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TV Upfront

Here's what each network needs most

By Published on .

Credit: Illustration by Tam Nguyen

Rapidly shifting consumer habits and growing impatience with commercials combined this season to knock a good chunk of TV's primetime schedule clear off its foundations. Whole genres and programming blocks once assumed to be quake-proof have been deeply shaken. As the big broadcast networks prepare to pitch for ad budgets in their upfronts presentations, there's no better time to survey the fault lines.

CBS needs a new Monday

No network is unscathed. For the first time since before "Survivor" helped transform it from an also-ran to America's most-watched network, CBS finds itself having to rebuild an entire night of its schedule.

Audiences for CBS's Monday-night slate, a two-hour comedy block followed by the veteran drama "Scorpion," have dropped 22 percent compared to the year-ago period, according to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data. Through Week 31 of the 2017-18 broadcast season, the network's once-formidable Monday night roster is averaging 5.33 million viewers and a 1.5 rating among CBS' target demo, which works out to around 1.8 million adults 25 to 54. A year ago at this time, the similarly-constructed Monday lineup was averaging 6.57 million viewers and a 1.9 rating, or 2.3 million 25-to-54-year-olds.

While the entire three-hour slab has been rattled—demo ratings for the 8 p.m. anchor "Kevin Can Wait" have dropped 25 percent year-over-year, while "Scorpion" is down 28 percent—the occupants of CBS's 9:30 p.m. slot have been tossed around like a rag doll. Since the season began, the network has tried three new comedies in the slot; "Me, Myself & I" and "Living Biblically" were unceremoniously yanked off the schedule before they finished their initial orders, while "9JKL" went off the air in February after a 16-episode run.

And that "9JKL" was allowed to complete its full series order perhaps reflected the fact that it is the only one of CBS' four freshman comedies in which the network has an ownership stake. "Me, Myself & I," "Living Biblically" and "Young Sheldon" are Warner Bros. TV productions.

All told, the three new Monday sitcoms eked out a 1.3 rating in CBS' so-called dollar demo, which marked nearly a 30 percent decline when compared to year-ago placeholders "2 Broke Girls" and "Superior Donuts." "Living Biblically," which effectively was canceled on April 19, was the lowest-rated of the trio, averaging just 4.21 million viewers, of whom fewer than a third (1.33 million) were members of the adults 25-to-54 set.

But for a three-year 8 p.m. residency by the mid-'80s spy drama "Scarecrow and Mrs. King" and a two-season experiment with anchor dramas from 2014-16, CBS Mondays have been dominated by comedy since 1946. And while CBS is likely to maintain its two distinct sitcom blocks ("The Big Bang Theory" and "Young Sheldon" lead off the top-rated Thursday night stack), the dismal reception for the new Monday comedies could mean a paring down. "Kevin Can Wait," CBS' No. 5 scripted series, is all but a shoe-in for a renewal, but the fate of lead-outs "Man with a Plan" and "Superior Donuts" is far less certain.

CBS will unveil its 2018-19 schedule on May 16. Having already ordered Warner's "Murphy Brown" reboot to series, the network has seven comedy pilots from which to choose, all of which are either wholly-owned CBS Television productions or joint efforts with other studios. "Murphy Brown" joins veteran series "Hawaii Five-0," "MacGyver" and "S.W.A.T." on CBS's revival-heavy slate; other déjà vu projects in the running for next fall include "Cagney & Lacey" and "Magnum, P.I."

Season-to-date, CBS ranks second in total viewers and the adults 25-to-54 and 18-to-49 demos, trailing the Olympics-boosted NBC. Should NBC hold onto its lead in overall deliveries (it currently boasts an advantage of about 165,000 total viewers), it will mark only the second time in the last 16 seasons that CBS will have been edged out as the country's most-watched television network.

Fox needs (more) sports

If this was the year that the industry-wide funk finally caught up with the network that had once seemed all but immune to the ratings bug—Monday nights aside, ratings for seven of CBS's returning dramas are down 20 percent or more compared to last season—then what we're now seeing is simply a more equal distribution of misery. And at this stage of the game, perhaps no broadcast network is more in need of fluids and bed rest than Fox.

With an average C3 draw of 1.9 million adults 18 to 49, Fox is down 25 percent in the currency versus a year ago and is on track to post its lowest-ever seasonal ratings. Although its development slate yielded at least one unqualified hit (Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's "9-1-1" is now Fox's second highest-rated series behind "Empire"), the network's returning series this season have lost a disconcerting chunk of their deliveries. In keeping with the overall declines in primetime, half of Fox's 14 veteran scripted shows are currently down by 30 percent or more in the demo.

Live-action comedy is going through a particularly rough patch at Fox, with sitcoms accounting for five of the network's six lowest-rated shows. Since the season began last September, Fox's meatspace comedies are averaging a meager 0.8 rating in live-same-day, which works out to just a little over 1 million adults 18-to-49. By comparison, the "Roseanne"-enhanced ABC comedy lineup is now averaging a 1.5 in the demo, while CBS is drawing a 1.4 and NBC a 0.9.

Fox's highest-rated live-action comedy, the freshman effort "Ghosted," was averaging a 1.2 rating when it was removed from the Sunday night grid to make room for "Brooklyn Nine-Nine"—this despite having been given a back-six order earlier in the season. With seven unaired episodes in the can, "Ghosted" has yet to be booked for a return flight.

As poorly as the live-action sitcoms have performed, none of Fox's entertainment genres is exactly setting the world on fire. Boosted by their proximity to Fox's NFL coverage, the three animated comedies ("The Simpsons," "Bob's Burgers," "Family Guy") are pulling a 1.3 in the demo on Sunday nights, while dramas are averaging a 1.1. The network's four unscripted competition series are drawing a 0.9 in live-same-day.

Since bringing the curtain down on "American Idol" in April 2016, Fox has seen the back half of its broadcast calendar pull a Claude Rains. Even after it had lost the better part of its once-massive audience, "Idol" still served as a destination and a promotional vehicle during the post-football doldrums. In the absence of the NFL and much of what might be characterized as appointment viewing, Fox's live-same-day ratings have plummeted from a 1.5 during the first 17 weeks of the season to a 0.7 over the last 14 weeks. Two years ago, when "Idol" was taking its final bow on Fox, the post-NFL deliveries averaged out to a 1.3 in the demo.

While Fox execs don't expect the proposed sale of its studios and select cable assets to Disney will close before spring 2019, the so-called "New Fox" broadcast network that would spin off in the wake of that transaction is almost certain to be dominated by live sports. This is largely a matter of practicality; in shedding the 20th Century Fox Television unit, the network would no longer own any of its future entertainment assets, thereby forfeiting the prospect of making money on the back end. (The only revenue to be generated from licensed programming is in ad sales, and that end of the business is clearly in the midst of an existential crisis.)

More to the point, sports pretty much already runs the show at Fox as it is. During the 35-week broadcast campaign, live sporting events and shoulder programming (studio shows, etc.) account for as much as 70 percent of Fox's overall gross rating points; isolate football season and it's closer to 85 percent. As such, some media buyers say they anticipate a gradual reduction of entertainment hours in Fox prime. "They have 11 weeks of prime-time NFL games on Thursday, and if they can lure the WWE away from NBCU, that's Monday taken care of," says one agency exec. "I could see them ending up with sports and sports-related content four or five days of the week and the rest of the schedule, maybe four or five hours a week, going to legacy stuff like 'The Simpsons' and whatever scripted acquisitions they make."

In the meantime, it'll be business as usual for Fox, which will unveil its fall schedule on May 14. On the eve of what may be its final upfront presentation as a full-bore entertainment network, Fox has 11 pilots in development, down from 15 a year ago and 22 the year before that. All but three of the projects are wholly owned by 20th TV, which presents an interesting dilemma inasmuch as the more in-house shows Fox picks up, the more money it ultimately will hand over to Disney. Oh, and one of the dramas, the sudsy potboiler "Kentucky Blood," is a joint venture with ABC Studios. If you think programming a broadcast network is hard work, try programming for an interregnum.

♪ Help me, Shonda… ♪

ABC's "Roseanne" reboot is not only the show that launched a thousand think pieces, but with just three episodes left to go, the comedy is a near-cinch to claim bragging rights as the season's most-watched, highest-rated scripted series. Through its first six episodes, "Roseanne" is averaging 14.9 million live-same-day viewers and a 4.0 in the demo, which translates to around 5.2 million adults 18-to-49.

And yet despite having this asset under its belt, as well as the No. 2 broadcast drama in ("Grey's Anatomy" and the top-rated new drama in "The Good Doctor", ABC finds itself in a virtual tie with Fox for last place.

Oddly enough, the showrunner who for more than a decade has been inextricably linked to ABC's fortunes, is now also the living embodiment of the network's feast-or-famine programming streak. Shonda Rhimes, who in August announced she was leaving ABC for the ad-free environs of Netflix, may be responsible for one of broadcast TV's most enduring ratings vehicles in the 14-year-old "Grey's Anatomy," but she is also riding out a forgettable streak of shows that haven't delivered for advertisers.

Despite leading out of the mothership in ABC's Thursday 9 p.m. slot, the "Grey's" spinoff "Station 19" has put together an underwhelming freshman outing, averaging just 5.47 million live-same-day viewers and a 1.0 in the demo. Since assuming its time slot on March 29, the firehouse drama has squandered 41 percent of "Grey's" advertiser-coveted deliveries, while doing fairly little to make anyone forget former occupant "Scandal."

If "Station 19" has been a disappointment, it can still hold its head high in a room crowded with other recent Shondaland efforts. Fellow newcomer "For the People" is eking out just 2.81 million viewers and a 0.7 in the demo in the ghost town that is ABC's Tuesday 10 p.m. slot, deliveries that only look healthy in comparison to last summer's anemic "Star-Crossed," which after being remanded to the limbo of July Saturdays, closed out its short run with an average draw of just 1.36 million viewers and a 0.3 rating.

Then there was "The Catch," which for two seasons running drew a negligible 0.7 rating in the Thursday "How to Get Away with Murder" slot. (Although, to be fair, like many Shondaland titles, "The Catch" over-indexed in delayed commercial deliveries, averaging a 1.3 in C3.) Speaking of "Murder," three seasons after the Viola Davis legal drama set the world on fire with an average draw of a 3.0 in the demo, the fifth show in the Shondaland stable limped off the 2017-18 schedule with a 0.9 rating—two-tenths of a point behind what the studio's "Scandal" scared up in this, its final season.

As much as Rhimes' departure will necessarily change the face of ABC's Thursday nights, the move doesn't spell disaster for the network. Speaking to reporters at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, ABC Entertainment Group president Channing Dungey in January noted that TV obsessives once wondered if any network could survive the loss of an Aaron Spelling or J.J. Abrams. "How are [we] going to survive without Shonda Rhimes?" Dungey said. "The great thing is there's always new talent that emerges. This will give them the opportunity to step into the spotlight."

"Grey's" on April 20 was renewed for a fifteenth season. If nothing else, that's one high-impact hour Dungey needn't worry about. Looking ahead, ABC does have one final Shondaland project with an outside shot for a series pickup; based on the Channel 4 series "Cucumber" and "Banana," little has been heard about the Rhimes-produced pilot for "Adult Behavior" since she confirmed she was heading for Netflix.

Elsewhere on the ABC pilot slate are a slew of cops-and-crooks series (the straight-to-series Nathan Fillion vehicle "The Rookie" and Rachel Bilson's "Take Two" have muscled their way ahead of the still-in-contention "Staties," "The Mission" and "The Finest") and, in accordance with the current mania for reboots, revivals and spinoffs, "The Greatest American Hero," "Get Christie Love" and an untitled sequel to "The Goldbergs." The spinoff of ABC's five-year-old family comedy was ordered straight-to-series.

"The Voice," and then laryngitis

NBC is guaranteed to win its fourth seasonal ratings race in five years with an average C3 delivery of around 2.7 million adults 18 to 49. Thanks in large part to a month-long stretch that saw it play host to Super Bowl LII and the 2018 Winter Olympics, NBC is also the only broadcast network likely to finish north of a 2.0 rating in the currency while boasting year-over-year ratings gains.

It was clear before the season that NBC would more or less suck all the air out of the room (in addition to all the bonus impressions, the Super Bowl and PyeongChang Games generated $1.57 billion in incremental revenue for NBC Universal), but the network couldn't entirely avoid some of the same hazards that have tripped up its rivals.

For example, as much as "The Voice" remains a formidable draw on Monday nights, the two-hour competition series (a third hour airs on Tuesdays) no longer seems to be the sure-fire launch vehicle of just a few years ago. In a virtual replay of last season's "Taken" and "Timeless," NBC's Monday 10 p.m. freshman dramas, "The Brave" and "Good Girls" held onto less than half of their lead-in demos. While both shows averaged a 1.0 rating, or a tenth better than broadcast's overall 10 o'clock average, their seeming inability to retain the audiences teed up for them by "The Voice" marked another lost opportunity for NBC.

Last season saw a similar waste of resources on the part of "Taken" and "Timeless," which despite losing a majority of the "Voice"-enabled demos, were renewed last May. NBC perhaps would've been better served by letting the dead stay buried; before being yanked off the Friday night schedule, "Taken" had been drawing a network-low 0.4 in the demo, while "Timeless" has fared little better with its 0.6 average.

The Monday 10 p.m. slot wasn't always such a grind; two seasons ago, "Blindspot" averaged a 2.3 rating in C3, retaining 82 percent of its "Voice" lead-in, a performance topped only by "The Blacklist" in 2013-14. The freshman season of the James Spader thriller averaged a 3.3 in the C3 currency, holding onto nearly 90 percent of the demo generated during the two previous hours. Although they've long since been bounced out of the Monday slot, both shows remain on the air.

Two cycles of "The Voice" per season translates to a pair of new drama lead-outs in 2018-19, and among the more promising pilots are the Gabrielle Union/Jessica Alba "Bad Boys" spinoff "L.A.'s Finest," the "Lost"-in-reverse reappearing-airliner mystery "Manifest" and "The Village," which at first blush reads like "This Is Us" if it were set in a single Manhattan apartment building. NBC's other sprawling New York City series, Julian Fellowes' Edith Wharton-era "The Gilded Age," has been picked up for a 10-episode run, but the "Downton Abbey" creator's latest period piece isn't expected to arrive until 2019. More to the point, a petticoats-and-pantaloons production is unlikely to benefit from any sort of contextual synergy with "The Voice."

On the comedy front, NBC's sitcom lineup will have to do a lot more heavy lifting now that Fox has made off with the rights to "Thursday Night Football." While the Peacock's five single-camera comedies didn't make much of a dent in CBS's top-rated Thursday night roster, the reboot of the multi-cam "Will & Grace" delivered NBC's biggest comedy numbers since 2013. Looking for a shot at helping expand NBC's multi-cam fortunes are "Abby's," which asks the question, "What if 'Cheers' were set in Natalie Morales' backyard?" and the Sean Hayes-produced "Like Family."

While NBC returns next fall with powerhouse draws like "Sunday Night Football" and "This Is Us," the lack of a Super Sunday and 18 nights of Olympics action will all but certainly level the playing field. The odd breakout hit aside, TV's ratings slide allows for travel in but one direction, and unless there's an unforeseen change in the way gravity works, it would be foolhardy to suggest that the downward trend won't continue until the stars fall out of the sky. Case in point: Compared to its most recent Winter Olympics quarter, the first quarter of 2014, NBC's C3 ratings from Jan. 1 to March 31 of this year were down 26 percent. No matter how decisive, all victories are now Pyrrhic.

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