Fall TV preview: A buyer's guide to the top-rated shows of the new season

Ad buyers grade the 20 best bets for advertisers on the C3/C7 scale

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'This Is Us.'
'This Is Us.' Credit: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

The 2018-19 broadcast TV season officially gets underway next Monday, as NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox offer their first nibbles of the new and returning series that are designed to delight viewers and advertisers alike after a 17-week summer hiatus. While buyers expect no slowdown in the erosion of the Big Four's commercial ratings, the general consensus is that at least a handful of shows will qualify for whatever passes for "hit" status in this debauched age of digitized ad avoidance.

Nearly all the shows on the fall schedule will attract a disproportionate number of viewers too old for the demographics that advertisers covet. The median age of the audience that tuned in to last season's highest-rated freshman drama, "The Good Doctor," was 60.8 years old, or nearly 12 years beyond the upper limit of ABC's target demo. But a handful will still manage to reach a large enough cohort of "relevant" consumers to justify their steep ad rates.

That this sort of validation counts as a selling point, of course, probably tells you all you need to know about the state of traditional TV ratings.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of the fall schedule, a quick word about the methodology at work here. Network ad sales execs continue to press for the elimination of C3 ratings—commercial ratings over three days of playback—in favor of a far more comprehensive currency, but the 11-year-old metric remains the coin of the realm for buyers and sellers of TV inventory. As such, we specifically asked buyers that their projections for the season ahead be couched in the lingua franca of C3 and the extended dance remix that is C7*.

Top 20 Scripted Series, 2018-19 (projected)
C3 C7
1 This Is Us (NBC) 3.1 3.6
2 The Big Bang Theory (CBS) 2.7/4.1 2.8/4.3
3 Young Sheldon (CBS) 2.1/3.4 2.2/3.7
4 The Good Doctor (ABC) 2.0 2.6
5 Grey's Anatomy (ABC) 1.8 2.2
6 9-1-1 (Fox) 1.8 2.1
7 Empire (Fox) 1.7 2.1
The Conners (ABC) 1.7 2.0
9 Modern Family (ABC) 1.5 1.8
10 Mom (CBS) 1.5/2.3 1.5/2.4
11 The Goldbergs (ABC) 1.4 1.6
12 The Simpsons (Fox) 1.4 1.5
13 NCIS (CBS) 1.3/2.1 1.5/2.3
New Amsterdam (NBC) 1.3 1.7
Murphy Brown (CBS) 1.3/1.9 1.5/2.3
16 Law & Order: SVU (NBC) 1.2 1.5
Magnum P.I. (CBS) 1.2/1.7 1.4/1.9
The Kids Are Alright (ABC) 1.2 1.4
19 Chicago PD (NBC) 1.2 1.3
Manifest (NBC) 1.1 1.5
Source: Media buyer estimates of broadcast C3/C7 deliveries. CBS ratings reflect estimates for the demo that network sells, adults 25 to 54 years old.
New series.

As is apparent by the ratings projection chart (see above), most of the shows that buyers expect to outperform the rest of the broadcast pack are returning series—many of which have grown quite a bit long in the tooth. Senior-most on the list is Fox's "The Simpsons," which is about to embark on its 30th season, while NBC's "Law & Order: SVU" (20th season), CBS's "NCIS" (16th) and ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" (15th) also have stuck around long past the standard sell-by date for a network TV show. Two of the more established comedies on the list aren't expected to appear on any buyer's 2019-2020 upfront wish list, as "The Big Bang Theory" is scheduled to close up shop this spring after its 12th season on CBS, while the showrunners and co-creators of ABC's "Modern Family" have indicated that the show's upcoming tenth season will be its last.

As was the case last season, six of the shows projected to take their place among broadcast's top 20 are either newcomers, reclamation projects or, in the case of "Murphy Brown," a comedy that has been off the air for so long (20 years) that it may as well be considered a freshman series. (Network TV's mania for reboots has made a shambles of basic taxonomy.)

Buyers say the newcomer with the best shot at serving up high commercial ratings is the "Roseanne" spinoff "The Conners," which bows Oct. 16 on ABC. Picked up a month after ABC canceled the wildly successful "Roseanne" reboot, "The Conners" should put up big numbers based on a seemingly inevitable high sampling of the premiere episode—fans and curiosity seekers alike are expected to tune in to find out how Roseanne's family reacts to her off-screen demise—and a compact order. In limiting the first batch of "The Conners" to just 10 episodes, ABC should go a long way toward avoiding the sort of destabilizing ratings erosion that is all but baked into a 22-episode run.

"The Conners" should also benefit from the absence of any comedy competition in its Tuesday 8 p.m. time slot. In what may be interpreted as a tip of the cap to ABC's proven track record, all eight of its Tuesday and Wednesday comedies are running unopposed by any other broadcast sitcom. This is a far cry from the disastrous chuckle blocks of 2012-14, when ABC, NBC and Fox mulishly insisted on pitting some of their strongest comedies against each other in a sort of giggly, laugh-tracked Mutual Assured Destruction scenario.

Among the other new sitcoms that have won the approval of TV buyers are CBS's resurrection of the acerbic '90s hit "Murphy Brown" and "The Conners" lead-out "The Kids Are Alright." Candace Bergen and the rest of the old "FYI" lifers return to TV at a time that is ripe for the sort of political satire that the original "Murphy Brown" trafficked in, while with the 1972-set, everything's-Naughyhyde-and-burnt-orange "Kids," ABC seems to have a shot at replicating the success of its similarly retro hit "The Goldbergs."

On the drama front, buyers eye NBC's "New Amsterdam" as the new drama with the most potential, thanks in large part to its perch following "This Is Us" in the Tuesday 10 p.m. slot. If the final hour of prime time is perhaps the toughest perch from which to launch a new show—the five series that aired in the terminal Tuesday slot in 2017-18 averaged a miserly 0.9 rating, which translates to fewer than 1.2 million adults 18 to 49—"New Amsterdam" has the great good fortune of airing immediately after network TV's top-rated drama. It also shares much of its lead-in's swoony emo vibe (Kimberly-Clark is missing the boat if it fails to secure a presenting sponsorship for Kleenex on either of these shows) and with its focus on the noble medical director (Ryan Eggold) of a facility based on New York's Bellevue hospital, the show reps a genre that has long been a TV staple.

Even if its placement in the Monday 10 p.m. slot after "The Voice" is no longer the guarantor of greatness that it once was, buyers think NBC's "Manifest" may still scare up some decent numbers on the fall schedule. But this "Lost"-in-reverse newbie will have to do a lot of the heavy lifting if its to earn a second season. Long after the action-packed drama "The Blacklist" averaged a stellar 3.3 C3 rating among in the so-called dollar demo for NBC—in its first season, the James Spader vehicle retained 87 percent of its monster "Voice" lead-in, a tremendous performance at any hour, but even doubly impressive at 10 p.m.—the hour has lost much of its sure-thing status. Last season "The Brave" squandered 55 percent of its the audience that had assembled for "The Voice," while its successor "Good Girls" saw 52 percent of its lead-in disappear. And this is not a wholly new phenomenon; the last time a drama airing directly after "The Voice" held on to more than half of its lead-in was when "Blindspot" retained 82 percent of those earlier NBC viewers back in 2015-16.

For all that, "Manifest" has a lot working for it, including the imprimatur of executive producer Robert Zemeckis and an ambitious pilot that isn't afraid of loading up on the kind of weighty emotional baggage that has become an essential component of NBC's programming DNA since "This Is Us" blew up two years ago. Buyers agree that if "Manifest" clicks with viewers, it may have a better chance of drawing that crucial live audience (aka the people who still watch the commercials) than will its opposite number. If "Manifest" can make good on the water-cooler promises of its opening episode, it could send fans of one show opposite, ABC medical hit "The Good Doctor," scrambling for their DVRs.

Also looking to build a following this fall is CBS's reboot of the Tom Selleck showcase, "Magnum P.I." Tucked away in cold storage for 30 years, the adventure series has been revived with film star Jay Hernandez behind the wheel of the red Ferrari. CBS generally excels with its reclamation efforts (among its more successful revamps are "Hawaii Five-0," "MacGyver" and "S.W.A.T."), and one of its primary advantages has to do with its ability to all but command sampling of its new series, an edge that perhaps has less to do with persuasion than sheer cumulative reach.

Including its national NFL broadcast window, CBS can lay claim to six programs that average north of 10 million viewers per week, or more than NBC, ABC and Fox combined. With that embarrassment of promotional riches at its disposal, the Eye network enjoys what amounts to a big head start; factor in the readymade brand equity of "Magnum P.I." and advertisers can expect to reach an eight-figure audience when the reboot bows on Sept. 24.

Stuffed with the sort of cinematic stunts and explosive action sequences that should resonate nicely with men in their 30s and 40s, the pilot episode was directed by Justin Lin ("Fast & Furious"). If "Magnum" is to hold onto the horde of viewers who are expected to tune in next week, however, it will have to overcome Fox's "9-1-1" and a time slot that has been almost exclusively devoted to comedy since the year after the Axis powers' surrender brought about the end of World War II.

*A blend of the average commercial ratings in a live broadcast with one week's worth of subsequent time-shifted deliveries, C7 is increasingly supplanting the three-day standard. As more and more deals are negotiated against C7, the networks are winning back a greater percentage of commercial impressions that would otherwise be lost to the predations of the DVR.

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