TV Upfront

Upfront Battle Royale: Fall's 6 Hottest Time Slots

A Look at Broadcast's Dirty Half-Dozen

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Now that the last scrumptious canapé has been freed from its silver serving tray and all the complimentary top-shelf hooch has been locked away for another year, it's time to assess the fall broadcast TV schedule. The networks have locked in 43 new scripted series for the 2015-16 season, of which 21 are set to premiere in the fall -- where they'll be fighting for their very lives. (If precedent is anything to go by, at least three of these newcomers will be canceled before Halloween. Bummer, huh?) Here's a look at the six time slots that promise to offer the most rip-snortin' competition.

"Supergirl" (CBS) vs. "Gotham" (Fox)

Credits: CBS, Fox

In what could very well prove to be a war of attrition for Warner Bros. TV, two DC Comics franchises will be battling each other for a nibble of the ever-dwindling ratings pastry. In the Fox corner, "Gotham" is a proven self-starter, closing out its first season as the fourth highest-rated new broadcast drama, despite not enjoying the benefit of a national lead-in. (It also competed with two of TV's biggest shows in NBC's "The Voice" and CBS's "The Big Bang Theory.") That said, Fox's Monday night dramas have been cursed of late, as ratings for Season 2 of "The Following" plummeted 39% versus its initial run in spring 2013, while "Sleepy Hollow" saw its deliveries drop 42% in its second year. Fox is betting that the introduction of the new sci-fi thriller "Minority Report" at 9 p.m. will "event-ize" [ugh] the night, and "Gotham" will have a good six- or seven-week head start on "Supergirl," which will premiere after the CBS "Thursday Night Football" package signs off in early November.

TV buyers are split as to whether "Supergirl" can find an audience on CBS, which has a median age of 59 years, or a full 10 years older than what Fox delivers. On the one hand, CBS this season proved that it could launch a younger-skewing series that also puts up big numbers in higher-income households ("Scorpion"), so the familiar "they're a network for old fogeys" chorus may not necessarily apply to "Supergirl." And there's no denying CBS's reach and inherent ability to market its shows. With 15 of broadcast's 20 most-watched programs on its schedule—not to mention all of its NFL hours—CBS has a built-in megaphone through which it can shout the praises of Kara Zor-El and company. And unlike the tormented "Gotham," which focuses on an era in which Bruce Wayne is still in his Underoos, "Supergirl" is a much more traditional comic book adaptation. Or as CBS scheduler Kelly Kahl joked last week, "I haven't seen a cape on 'Gotham' yet." Kahl added that network scheduling is no longer a zero-sum game, as time-shifting and video-on-demand options have made it possible for two superhero shows to thrive in the same slot.

Prediction: "Supergirl" arrives to significant early sampling before settling to a 2.3 in the 18-49 demo. "Gotham" searches for higher ground after Fox's Monday night curse (and the woman in the cape) erodes half of its audience.

"The Muppets" / "Fresh Off the Boat" (ABC) vs. "Grandfathered" / "The Grinder" (Fox)

Credits: ABC, Fox

While ABC, NBC and Fox in 2014 finally gave up on a Tuesday night comedy strategy that was informed by the Cold War's Mutual Assured Destruction tactics -- for two seasons running, the three networks ran comedies in the 9-10 p.m. slot, all but ensuring failure/cancellation for all parties involved -- a new chuckle block has emerged in the anchor hour. Jim Henson's beloved Muppets will square off against John Stamos and an adorable toddler at 8 p.m., while returning hit "Fresh Off the Boat" takes on Rob Lowe's legal comedy "The Grinder" in the second half-hour. (That all the comedic hijinks will go down in the midst of monster draws like NBC's "The Voice," CBS's "NCIS" and the CW's "The Flash" only goes to show how overstuffed the 2015-16 schedule really is.)

Although the flappy-jawed troupe has met with the occasional failure (the 1999 film "Muppets from Space" failed to recoup its $24 million production budget), "The Muppets" would seem to be all but guaranteed to win this one in a rout. (We're sort of picturing Miss Piggy spastically karate-chopping Mr. Stamos, Paget Brewster and the rest of the "Grandfathered" cast in a fit of unbridled porcine rage.) Buyers got a kick out of the cutdown for "Grandfathered," but Fox's experiment with broad, sentimental comedy is so off-brand that it's an unknown quantity altogether. "The Muppets" would really have to tank in the writers' room for it not to be a hit.

In the 8:30 p.m. slot, another eerily ageless leading man takes on ABC's established family comedy, "Fresh Off the Boat." After getting off to a strong start last February in a pair of special Wednesday night previews, "Fresh" faltered down the backstretch, averaging just a 1.5 in the adults 18-49 demo. An actual lead-in could help turn things around for "Fresh," which in its first season inhabited the 8 p.m. slot. But if the Huangs are going to prosper, they're going to have to neutralize the suddenly ubiquitous Mr. Lowe. Expect strong sampling for the first episode of "The Grinder," which features a familiar supporting cast that practically spans the entire demographic spectrum (Natalie Morales, Fred Savage, William Devane).

Prediction: Even Statler and Waldorf will be fired up for "The Muppets," and they think everything sucks. Second half-hour's a toss-up.

"Scream Queens" (Fox) vs. "Heartbreaker" (NBC)

Credits: Fox, NBC

Had it aired on basic cable, Ryan Murphy's sorority slasher strip would have been like something out of the Grand Guignol. It'll be interesting to see how the "American Horror Story" showrunner tempers his more outré instincts for broadcast consumption, which isn't to say that Fox won't be spending a small fortune on corn syrup and red food coloring. (Mr. Murphy promises a death per episode, which puts "Scream Queens" on the morbidity chart somewhere between "Grey's Anatomy" and "The Walking Dead.")

Bitchy, bouncy and bloody as hell, "Scream Queens" is like nothing you've seen on broadcast TV. The same cannot be said for NBC's new medical drama "Heartbreaker," which is basically "The Mysteries of Laura" in scrubs. If it's possible to be any more derivative and bereft of an original idea than what NBC screened for buyers in the five-minute "Heartbreaker" cutdown, we don't want to know about it.

The two newbies must also contend with three established dramas, all of which have built a following on Tuesday nights. "NCIS: New Orleans" boasts the biggest reach and demo deliveries of the bunch, and there's no reason to believe it won't continue to rack up points in its sophomore season. Also looking to draw a crowd is "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," which returns for its third season on ABC opposite DC's "iZombie."

Prediction: The young 'uns flock to "Scream Queen," while the "Mysteries of Laura" crowd (your mom's friends, basically) give "Heartbreaker" a shot. "NCIS: New Orleans" quietly goes about the business of being the third-biggest scripted show on TV.

"Quantico" (ABC) vs. "Limitless" (CBS)

Credits: ABC, CBS

By now you've probably noticed that a disproportionate number of time-slot battles are being waged on Tuesday nights. This is largely a function of the networks' scheduling no fewer than eight new shows on the second night of the Nielsen week. (Stands to reason, as last season a staggering 11 Tuesday night shows were canceled or otherwise discontinued.)

One of these shows is destined to join the conga line of recent 10 p.m. flops, and the smart money's on "Quantico," if only because it's inheriting one of ABC's most haunted time slots. You know things are bad when the recently canceled "Forever" outperformed its troika of predecessors ("Lucky 7," "Killer Women," "Mind Games") by 63%, and with an average rating of a 1.1 in the demo, no less. But "Quantico" also looks a bit like a bear spinning plates on its nose while riding a unicycle. It's trying to do too much all at once, and the resulting mashup emits a peculiar "Gossip Girl"-meets-al Qaeda vibe.

"Limitless," meanwhile, only needs to top the 9.42 million viewers "Person of Interest" delivered this season in order to be considered a success. Not to suggest that such a benchmark is child's play, but CBS has 10 other scripted shows that put up bigger total audience deliveries. Just sayin'. "Limitless" also has the luxury of a theatrical precursor (the 2011 Bradley Cooper-Robert De Niro thriller rang up $79.2 million in its stateside release) and an "NCIS: New Orleans" lead-in. Oh, and Mr. Cooper is going to appear in the pilot, marking his first time on network TV since 2005, when he starred in Fox's short-lived comedy "Kitchen Confidential."

Prediction: "Limitless" in a rout, with Neil Patrick Harris' new variety show taking a whole bunch of collateral damage.

"Heroes Reborn" (NBC) vs. "Grey's Anatomy" (ABC)

Credits: NBC, ABC

It's been nine years since NBC stunned the world with "Heroes," the serialized sci-fi drama that bowed to 14.3 million viewers and a 5.9 in the demo. (At the risk of comparing apples and hand grenades, "Empire" didn't hang those kind of numbers until its ninth episode.) For that first season, the show was as good as anything on TV, but it became apparent early on in Season 2 that "Heroes" had dropped the last of its good ideas into the mouth of the proverbial shark over which it was jumping. By the time the show finally went off the air in February 2010, more than 10 million viewers had given up on it.

So why all the hype for a reboot of a show that never lived up to its potential ... and one that was first introduced a year ago? Well, creator Tim Kring is back in the saddle as executive producer, and if the trailer is anything to go by, it would appear that "Heroes Reborn" will plug back into the mythology that made Season 1 of "Heroes" so compelling. And on a more prosaic note, as a hit is now defined as anything that puts up bigger ratings than its predecessor, the bar is pretty low for "Heroes Reborn." If it can manage anything north of the piddling aggregate 1.0 rating delivered by "The Biggest Loser" and "The Slap," the new-look "Heroes" has a good shot at a renewal.

But nothing has come easy for NBC on Thursdays at 8 p.m. since "Friends" went off the air in 2004, and its rivals certainly aren't going to make the time slot any more welcoming for the newcomer. Despite the death of McSteamy/McDreamy/McCreamy/whatever that guy's name was, "Grey's Anatomy" is still ABC's fourth highest-rated series—and it's heading into its twelfth season. And if the anchor of Shonda Rhimes' world-beating TGIT lineup may not exactly share DNA with the "Heroes Reborn" target audience, an even bigger threat lies in wait. When "The Big Bang Theory" returns to the Thursday night lineup after CBS's football package ends in November, "Heroes Reborn" will be forced to share the road with broadcast's No. 2 scripted show. For Mr. Kring, it's of little solace that Sheldon and the gang, were they real people, would probably be unabashedly enthusiastic about his revival.

Prediction: One last season for "Grey's," one more attempt by NBC to fix Thursday nights. It's Shonda's world; the rest of us just live in it.

"Oil" (ABC) vs. "The Good Wife" (CBS)

Credits: ABC, CBS

Is there any night of the week more deserving of being saddled with Dante's "Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here" quite like autumn Sundays? Between the voracious ratings phenomenon that is AMC's "The Walking Dead" and the unstoppable reach vehicle known as NBC's "Sunday Night Football," the rest of the prime-time lineup is the very definition of niche. The thing is, as long as the ridiculously great, criminally under-rated "The Good Wife" remains the best drama on broadcast TV and keeps delivering awards-season hardware, its ratings aren't all that significant. (CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler last week said the network would be happy to host the show for as long as co-creators Robert and Michelle King are willing to keep grinding it out.)

As with every other night of the week, success on Sunday is a relative value. If the sudsy Don Johnson drama "Oil" (formerly titled "Boom") manages to scratch out a better draw than the 5.17 million viewers and 1.4 demo rating ABC averaged this season with "Resurrection" and "Secrets & Lies," it has a good chance at staking a claim for renewal. (Talk about diminished expectations -- this was once the time slot that "Desperate Housewives" called home. Ten years ago, Marc Cherry's quirky bombshell averaged a now-unthinkable 21.7 million viewers and a 10.1 in the demo.) That "Oil" is a homegrown ABC Studios production would certainly seem to help the show's chances, as does the fact that it leads out of Sunday night's highest-rated drama series, "Once Upon a Time." Mr. Johnson stands out as a rapacious oil baron who's so clearly a Bad Guy that he practically twirls the ends of an invisible mustache.

Prediction: "Oil" won't make anyone forget Wisteria Lane, but it should more than hold its own against an inexplicably neglected "Good Wife."

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