It’s been an OK fall for the broadcast networks with a few solid new entries, NBC’s Manifest and New Amsterdam, ABC’s The Conners, CBS’ FBI, Fox’s Last Man Standing and the CW’s Charmed. Besides the two NBC dramas, no other new series probably qualifies as a breakout hit but there were no outright flops either that were quickly pulled or downgraded except for ABC’s Alec Baldwin talk show.
However, the performances of the new and returning series has been largely overshadowed this fall. The broadcast networks are at crossroads following unprecedented corporate upheaval, with none of the executives who were at the top of each network the same time last year in their posts now.
CBS Corp. CEO Les Moonves was ousted following a slew of sexual misconducts allegations, with Showtime’s David Nevins taking programming oversight of CBS and the CW. Bob Greenblatt and Jennifer Salke left NBC (the latter for Amazon Studios), replaced by Paul Telegdy & George Cheeks and Lisa Katz & Tracey Pakosta, respectively. Disney’s acquisition of Fox assets led to seismic changes at both ABC and Fox, with AMC’s Charlie Collier replacing Gary Newman and Disney-bound Dana Walden at Fox, and Disney-ABC’s Ben Sherwood and Channing Dungey exiting, with Fox’s Peter Rice and Walden taking over top Disney-ABC duties and Karey Burke succeeding Dungey, who has since landed at Netflix.
The uncertainty, combined with declining linear ratings (of the five broadcast nets, only Fox is in positive territory year-to-year thanks to the addition of Thursday Night Football) adds to the growing anxiety associated with broadcast, as top creators increasingly gravitate toward cable and streaming. (Coincidentally — or not — the Big 4 nets all are reducing their dependence on scripted programming in midseason with the biggest blitz of high-profile contingent of reality series in recent memory). Fortunately for the networks, selected few creators, like Chuck Lorre, can do both. The sitcom king behind CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, Mom and Young Sheldon, who is garnering awards recognition for his Netflix comedy The Kominsky Method, also has a new multi-cam pilot for CBS, Bob Abishola.
Top new series: FBI, God Friended Me, The Neighborhood
Biggest disappointment: the Murphy Brown reboot, which could not match the cultural and ratings impact of the original.
CBS, which has been rocked by the Moonves scandal, braces for the loss of its top series, The Big Bang Theory. In its 12th and final season, Big Bang (average of 16.9 million viewers, 3.6 adults 18-49 most current rating) still ranked as the most watched non-sports program on broadcast TV this fall and No.2 in adults 18-49 behind NBC’s This Is Us. The network’s season-to-date averages (8.9 million, 1.4 in 18-49) are down -9% in viewers and -18% in the demo as the network doesn’t have Thursday Night Football, which it shared with NBC last fall. The impact of losing Big Bang could be similar or even larger next fall if CBS does not find a new hit to replace it, with Lorre’s new sitcom among the projects the network is pinning its hopes on.
CBS Corp. Chief Creative Officer David Nevins, who now oversees CBS’ programming, recently indicated that the network will likely use Big Bang spinoff Young Sheldon, which is the network’s second highest-rated series, as Big Bang replacement in the anchor Thursday 8 PM slot next season.
Besides the imminent departure of Big Bang, CBS faces other challenges too. The future of its third highest rated comedy, Mom, hinges on producing studio Warner Bros. TV securing new deals with stars Anna Farris and Allison Janney but the two sides are still far apart. Meanwhile, one of the network’s better performing dramas, Bull, got entangled into the Moonves controversy with recent revelations of a settled sexual harassment complaint against lead Michael Weatherly, one of CBS’ biggest stars.
Looking ahead, CBS is making its biggest push in unscripted programming in more than a decade, with the most new in-season reality series launches, led by World’s Best, which is slated to debut following the Super Bowl. Having the Super Bowl also guarantees CBS a No.1 finish for the season in total viewers for an 11th straight year.
Top new series: The Conners, A Million Little Things
Biggest disappointment: The Alec Baldwin Show, which was banished to Saturdays after a few dismally rated airings on Sunday.
While CBS is bracing for the loss of its top series, ABC suffered the unexpected loss of its highest rated series, Roseanne, following star Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet. Following the old adage of trying to make lemonade when life gives you lemons, ABC got a Roseanne spinoff, The Conners, quickly off the ground. While it could not replicate the size of Roseanne‘s ratings success, the offshoot has done well, ranking as ABC’s most watched and highest rated comedy series and the network’s most watched and highest-rated series overall behind dramas Grey’s Anatomy and The Good Doctor.
Even with The Conners’ addition, ABC (5.7 million, 1.2 in 18-49) was down -10% in total viewers and -20% in 18-49 vs. last fall as it couldn’t produce a breakout hit of the size of The Good Doctor in fall 2018. While the high-profile new comedic drama The Rookie starring Nathan Fillion somewhat underperformed, new ensemble drama A Million Little Things has found digital legs and, after an inauspicious linear start, has raked in solid DVR bumps to emerge as the network’s highest-rated new series this fall behind The Conners.
With no football, ABC looks to the Oscars as its annual ratings bonanza but, amid a decline in viewership and recent controversies, like #OscarsSoWhite, the network has a challenging task on its hands this year, which includes securing new host(s) after Kevin Hart’s abrupt exit. Also worth keeping an eye on is ABC’s move to keep veteran Dancing with the Stars benched for the spring for the first time as the network is experimenting with a year-round wheel of Dancing, The Bachelor, American Idol and The Bachelorette, each airing one installment a year.
ABC will soon call both ABC Studios and 20th Century Fox TV (or the combined entity that would succeed them) sister studios, after the Disney-Fox transaction is completed We will see whether the two studios will dominate ABC’s new series orders for next fall as ABC also is inching closer to renewing the 20th TV-produced comedy series Modern Family for an 11th and final season.
Top new series: Manifest, New Amsterdam
Biggest disappointment: I Feel Bad, as the Amy Poehler-produced sitcom struck out with viewers and critics alike
It was another strong fall for NBC (8.9 million, 2.2 in 18-49), which nabbed the seventh consecutive fourth-quarter win in adults 18-49. Posting minimal year-to-year declines, -3% in total viewers and -8% in 18-49 despite losing the shared Thursday Night Football window with CBS, NBC was tops in the demo and finished within 64,000 viewers to CBS (8.875 million vs. 8.939 million through 12 weeks), which is the closest NBC has run to #1 in total viewers at this point in the quarter in 19 years.
Manifest (13.9 million, 3.1 in 18-49) is the highest rated and most watched new series of the season and the third highest rated scripted series overall behind NBC’s This Is Us and CBS’ Big Bang. With Manifest and New Amsterdam adding potent numbers, This Is Us still a ratings powerhouse, the One Chicago lineup shoring up Wednesday, plus This Is Us and The Good Place scoring a string of nominations, a lot has been working for NBC this fall. The few signs of concern include Manifest‘s ratings erosion as the high-concept serialized drama could potentially follow in the footsteps of other dramas with sci-fi elements and dense mythology that faded after a hot start, like fellow Monday 10 PM NBC drama Revolution. And the Will & Grace revival has been losing some ratings momentum in Season 2.
Coming up is the often rocky transition from Sunday Night Football to an entertainment Sunday lineup, with NBC relying to summer series World of Dance on the night in its first in-season installment. The network’s expansive unscripted midseason slate also includes a special edition of summer staple America’s Got Talent.
Top new series: Last Man Standing
Biggest Disappointment: New comedy Rel, which made little impact on Sunday.
Fueled by the acquisition of Thursday Night Football, Fox (7.0 million, 2.0 in 18-49) was the only network to post ratings gains this fall, +17%, +11%. While football was the main driver, Fox saw its gamble of bringing back the canceled Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing pay off. It was the second most watched scripted series on Fox this fall behind 9-1-1 and third highest rated in 18-49 behind 9-1-1 and Empire. And, while Empire is showing its age, sophomore 9-1-1 has been impressive, once again giving Fox a Top 3 broadcast drama in 18-49.
The biggest question for Fox is what it would look like next season once it is separated from sister studio and main scripted series supplier 20th TV. For now we know that the new Fox will be relying even more heavily on live/sports programming, with WWE SmackDown joining Thursday Nighty Football next fall. And the network will be expanding its animation offerings with at least two new series set to join staples The Simpsons, Family Guy and Bob’s Burgers.
Top new series: Charmed
Biggest disappointment: Berlanti Prods.‘ All American, which could not break out despite strong pedigree and solid reviews.
The CW’s linear ratings (1.5 million, 0.5 in 18-49) are down -22% in viewers and -29% in 18-49 from last fall. While these are the steepest declines for a broadcast network this fall (in part because of the small base), the CW also is the net whose success is probably least dependent on linear ratings. The CW was the first broadcaster to start bundling ads for on-air telecasts and and streaming of its shows at the upfronts, and the digital performance of many of its series has been on the rise. Plus, the CW was launched with the goal to create value for the two studios it serves, Warner Bros. TV and CBS TV Studios, which it does, giving a domestic network for series that the studios can monetize internationally.
The CW this fall reclaimed Sunday as a night of original programming with the Charmed reboot as its strongest new series performer on linear and digital platforms. Still, the CW would like to get another hit of the size of The Flash and Riverdale. With Riverdale offshoot Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which originated on the CW, becoming a breakout for Netflix, the network’s hopes are focused on the new Batwoman drama series starring Ruby Rose, which is expected to get an official pilot order.