As the broadcast networks are taking a breather before they reboot their lineups for midseason, it’s a good time to evaluate this year’s fall season and look ahead at what comes next.
There were no DOA flops like Fox’s Lone Star or ABC’s Lucky 7 to warrant immediate cancellation. In fact, the first new series to be pulled this fall, ABC comedy Manhattan Love Story, did not get the ax until five weeks into the season vs. two weeks for last fall’s Lucky 7.
It was another miserable fall for comedy. Only one new series, ABC’s Black-ish, which airs after Modern Family, delivered solid ratings and showed breakout potential. It was one of only two freshman comedies to receive a full-season order, along with fellow ABC freshman Cristela, which has started to falter on Friday after an OK start. Two new comedies received partial back orders on a wing and a prayer following lackluster ratings performance — NBC’s Marry Me (5 episodes) and CBS’ The McCarthys (2 episodes). Of the rest, NBC’s Bad Judge and A To Z and ABC’s Selfie and Manhattan Love Story were cancelled and Fox’s Mulaney has been effectively cancelled.
Adding to the genre’s struggles, we saw a rare cancellation for a sophomore series with a full-season order, CBS’ The Millers, and two midseason comedies didn’t make it to their intended destination at all — NBC’s Mission Control was scrapped before going to production, while the network’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was steered to Netflix. The reasons were business as all three series were owned by the respective networks.
CBS saw no point in further accumulating deficits on a comedy that saw the ratings wheels come off when moved away from The Big Bang coattails and had no chances of getting to syndication to recoup the investment.
NBC opted to move away from quirky, niche single-camera comedies that have narrow appeal. Come midseason, the network will only have an hourlong multi-camera comedy block on Tuesday with Undateable and One Big Happy and no comedies on Thursday, officially ending the Must See TV era. The last time NBC had an all-drama Thursday lineup was 35 years ago, in the 1979-80 season, when it aired Buck Rogers In The 25th Century, Quincy M.E. and Kate Loves A Mystery. This time, it will be newbies The Slap (limited series) and Allegiance flanking transplant The Blacklist as NBC is looking for ways to make a dent on the night where it has been barely registering for a second consecutive season.
NBC will go head-to-head with the new dominant force on Thursday, ABC, which has been red-hot on the night with an all-drama, all-Shondaland lineup of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder. The showdown between Scandal and The Blacklist at 9 PM will be among the most anticipated in midseason. According to research used by NBC executives in making the scheduling move, the two dramas should be able to co-exist as Scandal draws a largely black audience that does not have a significant overlap with The Blacklist viewership. That rationale will be tested in February when The Blacklist crashes the Thursday party following a showing after the Super Bowl.
Closing the book on fall, ABC probably has the most to crow about — it has the top-rated new drama (HTGAWM) and top-rated new comedy (Black-ish). It was able to build a formidable Thursday lineup and its first cohesive Wednesday comedy block since the launch of Modern Family, with sophomore The Goldbergs fitting in nicely at 8:30 PM and Black-ish becoming the first new comedy to launch successfully off of Modern Family. The CW also made strides this fall with two solid new additions, The Flash and Jane The Virgin, as it continues to evolve its brand, while CBS gave all four of its new fall dramas back orders.
Black-ish poses a question for midseason as it is heading into its nine-episode back order without original showrunner Larry Wilmore, off to launch his Comedy Central late-night show. Will the family comedy be able to sustain its momentum without one of its key players?
It was a big fall for diversity, with the success of Black-ish, the first black family comedy on broadcast TV in five years, and HTGAWM, a rare broadcast drama with a strong black woman in the lead. (ABC now has two of them, both successful, the Shonda Rhimes-produced Scandal and HTGAWM).
The Latino family dramedy Jane The Virgin on the CW was the best reviewed new series and landed two Golden Globe nominations, while ABC Latino family sitcom Cristela was the only freshman comedy besides Black-ish to get a full-season pickup.
ABC and Fox are hoping diversity’s hot streak will extend to midseason as they have Asian family comedy Fresh Off The Boat and hip-hop drama Empire with a largely black cast coming up. Fresh Off The Boat is getting some unplanned pre-launch publicity via its star, Randall Park, who plays Kim Jong-Un in the controversial Sony feature The Interview.
Besides scoring with diversity, the networks had modest success with star character procedurals this fall, with NBC’s The Mysteries Of Laura toplined by Debra Messing, ABC’s Forever starring Ioan Gruffudd, and CBS’ NCIS: NOLA with Scott Bakula doing solid enough business to earn full-season pickups. (The last also had the NCIS brand and lead-in from the mothership series going for it.)
Meanwhile, the networks’ decision to play it safe, populating the schedule with comedies that are hard to distinguish from each other has been blamed for the genre’s struggles. We had four romantic comedies — A To Z, Manhattan Love Story, Selfie and sophomore About A Boy — airing at the same time. There were two multi-generational Caucasian family sitcoms, CBS’ The Millers and The McCarthys, that had a hard time establishing an identity that sets them apart from the dozens of such sitcoms that had come and gone over the decades. (Despite some terrible ratings, lowest ever for a CBS comedy series, The McCarthys, about an Irish clan with a gay son, is showing some promise, developing a strong and loyal online following, which is rare for a traditional sitcom.)
The networks are sounding a further retreat in comedy for midseason.
ABC will have the biggest comedy presence, with three blocks: two hours on Wednesday, one hour on Friday, as well as another hour on Tuesday consisting of Fresh Off The Boat and a TBD companion, plus a limited-run for fairytale musical comedy Galavant in the Once Upon A Time Sunday slot.
Fox is staying put, with an hourlong comedy block on Tuesday and two live-action comedies mixed with animated shows on Sunday. After scaling back from four hours of comedy to three this fall, CBS is going down to five original comedy series and a repeat in midseason. And then it’s NBC, with a lone hourlong comedy block on Tuesday as the network signaled a major shift to drama.
With Fresh Off The Boat given the tough Selfie Tuesday 8 PM slot after a preview behind the network’s established Wednesday comedies, comedy’s biggest hopes for a midseason rebound probably lies with Fox’s Will Forte-starrer Last Man On Earth, which will follow Family Guy on Sunday, and Matthew Perry’s Odd Couple reboot for CBS, which got the lofty post-Big Bang Theory berth.
The most serialized drama this fall, ABC’s HTGAWM, has been the most successful. The genre will be tested with a slew of new heavily serialized shows set for midseason: NBC’s globe-trotting conspiracy Odyssey, Russian spy tale Allegiance, Charles Manson drama Aquarius and limited series The Slap, ABC’s murder mysteries American Crime Story and Secrets & Lies, and Fox’s family drama Empire. Will the glut lead to an overload similar to what happened to romantic comedies in the fall?
But beyond the performance of any individual series or any individual network, the biggest test for the broadcast nets this midseason will continue to be live viewership erosion for entertainment programming as the number of platforms on which viewers consume content continues to grow and the time frame for them to do it after a series’ broadcast premiere continues to expand. Thirty-day multi-platform ratings continue to gain popularity among networks. The key is for advertisers to catch up. Until then, there will be a premium put on shows from producers like Rhimes who can get fans energized and give their series a sense of urgency so they have to be watched on premiere night.