Perhaps fall 2011 will be best remembered as the season that split the broadcast-TV industry in two: Fox and CBS have been able to increase their audience, while NBC and ABC haven't. It's an old story, but one to which many executives will still want to listen.
As these once-unassailable networks deal with audiences distracted by content options from nontraditional suppliers (Netflix shows in the works! Original video fare from YouTube!), it's increasingly vital for them to winnow out even more risk from the dicey process of creating hit TV shows.
Some have mastered that skill, and others have not. Below, we take a peek at how the big four TV networks have performed so far this season, look at show cancellations, and offer some thoughts about what the future may hold.
RATINGS:The number of viewers 18 to 49 had risen 1.5% this season as of the week ending Nov. 6, though it has fallen 13.1% from the year-earlier period, according to Barclays Capital. Regardless, the improvement is no small feat for a network known for skewing a bit older.
SHOW SPOTLIGHT: The outsized season debut of "Two and a Half Men" puts worries about this controversial, post-Charlie Sheen program to rest -- at least until May. It's unclear whether the comedy remains on-air because it's considered a long-term viable property or because production studio Warner Bros. needs a few more episodes to wring better financials from the show.
Smart stories and estimable actors may make "The Good Wife" the best cable program to last more than two seasons on broadcast, but a move to Sunday from Tuesday has thrown the show a few curves.
The freshmen "Unforgettable" and "Person of Interest" are two of the most-watched programs this season, according to Nielsen. "How To Be a Gentleman" was quickly canceled, however.
We were eager to see how "Rules of Engagement" performed on Saturdays—a ratings wasteland for broadcasters—but the program, long CBS's utility infielder, has been assigned other supporting duties.
OUTLOOK: Because CBS Corp. is more reliant on ad revenue from its national broadcast network than other media conglomerates are, its executives have a thin margin for error. When something works, it stays, and when it doesn't, it has to go. By depending largely on procedural dramas -- with a few twists -- CBS keeps viewers hooked and doesn't have to fret about them sticking around through a churn of schedule changes and show cancellations. The network is offering just two new programs in January, vs. the glut its three big rivals have slated.
RATINGS: The 18- to 49-year-old audience was up 18.1% as of the week ending Nov. 6 and 0.3% from the year-earlier period, according to Barclays Capital.
SHOW SPOTLIGHT: Any other network would love the ratings "The X Factor" has received, but Fox's overly optimistic push has left the network owing make-goods to its sponsors. The point is moot, as Fox has already picked up the show for a second season.
Despite the hype accorded "Terra Nova," this sci-fi/family-drama mashup (think "The Waltons" meets "Land of the Lost" and "Jurassic Park" larded with bits of "Lost") has an average of just 4.6 million viewers between 18 and 49, and languishes toward the bottom of the pack of TV's most-watched programs. Fox has capped "Terra Nova" at 13 epsiodes, with no word that it will be back next fall.
Quirky, low-fi and heartwarming, slacker comedy "New Girl" has already sparked a "Saturday Night Live" impression of star Zooey Deschanel and captured an average 6.4 million viewers in the 18-to-49 demographic. Fox hasn't outright canceled anything so far this season.
OUTLOOK: Fox's fall has little bearing on its spring. "American Idol," which seems to have gained a new lease on life, will returns to the air and gobble up a good part of the audience that marketers covet. There's little reason to think Fox won't fare as it generally has for the past few seasons.
RATINGS: The audience of 18- to 49-year-olds had fallen 8.8% as of the week ended Nov. 6 and 9.2% from a year earlier, according to Barclays Capital.
SHOW SPOTLIGHT: "Dancing with the Stars" took a hit as the participants failed to prove as captivating as those in previous seasons. Soapy new drama "Revenge" has garnered decent audiences and good buzz. "Once Upon a Time " on Sundays has also done well. "Modern Family" is now firmly ensconced among broadcast-TV's leaders. "Suburgatory" scored a full-season commitment. ABC pulled the plug on "Charlie's Angels" after this second attempt to remake the popular 1970s jiggle show failed to take flight.
OUTLOOK: Though the Disney network has been running in place for the past few seasons, it appears to be building real momentum. Growing interest in some late-season entries -- "Missing," "The River" and "Good Christian Belles" -- could help ABC finally put chatter about its aging mainstays ("Desperate Housewives" and "Grey 's Anatomy") behind it. Don't count it out.
RATINGS: The 18- to 49-year-old audience is off 8.6% as of the week ended Nov. 6 and down 17.5% from the year-earlier period, according to Barclays Capital.
SHOW SPOTLIGHT: NBC has canceled "Prime Suspect," "Free Agents" and "The Playboy Club." (If only the network had moved this fast last season on "Chase") News show "Rock Center" hasn't exactly torn up the ratings . "Grimm" has received a full-season commitment and replaces "Prime Suspect" Thursdays at 10 p.m.
OUTLOOK: New owner Comcast has already said that turning around ratings -challenged NBC will take at least a few years, but we can't help wondering whether seekers of video entertainment really need the network. That said, NBC is putting its promotional power behind a new season of "The Voice" and "Smash," a behind-the-scenes drama about a cast and crew preparing to launch a Broadway production.