1. Losers: All the Networks
We are currently witnessing endtimes for the ad-supported television networks.
You could say that the start of the destruction was the invention of the Tivo in 1999, which so easily allowed time-shifted viewing and the skipping of commercials. Or, you could argue that in October 2005 when Disney and ABC began selling Lost and Desperate Housewives on iTunes, death's door opened. There are probably dozens of technological developments that have contributed to the looming end. What they add up to is that sitting down to watch live television — meaning, you have to watch the commercials too — will soon be seen as an ancient ritual, one that could only make sense when watching sports and awards shows.
There will be plenty of TV to consume, and the companies that actually produce television will be fine, but there will be no networks as we know them — we'll watch either through subscriptions or à la carte on demand. There will be few to no ads. You know the truism that gay marriage is a foregone conclusion because most young people simply don't see it as an issue or a question? It is the same with commercials — the Youngs will not tolerate commercials, and if a service tries to force them to, they will reject it and turn to BitTorrent.
I don't know when that will happen. According to Nielsen Media Research, there are still some genuinely big hits on the networks. But the 2012-13 TV season will be remembered as the time when every network except CBS (more on that later) saw their futures, and those futures were at the bottom of a crater.
All the networks, including CBS even though it aired the Super Bowl, were down year over year in the 18-to-49 demographic, the age group advertisers seek the most. Fox fell most dramatically — 22% — even though it programs fewer hours than ABC, NBC, and CBS. (Fox doesn't air original programming in the 10 p.m. hour.)
It's NBC's soap-operatic flailings that are the most visible symbols of an industry-wide shift. It went from first place in the fall to plunging to record lows in the winter, only to stabilize in the spring when The Voice — and some of its other half-hits, like Revolution and Grimm — returned. To borrow Oscar Wilde's metaphor, NBC is all the other networks' picture in the attic: It shows how ugly things can get.
Yet NBC will end up only a tenth of a ratings point behind Fox (a 2.5 rating versus NBC's 2.4 in 18 to 49). After years in first place, Fox has finally had to face the repercussions of the fall of American Idol. Fox has relied on Idol — and for the past two seasons, Simon Cowell's underperforming X Factor, to fill its hours. And of course it did: Idol was the biggest hit on television, hugely profitable (it still is — for now), and the last nationally galvanizing hit of its kind. For a while during Idol's run, Fox also had scripted hits such as House, 24, Bones, its Sunday night animation block, and the first two seasons of Glee (when that show was a bigger success). This year, The Following did well, New Girl still has an audience, and The Mindy Project was able to limp into a second season. But Fox needs new content.
And then there's ABC, which will finish in last place in 18 to 49. Yes, if NBC didn't have football, then ABC would be in third — but that is why NBC pays for football. Every year, ABC introduces 1 million new scripted shows (I'm rounding up), and every year, 999,998 are canceled (also a slightly exaggerated figure). This season, ABC renewed Nashville and The Neighbors, neither of which is a real hit, but the network thinks both have promise. On the flip side, it canceled freshman shows 666 Park Avenue, Red Widow, Last Resort, How to Live With Your Parents, Family Tools, Malibu Country, and Zero Hour.
Maybe it will work out better next year. For everybody. Just kidding.
2. Winner: CBS
As I ranted, the tides are going in one direction here. But given those realities, CBS will be the last network standing. Its programming is broadly appealing and geographically agnostic, so Nielsen, which undersamples anything niche, favors it. CBS finished first among 18- to 49-year-olds for the first time since the 1991-1992 season. Look for the trend of CBS' dominance to continue: It has the No. 1 drama (NCIS, which drew an average of 21.3 million viewers in live+7 day ratings) and the No. 1 comedy (The Big Bang Theory, 18.6 million). Big Bang is also the top show on television among 18- to 49-year-olds. How different are CBS' standards from the other networks? Vegas, a freshman show that got canceled, was the 22nd most-watched show on TV this season with 11.8 million viewers. It got axed because it was drawing an older audience. (Raising Hope on Fox got renewed with 4.6 million viewers.)
3. Losers: Most New Shows
I listed all the new shows ABC canceled, but it wasn't alone. On the big four networks, only two new comedies (the aforementioned Mindy and The Neighbors) and five new dramas (ABC's Nashville, CBS's Elementary, NBC's Revolution and Chicago Fire, and Fox's The Following) survived the season. Everything else? Bloodbath.
4. Winner: Shonda Rhimes
Here is a prediction that I feel pretty good about: Next season, Scandal will be the most popular drama on television among 18- to 49-year-olds. What is this prediction based on? People in my life telling me unsolicited that they're marathoning the Rhimes-created show this summer so they can get on board with Season 3 in the fall. In other words, it is based on very little! But. The insane, great, and hilariously shocking Scandal has the wind behind it like no other network show in recent years, and it was ABC's only real bright spot this season. It went from meh ratings in its short first year (only seven episodes last spring) to totally taking off, both in buzz and in audience. Its finale last week tied its season high in 18 to 49 (with a 3.2) and drew its biggest viewership yet (9.1 million viewers). If Scandal does surge again in its third season, one of the dramas it would have to leap over is Rhimes' Grey's Anatomy, which finished its ninth season only slightly behind The Following among dramas, which doesn't air reruns.
On a personal note: Grey's does not get the credit it deserves for its renewed creative excellence in its recent seasons. As for Scandal, while there is so much wonderful television on these days, there is only one show that is doing something truly original. (And that is Scandal. In case I'm not being clear.)
5. Winner: Person of Interest
Besides Scandal, the other growth story for a show in its second season was CBS' Person of Interest. Airing after Two and a Half Men on Thursdays at 9, it's now the fourth most-watched show on TV. It will move to Tuesdays at 10 in the fall.
6. Winner: The Voice
The Voice isn't ever going to be what American Idol was — nothing ever will be. But it really did save NBC's season. And it wasn't a sure thing that The Voice would work in the fall, nor was it a given that it would again do well in the spring with Usher and Shakira as new judges. Obviously, what NBC needs are a few real scripted hits. For now, it has The Voice to help.
7. Losers: The X Factor/American Idol
Last year, Simon Cowell recruited Demi Lovato and Britney Damn Spears as the new X Factor judges. This year? Kelly Rowland and Paulina Rubio. I'm sure they're great! I've enjoyed Kelly's judging work on RuPaul's Drag Race. Which sums it up. As for American Idol, the show is going to be rethought entirely next season. (Fox would say to me here that American Idol is still a Top 5 show in 18 to 49. That is true. But its average ratings for this season don't reveal the full sadness of its descent because it started out relatively strong. If everything were awesome, the show would not be being blown up.)
8. Winner: The Following
This Kevin Bacon–led serial killer show on Fox is super violent, and a lot of critics didn't like it. But viewers did. Among 18- to 49-year-olds in Live+7 ratings, it was the No. 1 drama of the season (remember, it didn't air any repeats). Where this show will go, I don't know, but it was Fox's good news this year.
9. Winners: NBC Scripted Shows People Watch on Purpose
A slightly pathetic win, it's true. But considering that both Go On and The New Normal were thought to be hits in the fall because they aired after The Voice and then without The Voice were shown to have no real viewers to speak of, it is worth noting that NBC has some scripted shows that people actively seek out and genuinely love. Those shows are Grimm, Parks & Recreation, Revolution, Chicago Fire, Parenthood, Law and Order: SVU, and, yes, Community. In what seems to be a sound strategy, the network would like more of those: So not only has it picked up a number of brand-new shows like every other network, but it ordered a full 22-episode season of Parenthood (which is an expensive show, so it had been getting shorter seasons) and a spin-off of Chicago Fire for midseason called Chicago PD.
10. Winners: Arrow and The Vampire Diaries
The future of the CW is always being debated. Would the network still exist had it not signed a four-year, $1 billion deal with Netflix? I don't know. But what is true is that the wee network has a hit for its audience in Arrow, which got better and better all season. And it is smart to capitalize on the continued success of The Vampire Diaries by spinning off The Originals in the fall (though The Originals will have to face down ABC's Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on Tuesdays at 8 — not great scheduling). The CW also has a hot pilot in Reign, the story of the teenaged Mary, Queen of Scots. One year at a time, guys.
11. Losers: New Network Reality Shows
Josef Adalian wrote a smart story a few months ago about why the networks just can't create new reality hits. The old reliables chug along (Survivor, The Biggest Loser, Dancing with the Stars) nicely, but any new attempts (Splash on ABC, Ready for Love on NBC, The Job on CBS) not only don't do well, but face complete audience rejection. I don't know whether this trend will ever change? Until then, we have The Bachelor!