Beating up on NBC is a sport, and the consequence seems to be ignoring that ABC is also in sad shape — and has been for a while.
In fact, ABC is currently in last place among adults 18 to 49, and it could stay there unless The Voice tanks when it returns to NBC on March 25. Here are the current rankings of the big four networks in the 18-to-49 demographic that advertisers covet most:
1) CBS: 3.1/9
2) Fox: 2.6/7
3) NBC: 2.5/7
4) ABC: 2.3/6
ABC has no new hits this season and has had many failures. The network has become a serial killer of dramas in particular: Last Resort, 666 Park Ave, and Zero Hour are gone already, and Red Widow can't last at its current levels. Last season, it was Charlie's Angels, GCB, Missing, Pan Am, and The River that came and went.
ABC's bright spots are that Scandal has grown in its first full season (and become a huge zeitgeist show) to be a genuine hit, and The Bachelor rebounded in the season that just ended Monday night. Grey's Anatomy still does well, and Modern Family is one of the most popular shows on TV — unfortunately for the network, it's on for only 30 minutes a week. And Shark Tank, the once invisible reality competition, has climbed its way to nice numbers on Friday nights. When Dancing with the Stars returns next week, it will do well among total viewers, but its audience has always been and will always be older (its median age was 61.6 during its fall season) — casting Bachelor Sean will not reverse that years-long trend. But still, because of DWTS, ABC should finish second among viewers for the season behind CBS.
Beyond that, the news is not good for ABC. I love Nashville as much as the next Connie Britton obsessive, but it's not a real hit — at all. (Still, I would bet money it will be renewed.) The retooled Dana Delany drama, Body of Proof, has been hitting series lows. Moving Revenge from Wednesdays at 10 to Sundays at 9 has grown its audience because of its better lead-in in Once Upon a Time, but its ratings have declined lately as the plot has descended into madness, and it's underperforming how Desperate Housewives did in that slot in its final season last year. And speaking of Once Upon a Time, ABC's fun, family-friendly hit has gone down in Season 2 (10% in viewers, 9% in 18 to 49). So has the comedy Suburgatory (down 12% in viewers, 7% in 18 to 49). And moving the Tim Allen comedy Last Man Standing from Tuesdays to Fridays has really hurt the show: It has sunk by 20% in viewers and 36% among 18- to 49-year-olds. In general, ABC's attempts to launch another Modern Family–scale hit have not come close: Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 is gone, things aren't looking good for Happy Endings, and Malibu Country and The Neighbors are weak.
Given this ABC disarray, why is NBC always the story, begetting headlines like "NBC Ratings Sink Even Lower," "In Turnabout, NBC Prime Time Lands in the Cellar," and, most dramatically, "Has NBC Passed the Point of No Return?" Those stories are certainly right, by the way: NBC's dive from first this past fall to now third has been swift — and frighteningly symbolic of the overall end-times instability of the business of network television in 2013. There's no question that NBC has plummeted this winter; on its way down, ABC has beaten it six weeks in a row. I've written about NBC myself several times.
But it's not the only somber story out there. To me, the most logical answer for the NBC fixation is that its failures have been going on for so many years now, and the network has seemed so flailing — because of Ben Silverman's antics, Jeff Zucker's future-of-media pronouncements that were often seen as arrogant, and the Jay Leno/Conan O'Brien catastrophe — that it's an ongoing soap opera that reporters love. Its flops are also crazily low-rated, like the recent disaster Do No Harm and the shockingly weak return of the revamped Smash.
ABC's ups and downs, on the other hand, have been less insane-seeming. (Though that characterization does not apply to the firing of ABC's former entertainment president, Steve McPherson, in the summer of 2010 for, as Bill Carter phrased it then in the New York Times, "a delicate personnel matter," the full truth of which has never been reported.) That incident aside, in recent years, ABC has had some smaller successes (Castle, The Middle), a ton of cancellations, a few real embarrassments (the offensive cross-dressing "comedy" Work It last year), and one huge hit in Modern Family.
Yet ABC projects more stability: Its vicissitudes just aren't as easy or fun to write about as the telenovela-like swoonings at NBC. Which, by the way, fell from second place to third after last week's ratings. As you can see from the rankings at the top, Fox has recovered from its horrible fall, and is now in second, and, unless something unforeseen happens, will stay there for the rest of the season behind the dominant monolith CBS.
NBC's biggest draw, Sunday Night Football, is gone until next fall. But we'll see what happens when The Voice comes back. If the audience likes the new panel of judges, NBC's ratings will stabilize, since The Voice will again lift shows like Go On and perhaps even the woeful Smash. I'm also curious if Revolution, also back on March 25, will return strong.
No network wants to be fighting for third place. But since first and second are set, this is where the real contest is.
Note: All show ratings within are Live+7, meaning it counts viewers who watch within a week.