned to NBC sitcoms, and both tanked. So did Welcome to the Family, Community, and, frankly, Parks and Recreation, even though it was renewed. At 10 p.m., my poor Parenthood was basically a sacrificial lamb up against Scandal and CBS’ Elementary. At least it didn’t draw below a 1.0 in its 18 to 49 ratings, which those comedies did with frequency. NBC’s Thursday nights are a real picture in the attic for what can happen to what was once the strongest night on television during the network’s must-see heyday.
13. Winner: The NFL
So nice the networks need it on twice. Sunday Night Football lifts NBC, and now CBS will broadcast the much sought-after Thursday offerings (for a reported $250 million). If the NFL could manage to air football every night of the week — well, they might end up auctioning that off someday, actually.
14. Winner: The Good Wife
The Good Wife’s ratings are pretty steady compared with last year. It does well in its total audience (more than 9 million viewers in Live+SameDay ratings), but that’s on the lower end for CBS. And it does eh in 18 to 49; its viewers’ median age is 60. So admittedly, putting The Good Wife in the winner category is a slight stretch! But: In its fifth season, the Julianna Margulies-led drama had its best season yet, as Robert and Michelle King, the show’s creators, put the always-surprising plots into contortions that network dramas usually avoid. The Good Wife airs on Sunday nights, and its competition is generally on cable, whether it’s The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones or Homeland. But anecdotally and on Twitter, I noticed as the season went on that The Good Wife often won the chatter wars. To say people would want to talk to each other after an episode such as “Dramatics, Your Honor” (you know the one, Wifeys) is a vast understatement — the reaction was more like a primal scream. Yet whatever the show has in common with quality cable dramas, The Good Wife is on a network, and therefore, produces 22 episodes every season, making a fifth season peak even more remarkable. Aren’t they all tired? Let’s put it into the universe that The Good Wife must dominate the Emmys this year, and if it doesn’t — well, I don’t know what we should do. Yell at the Emmys and wait for Season 6, I suppose!