At the networks’ upfront presentations, they usually tout their freshman successes. Last year, ABC brought out onstage the casts of breakout freshman dramas Once Upon A Time and Revenge, while CBS built its presentation around 2 Broke Girls. This year, ABC, which normally brings only 1-2 casts to the upfronts, is going with the cast of sophomore Scandal (plus veteran Modern Family, whose trip is paid for by USA as the cable network will showcase the comedy’s syndication rollout). Scandal‘s presence is completely justified as the Shonda Rhimes drama is that rare show that made the leap from an inauspicious start with a 7-episode run at the very end of last season to a bona fide success and a pop culture fixture in Year 2.
But its presence also underlines the fact that, unlike last season, ABC does not have a single breakout freshman series that has been a slam dunk for renewal. NBC has Revolution, CBS has Elementary, Fox has The Following, and the CW has Arrow — all of which received early pickups. ABC is heading into its renewal decisions tomorrow with its entire freshman class on the bubble. The one first-year show that appears most likely to get the nod is country drama Nashville. With a great pedigree, creator Callie Khouri and star Connie Britton, Nashville launched to critical praise and OK ratings. But it’s had a rocky freshman season, with the show going through growing pains and struggling with its creative direction as well as the ratings. I’ve heard accounts of tension between co-producers ABC Studios and Lionsgate and other behind-the-scene issues, including star Britton being unhappy with the experience. But in the end, most problems seem to have been resolved, and Nashville, which at one point looked unlikely to continue, now likely will be on the schedule next season. In addition to the solid response from critics (Britton is a major awards contender), Nashville draws important young viewers and also generates sizable revenue from digital music downloads. The only other freshman ABC drama that is still alive, Red Widow, is not expected to come back.
On the comedy side, The Neighbors is going toe to toe with fellow family comedy How To Live With Your Parents. How To Live has benefited from a better known cast and a later start as it is fresh on ABC executives’ minds while The Neighbors finished its freshman run awhile ago. How To Live also launched promisingly behind Modern Family. But it has steadily declined in the ratings to a point where choosing between The Neighbors and How To Live has become a toss-up. In breaking such a tie, other factors — usually political — come into play, like the fact that The Neighbors is owned by ABC and hails from writer Dan Fogelman, who has been very important to Disney on the feature animation side and might not come back to TV anytime soon. Meanwhile, How To Live is from 20th TV, the studio behind ABC’s top comedy Modern Family. Another freshman comedy series, Malibu Country, also has been heavily on the bubble. (Recent entry Family Tools is beyond the bubble, heading straight to the cancellation pile.) With ABC today passing on John Leguizamo’s multi-camera comedy pilot, things look more optimistic for the Reba McEntire comedy as it is from ABC Studios, has a popular star in McEntire and is an OK companion to multi-cam sophomore Last Man Standing, which is expected to return.
Last Man Standing was a member of ABC’s 2011-12 freshman class of standouts that also included Once Upon A Time, Revenge and Suburgatory. All four have slipped in the ratings in year two, with Revenge and Suburgatory also struggling creatively to a point where Suburgatory has become a true bubble show in danger of cancellation. Meanwhile, Scandal, which didn’t set off fireworks in its brief first-year run, has grown into a hit. Which proves again how fickle and unpredictable TV success is.