ABC enters the upfront market in a precarious position: Its most popular shows are aging and it's struggling to find a new stable of hits.
"Grey's Anatomy" is flat in total viewers compared with last season, "Modern Family" is down 8% and the recent premiere of "Dancing With the Stars" declined 7% from last fall's premiere and 11% from last spring. Early darlings like "Revenge," "Once Upon a Time," and "Nashville" have all slipped considerably. One of the only returning series showing growth is "Scandal," which is pacing 28% ahead of last season.
Negotiations with advertisers for the upcoming season also come amid a managerial shakeup at the top, with Ben Sherwood, president, ABC News, stepping in to succeed Anne Sweeney, who is exiting as co-chairman of Disney Media Networks in January.
Now all eyes will be on Paul Lee, president, ABC Entertainment Group, as ad executives look for an overhaul of ABC's lineup. "ABC needs a complete and total refresh of the network," said Jason Kanefsky, exec VP-strategic investments, Havas Media. "There's no upside for advertisers relative to the programming currently on the air."
The alphabet network is pacing in third place this TV season, averaging 6.4 million viewers in prime-time, down 6% from last year, and tied with Fox for fourth in the all-important 18-to-49 demo. ABC ended last season as No. 2 in total viewers, but NBC's significant growth this season has challenged the network. ABC was at the bottom of the Big Four in the 18-to-49 demo last year.
While both CBS and Fox have also experienced dips in viewership, what alarms some media buyers is ABC's dependence on an older female demographic.
"ABC attracts the lowest common denominator -- women 35-to-64 -- which is the easiest target to reach on TV," Mr. Kanefsky said. "There are plenty of other options that are more efficient than ABC."
But ABC has never considered its skew toward females an issue, often pointing to its propensity to attract some of the most upscale audiences watching TV. "Modern Family," for example, boasts the highest median income of any major network series this season, and two-thirds of ABC's shows index above average on households with income of $100,000, according to ABC.
ABC has nonetheless tried to diversify its audience with Marvel's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," and by cutting "Dancing with the Stars," its oldest-skewing series, to just one night. (Both moves also had additional motivations, such as the imperative for cross-promotion with Disney's blockuster Marvel movies in the case of "S.H.I.E.L.D." and declining ratings for "Dancing.") Heading into the upfronts, the annual rite when when TV networks look to secure ad commitments for the fall season, those efforts have not resonated enough, according to media buyers who wished not to be named ahead of negotiations.
ABC declined to make executives available for this story. But it does have some positive elements to stress at the upfronts.
The network has impressed buyers with its ABC Unified effort, which allows advertisers to do one deal across TV and digital, setting one audience guarantee and consistent ad rates. This year, ABC will expand Unified to include its video-on-demand inventory on TV.
"Resurrection," which bowed in March to 13.9 million viewers, could be a potential gem if audiences stick with it."'Resurrection'" is very different than what ABC normally does and maybe this is good," Mr. Kanefsky said. "They need to find different types of shows and maybe 'Resurrection' is a vision of the future."
ABC also would have been No. 1 in the 18-to-49 demographic during November sweeps when you exclude sports. The network lost Monday Night Football to corporate sibling ESPN in 2006, leaving it at a disadvantage in the competition for the biggest audiences. And some marketers don't want, or can't afford, sports audiences in any case.
But for many of the country's biggest advertisers, excluding sports is not an option.
That's why it's been disappointing to see this season's slate of new ABC series yield all but a wash. ABC has axed seven freshman shows, most recently "Once Upon a Time in Wonderland," an attempt to make "Once Upon a Time" into a franchise, and "Mind Games." Those that haven't been canceled, like "Mixology" and Rebel Wilson's "Super Fun Night," have little chance of returning next season, said Billie Gold, VP-director of buying and programming research, Carat.
While the heavily-marketed "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." hasn't lived up to early buzz, shedding more than half its audience since debuting to 17 million viewers, Ms. Gold expects the Marvel series will return due to the increase in audience when you account for delayed viewing and its success in attracting a bigger male audience.
ABC is the only broadcaster that hasn't announced any renewals yet.