WTF Is Going On With Network TV?

It’s December, and most of your favorite shows won’t return until January. Let’s talk about them behind their backs! Time for the winners, losers, and weird facts of the season.

Mindy Kaling of The Mindy Project. Courtesy of Fox.

Fox Is in Last Place, and This Is Sort of Shocking


Because American Idol was a monster that came to eat Earth, Fox has been the No. 1 network among 18- to 49-year-olds, the demographic advertisers care most about, since the 2004–5 season. We don’t yet know how Idol will perform when it returns in January with crazy lady judges Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey, but it will need to be huge to help Fox out of the crater that has suddenly opened beneath it. It is in fourth place for the season, down 26% in both 18- to 49-year-olds and total viewers.

Here’s the problem. Without Idol, none of Fox’s current shows are unqualified hits. It has one show in the top 15 in 18 to 49, and that is the Wednesday edition of X Factor. But the Thursday results episodes lag — and surely these middling ratings are not what anyone wanted when Simon Cowell left Idol to create X. Yes, The Simpsons andFamily Guy still perform well on Sunday nights, and Family Guy is the No. 4 scripted TV show among 18- to 34-year-olds. From there, though, things get worse: Fox’s ambitious Tuesday comedy lineup inspired by last season’s success with New Girl is, to the naked eye, pretty much a catastrophe. While New Girl is doing OK — though it’s down — it has proven to have almost no halo effect: Critically hyped The Mindy Project, which follows it, is not a hit, and the (delightful) Ben & Kate, which precedes it, is a flat-out bomb. What Fox would likely say to this analysis is that the network is trying to build a comedy block from scratch, and that is a difficult thing, especially with baseball preemptions, competition from presidential debates, and Hurricane Sandy. Fox would also point out, I imagine, that the audiences these shows are drawing are young and affluent women. And therefore, both Ben & Kate and Mindy have been picked up for full seasons. We will know soon enough whether these pickups indicate patience and true belief or, as Variety’s Brian Lowry wrote recently about how few cancellations there have been this season, especially considering some astoundingly low ratings, it’s a case of “postponing the inevitable, not preventing it.”

Zooey Deschanel of New Girl, which, so far, has not helped create other comedy hits for Fox. Courtesy of Fox.

Looking across the rest of the lineup, Glee is doing fine, but, again, it’s down from last season, and way down from its Season 1 and 2 heights. Bones is down, but solid relatively. The unintentional comedy Mob Doctor is a flop. And that’s pretty much, like, it. So as far as the future goes, there’s the scary, scary, SCARY Kevin Bacon–starring, Kevin Williamson≠created serial killer-thriller, The Following, coming in midseason; when I watched the pilot, I actually threw my remote across the room at one point because I got so jolted. And let’s see what happens when Mariah and Nicki scream at each other on American Idol — god knows, I will watch, at least at first.

The network has been in this woeful place before, as midseason approaches. But right now, things are not good at Fox.

Yes, NBC Is in First Place, and This Is Also Sort of Shocking

Christina Aguilera in a crazy outfit on The Voice. Courtesy of NBC.

This development is the big news of the season, and it has been well covered (here are two good stories about it, one by Reuters and one by Vulture). But it is still worth noting that it’s surprising! And after so many years of straight-up mess at NBC, no one knows what to think. Its worst-to-first ascent in the all-important 18-to-49 demo is impressive, even if media analysts are accusing the network of trickery: But that trick, moving The Voice to the fall, is being called out as an Enron-y way of cooking the books only because it’s actually working. The Voice’s strength on Mondays and Tuesdays wasn’t a sure thing, after all: Look at X Factor, which bet on Britney Spears and Demi Lovato for a yet-to-materialize boost. And Revolution is one of two genuine-seeming hits of the new season — the other is CBS’ Elementary. And yet, when the network’s Sunday Night Football — the No. 1 program on television, and a huge boost for NBC’s ratings — ends its fall run, and this season of The Voice finishes up (it will return in March with new judges Usher and Shakira)… Let’s just see what happens. On nights when The Voice isn’t airing, the picture is pretty bleak for NBC’s scripted efforts; Animal Practice has been canceled, Whitney began its second season with weak ratings, Law & Order: SVU is hitting series lows, and the Thursday night comedy ratings are just sad. Other than Grimm on Fridays, which has managed to establish a devoted little audience, the non-Voice-y NBC schedule is, frankly, full of pitfalls. So, we will see.

The Coming Day When CBS Is the Only Network

NCIS: crazily popular, still. Courtesy of CBS.

When it comes to consistent breadth and mass, CBS is really the only network on solid ground. The rest of the big four networks have one or maybe two big hits — for argument’s sake, we will assume here that American Idol will still be a hit — that buoy the rest. But CBS is so steady and strong across every night of the week that it manages to grow shows that started out doing OK, but not great. Like Person of Interest. Did you know that it’s the fifth most-watched show on television (fourth if you exclude football)? Admit you did not know. And NCIS continues to be a ratings beast — it’s the No. 1 non-sports show by a mile — in its 10th season; The Big Bang Theory is hitting series highs in its sixth season; Two and a Half Men has proven to be almost disturbingly resilient, no matter how much it own actors seemingly want to kill it (it’s in the top 6 in both viewers and 18 to 49 among scripted series); and other than ABC’s Modern Family, all of the top 10 scripted shows are on CBS.

The sneakily huge “Person of Interest.” Courtesy of CBS.

It’s really impressive. Yes, CBS is down year over year in 18 to 49 (all the networks are except NBC). And yes, CBS attracts older viewers in droves, which is in part why its shows can achieve such mass. In live-plus-same-day ratings — meaning people who watch the shows either live or almost live — the series with the highest median age in prime time is Blue Bloods (62.8), which airs on Fridays at 10 p.m.; the second highest is CSI: NY (62.6), on Fridays at 9. CBS’s youngest-skewing drama is Criminal Minds, the median age of which is 56; Hawaii Five-0 is its second youngest, at 56.5. The network has only two shows that draw a median age in the forties, How I Met Your Mother (45.2) and Two Broke Girls (48.4). Yet as the television business changes and the networks’ ratings become more on par with the most successful cable channels (which is already happening), I imagine that there will continue to be advertisers who simply want to reach the most people they can, regardless of age. CBS is poised to be the only place drawing those large audiences. (Before the advertiser-based model collapses entirely, that is.)

Seven More Tidbits About What the Hell Is Going on

Modern Family, ABC’s biggest show. Courtesy of ABC.

1) It’s weird, I don’t have much to say about ABC. The network is down less than CBS and Fox in 18 to 49 (a mere 10%, which, sadly, counts as a victory these days), and it’s in second place to CBS among total viewers. Three-time best comedy Emmy winner Modern Family is at or near the top of the important ratings charts. None of the network’s new shows are a hit, even my beloved Nashville, but it’s not a disaster; ABC has enough strength evenly distributed throughout the week that it doesn’t have any where-would-you-even-start nights. So I’ll get to some specific ABC stories below.

Grey’s Anatomy, still the most popular drama among 18- to 49-year-olds. Courtesy of ABC.

2) For instance: Adults under 50 watch so few dramas en masse these days, but ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, after all these years, is still a real hit: It’s the No. 1 drama among 18- to 49-year-olds. NCIS is behind by only a smidgen, but a much larger percentage of the Grey’s audience is in the demographic (4.4 million of Grey’s 9.8 million viewers are between 18 and 49, whereas with NCIS, 4.3 million of its 18.2 million are). Once Upon a Time, now in its second season on ABC, also commands respect by defying the odds against current dramas.

3) My friend Joe Adalian addressed this in a recent post on Vulture, but wow, Dancing with the Stars fell off a cliff during its all-stars fall run. While both the performance and results shows are still in the top 15 among total viewers, it’s down in double-digits from last season, especially with 18- to 49-year-olds and 18- to 34-year-olds. Like, its median age is 61.6, making it the oldest-skewing show on ABC by far. 60 Minutes has a lower median age.

NBC’s Revolution: the biggest evidence that the network’s success this season isn’t a fluke. Courtesy of NBC.

4) The shows that get the biggest lifts from DVR usage are: Revolution, Modern Family, Big Bang, Elementary, Grey’s, and NCIS (the last two are in a virtual tie). Sports programs are the least-DVR’d, logically: but the CW’s Nikita is the least time-shifted scripted show. (Nikita fans, I’m sorry to tell you, your show is doing terribly this season.)

5) Modern Family is the most popular scripted show among 18- to 34-year-olds. Looking at the big four networks, the least-watched series in this young adult demographic are CSI: NY, Mob Doctor, and NBC’s Whitney.

6) The Voice is the No. 1 show among teenagers. X Factor is among their top picks too, and though I can’t explain this, they seem to like the Thursday results shows more than the Wednesday performance shows. Which I don’t think is true in any other demographic. Teens!

Arrow, the CW’s savior. Courtesy of CW.

7) Arrow is a nice success for the CW. After having the highest-rated debut for the wee network in three years, it has held up, averaging 4.4 million viewers each week. In its Wednesday at 8 p.m. time slot, it’s been beating NBC among 18- to 34-year-olds and 18- to 49-year-old men. Across the TV schedule in 18-to-34, Arrow outperforms network shows such as CBS’s Vegas, ABC’s Don’t Trust the B—— in Apt. 23, CBS’s The Good Wife, and many more.

All data is from Nielsen Media Research.

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