Monday, December 17, 2012

2012 Upfront Revisited, ABC

The winter break is not quite at the calendar midpoint of the TV season, but it's as close to a "stopping point" as we're gonna get. So this week, as promised, I'm doing one rather lengthy post for each network looking back at how the moves made on the upfront schedules have worked out. Because I love sabotaging my own credibility, I will also revisit some of my thoughts on those moves at the time they happened. Then I'll have a larger-scale look at the ups/downs of the network's fall. Finally, I'll look ahead to the upcoming midseason schedule changes.

More Upfronts Revisited: ABC | CBS | NBC | Fox | CW

Revisiting the Upfront
How did the big and little moves of the upfront look at the time? How do they look now?

The Big Move: Revenge to Sunday
I'm admittedly a little worried about them moving the first thing in many years that has done decently in the Wednesday timeslot, especially considering the lead-in for the new heir to that timeslot is itself an unknown. I would've left Revenge alone, with the only possible exception being for 10:00 comedies... and I don't really like that idea too much either, so I'd have left Revenge alone.
The Revenge move to Sunday has all the feel of one of those splashy power-block breakups, except that the show getting moved is not really that powerful. They're sort of putting the cart before the horse; make the move, and then make it a legitimate hit. As I said, all the external circumstances line up very well for Revenge, so you can see why they did it. The question mark is whether the show itself can deliver the goods, and also whether Nashville has what it takes to make lightning strike twice in that once-troubled hour. (Upfront Answers)
I thought this move had a lot of possible outcomes; it could break out, or the show could just be totally out of gas creatively and fizzle. What was the reality? Right in the middle. Through nine episodes, it's down 1% year-to-year. Not the breakout that some might have expected, but nearly everything has done worse than expected. By the standard of this season, Revenge has done pretty well.

Nashville has a back nine, but it's not even managing a 2.0 most weeks in its Wednesday slot. Would it have done much better on Sunday at 9/8c after Once Upon a Time? Maybe a little. But I also think it'd have been a worse lead-in for the second new show at 10/9c, and Revenge also probably does worse on Wednesday.

Knowing now that there were really no strong dramas in this crop, this move looks like a modest win. The Wednesday/Sunday 10/9c hours have disappointed, but ABC could well have had a total mess across a big Sunday block.

The Little Moves:  

Castle Stays Put
I think that's probably pretty smart. It's not so much about Castle needing the lead-in as about DWTS not really being so big anymore that it's a big waste. So why not stick with a pairing that works pretty well? I know many disagree with me on that... (Upfront Answers)
This is the kind of thing nobody will ever give ABC credit for, but it has worked out pretty well. There was a time when ABC probably should've moved Castle, but just because it was once a good idea doesn't mean it still is. Castle has hung in there against arguably the toughest 10/9c competition of the whole week, both from dramas (including #1 10/9c drama Revolution) and from Monday Night Football. While I said at the time that Dancing with the Stars wasn't that big a lead-in anymore, it's actually been even worse than I envisioned. Would something like Nashville have done much better in this slot after a hugely depressed DWTS than on Wednesday? It's possible, since most of the competition leans more male, but I doubt it.

 Comedies on Tuesday
This is probably better than Wednesday 10:00 comedies, but not by much. It's tough to feel a whole lot of confidence in these two pretty marginal returnees going up against one relatively established and very 18-34-friendly anchor (New Girl) and NBC's self-proclaimed two best comedy pilots with what should be a bigger Voice lead-in. I think it's gonna be tough sledding for these two either way, but I'd have preferred them at 8:00, where the only competing comedy is a fairly weak Raising Hope and an unknown. Is ancient-skewing DWTS really going to help these shows much? (Upfront Answers)
This has been a disaster any way you slice it. Both Happy Endings and Apartment 23 are down at least half from what they got early in their seasons after Modern last year. If ABC really wanted to give Happy Endings 22 episodes, it looks like their best play would've been the third hour on Wednesday, but there seems a general hesitation to go that route (perhaps because younger-skewing shows are bad lead-ins for local news).

Suburgatory after Modern Family 
Clearly I'm expecting big things out of a show that I really like and that seems a great pair with MF. Last year I said Happy Endings would go only +25% in the post-Modern Fam slot and way undershot. Again, I don't see Suburgatory going up as much because I don't think it's coming from a situation as bad as Happy Endings' was, plus I don't see another big bounce for Modern Family. But I'm still saying it goes +25% to a 3.25 with (relative to previous options) stellar retention of MF. (Best Case/Worst Case)

This was probably my biggest miss of the Best Case/Worst Case season, especially among returning shows. I would've found it pretty inconceivable that Suburgatory could move to the post-Modern Family slot and (at least for now) not only drop on a year-to-year basis, but actually drop more than either Modern or The Middle. Even after I adjusted my expectations downward following the collective underperformance of the first couple weeks, it still did much worse than I imagined.

So what's the "lesson" of this? I dunno, but I do know what it's not: it's not that "Modern Family is a 'bad' lead-in." This isn't Lost. There's no reason why a megahit family comedy shouldn't be able to help lift something else to legit success. It's more that, frustratingly, ABC still can't find that show. And the super-late launches for the midseason comedies aren't votes of confidence that they have it in reserve this season.

Last Resort Thursday 8/7c
I'm probably going to like the show and I want to believe it'll work, but... I don't. Pretty much every on-air promo for the show has been terrible, IMO. Not that I think I could do better. It's just a hard show to describe. So the major obstacle is just getting sampled. But even if it does that, it has to have the creative goods. The people involved suggest it might, but the odds with this kind of show are not really in its favor. Good luck, but I smell a short run. (Best Case/Worst Case)
Last Resort might have actually done better than I expected. I would maintain in the final analysis that it ended up being a stronger show than 666 Park Ave (which had basically identical numbers in a much better timeslot). But that's little consolation, because the fates ended up the same.

So at midseason, ABC once again has the same Sophie's choice for this timeslot that they've had for years: they can throw comedies up against the biggest comedy hour on TV (and another comedy hour on NBC), they can throw unscripted against (maybe?!) the #1 unscripted program, or they can go with dramas, the plan that's failed time after time after time over the last few years. None of those seem like remotely good choices.

I still think that, at least for now while American Idol remains somewhat potent, trying to make a drama work is probably the least miserable plan. But that doesn't mean I won't say Zero Hour got a tough break if it fails. The track record here is bad enough that one would think ABC would have to eventually give somebody something of a pass. The problem is that each individual show has bombed just hard enough that it's not renewal-worthy even with "something of a pass."

Comedies on Friday
ABC will dip their toe in the Friday comedy water with a returnee that (despite its late-season struggles) at least had an older-leaning skew by comedy standards, and that seems relatively well suited to the evening. And I think Reba will be a draw. This has as good a chance as any comedy block of working on Friday. (Upfront Answers)
They've certainly, by Friday standards, hung in there. They're essentially doing the same ratings as the dramas on CBS, which based on the likely production costs certainly feels like a win in the ABC column.

Big Picture
What are the best and worst possible spins on the network's performance this fall?

Glass Half-Full:

ABC has quietly had one of the stablest seasons on broadcast. Its overall demo ratings are down less than those of either CBS and Fox, and Shark Tank and 20/20 are both growing on Friday. But they're also the stablest in the scripted department. They have four dramas (Grey's Anatomy, Once Upon a Time, Scandal and Revenge) doing better than -10% year-to-year through eleven weeks. That's half of the dramas on broadcast that fit that distinction (joining Person of Interest, Grimm, The Vampire Diaries and Supernatural). Castle is doing a lot worse than that, but it's still doing better year-to-year than its Dancing lead-in (as it has for the last few years now). And while comedy tentpoles The Middle and Modern Family have taken noticeable hits, they're still doing better year-to-year than all returning live-action comedies not named The Big Bang Theory.

Glass Half-Empty:

They're in fourth place, both overall and (just barely) among entertainment originals. It's close enough that they probably wouldn't be there if they had some kind of NFL boost. But they don't have it. There are reasonable ways to spin it, but it's still fourth place.

While The Neighbors may have done a little better than some expected, the new show class as a whole has struggled.  Nashville looks like the best of the bunch drama-wise, which isn't a surprise, but even it's a lot weaker than year-ago occupant Revenge and just barely hanging in there.

A few returnees are massively down. Private Practice and even the Tuesday comedies, though, aren't that big of a deal. It's hard to imagine the hopes were all that high on those fronts. Their real returnee issue: they have an increasingly daunting Dancing with the Stars problem.

With most shows, a problem with one show isn't a huge problem for the network as a whole. But Dancing with the Stars is not most shows. I've mentioned in the past that while these reality shows that take up massive chunks of the schedule are great when their ratings are great, what happens when their ratings become marginal and you're faced with having to replace those massive chunks? It looks like that problem is about to become very real for ABC. Dancing with the Stars is down 20%+ for the third straight season (nearly 30% this season). It's essentially a "league average" show (Monday and Tuesday combined have a 99 A18-49+ if the season ended today). Maybe that's still acceptable, for now, but it's also trending in the wrong direction.

While the networks seem to prefer the "milk it till it's dead and worry about the future in the future" plan, I'd like to see ABC start to pare down the amount of real estate DWTS takes up. Perhaps they could return to the strategy of regularly airing a comedy at 9:30 on Monday. (Malibu Country?)

Looking Ahead
What moves will the network make at midseason, and how smart are those moves?

Tuesday: Reality Newbies at 8/7c, DWTS back to 9:00, Body of Proof at 10:00

I remarked both before and after the upfront that Tuesday as a whole looks like a pretty wide-open night. The 8:00 hour is a little less so since The Voice and NCIS have remained potent there. But 9:00 and 10:00 feel like some extraordinarily prime real estate. It seemed at least possible ABC might "attack" it in some way at midseason.

Instead... ABC will cycle two new unscripted shows through the 8:00 hour. Cooking competition show The Taste gets the better end of that, airing before the return of The Voice, while Celebrity Diving (probably deservedly) gets thrown to the Voice wolves. Dancing with the Stars returns to the 9:00 hour in the spring, which will get it away from The Voice. It'll be interesting to see if this makes a difference in the dynamic between the Monday and Tuesday airings. And at 10:00, it's the return of Body of Proof, setting up the possibility of a remarkably weak timeslot for the broadcasters as it duels with Vegas and Smash.

There are two considerations for ABC on this night. First, couldn't ABC have a real shot with a new drama going up against Vegas and Smash? I think so. And I'm not so sold Shark Tank is dead as a potential Tuesday player just because it dropped by one tenth in a one-off airing against The Voice and the biggest holiday special. But they sure seem to have convinced some other people. (Although, from the ABC perspective, they announced this schedule before even seeing that Shark Tank result.)

Second, Body of Proof was one of the biggest reach renewals of last season, and it should come as no huge surprise that BoP is getting paired with Dancing again. The term "lead-in dependent" is probably overused in TV ratings circles, but it really did apply to Body of Proof last year. For most shows the difference is not this large, but last year BoP actually was a massive flop without DWTS but more of a marginal show when it had that lead-in. If they had to renew this show, it certainly seems best utilized in this situation. (Though it will actually air for a few weeks before the return of DWTS; good luck with that...)

Which of those considerations should win out? I will say this: I believe the biggest fundamental difference between the real decision-makers and the wannabe industry analysts (myself very much included) is that the wannabes put much more value on the unknown replacement show. We often want the networks to contort their schedules and maybe drastically hurt known properties to benefit shows with no track record. We're probably wrong about that a lot of the time; after all, we usually haven't even seen how bad these potential replacements are, and the new show failure rate is pretty high.

But there's a difference between protecting something that actually produces, an NCIS: LA or a Brothers & Sisters, and protecting something like Body of Proof. Sometimes the devil you know isn't really worth knowing. I don't believe Body of Proof should've been renewed, so why would I believe it should be protected? I wish ABC had tried harder on Tuesday.

No Nashville Move, New Dramas to Plug Cancelled Shows' Slots

There was much buzz throughout the late fall that ABC would move Nashville to Sunday 10/9c. I always felt like I was missing something that made this the no-brainer move others thought it was. I would've considered it for only one reason: if ABC wanted to put comedies in the 10:00 hour (namely the Tuesday refugees). Moving it in favor of a midseason drama felt like making an extra move that could potentially compromise the one new drama ABC's sticking with. And I don't really see why Wednesday 10/9c is all that enticing a situation for an ABC drama anyway.

Ultimately, ABC did not move Nashville, instead plugging their two new midseason dramas (Zero Hour and Red Widow) into the same slots vacated by cancelled Last Resort and 666 Park Ave. Will they succeed where the two fall shows (which ABC presumably liked better) failed? I'm not that optimistic. But, again, I don't really think the failure to move Nashville is a big part of the problem. Tuesday is the bigger missed opportunity.

Late-Season Comedy Shuffles

It's not all that surprising that ABC is turning around on its decision to go to two comedy hours on Tuesday considering what's happened with the one existing comedy hour on Tuesday. And given that, it's not that surprising that The Family Tools and How to Live with Your Parents For the Rest of Your Life (gonna need an abbreviation for that) will be worked into the Wednesday mix.

The red flag is how late these shows are showing up. How to Live doesn't debut till April 3, and The Family Tools debuts on May 1! You can argue that scheduling these is a difficulty since the full orders for The Neighbors and Suburgatory have to be worked in. Still, I think they'd find a way to get them on earlier if they really wanted to. The Neighbors isn't doing so gangbusters that they couldn't put it on hiatus and bring it back later if needed.

More Upfronts Revisited: ABC | CBS | NBC | Fox | CW


Spot said...

Even if Zero Hour doesn't have the creative goods, I still think it would've worked better behind some sort of lead-in instead of the exact same slot where Last Resort shriveled up. And I certainly don't think Body of Proof should be getting any sort of protection after how badly it did last year.

Of course, it all makes perfect sense if you believe that ABC wants nothing to do w/ genre audiences (or men of any sort) anymore, which would also explain the Last Resort scheduling in the first place.

Spot said...

The most head-scratching part of ABC's Fall that was out of their control was Suburgatory's inability to take off at 9:30. After a strong season last year I expected mid-3s and thought the network would use it in Fall 2013 at 8 PM to launch comedies on Tuesday. While I still think that comedies should be ABC's plan next season, I don't know if this should be the show to make the beachhead.

As for the comedies, ABC has shown a recent propensity to debut midseason comedies late in the season (Happy Endings, Apt. 23). How to Live is at least airing with enough time to make a case for a second season in 2013-2014. The Family Tools, by contrast, smells like burn-off.

Rather than ranting again about Tuesdays, I will say that at least ABC has patched something together; Body of Proof perked up at the right time last season with Dancing with the Stars and a two-part epidemic cliffhanger that, in hindsight, probably acted as a revised pilot for the executives to consider for a third season. Thankfully for the show, it worked.

While you are looking ahead at the midseason movement of shows, I think another big thing to watch for is how The Bachelor does this Winter. ABC can't afford for both of their 2-hour reality franchises to dip 20% year-to-year.

Spot said...

To your last point, for anyone who may be concerned, the posts this week are very network DECISION-centric. So I'm mostly sticking to things where the network made some kind of clear choice (or should/will make a clear choice).

I will have Power Rankings and Best Case/Worst Case at the beginning of January that are much more SHOW-centric and will be more about past/future ratings for individual shows.

Spot said...

I'd put the DWTS results show on Thursdays at 8pm, and bring back the 4-sitcom block on Tuesday.

Spot said...

I don't think ABC's had a full sitcom block on Tuesdays since According to Jim was a hit. I see no reason to try it now when they only have enough cornerstones to support the Wednesday block. (and even then, The Middle is certainly a lesser cornerstone than Modern Family)

Spot said...

The two-night nature of DWTS makes it more difficult to schedule since ABC has finally got Wednesdays to work. It'd be an interesting experiment to space out performance shows from results shows, but I can't see Paul Lee trying that next season for fear of fragmenting its audience even more.

Spot said...

ABC's niche is female viewers. So what? I assume you don't have a problem with ESPN targeting a male audience.

Spot said...

Part of my issue is a nostalgic eye for ABC back when they had stuff like Alias and Threat Matrix on the schedule (and to go a little farther back, I was a big fan of TGIF v1.0). I'd just like to see a little less of the Housewives/Grey's clones and a few more shows that actually make me excited to watch the network. Unfortunately, anytime I see something that vaguely reminds me of the ABC that was lost in their success, it ends up caving in just a few months, if it even turns out to be any good at all.

Spot said...

The worst, most indefensible part of ABC's schedule is how they're letting freshman comedies die on the vine. And for what? So The Neighbors, a show barely averaging a 2.0 with a decent lead-in and the best possible lead-out can stay put? So Suburgatory, yet another show struggling to hold 60% of Modern Family's lead-in, can coast until May sweeps? I just don't understand why networks keep doing this to new shows. After hearing about ABC's plan to double run Happy Endings and Apartment 23, I'm convinced that ABC has just given up on basically the last two-plus years of comedy development. I don't expect anything besides MF and The Middle to come back in Fall 2013, unless Sony can broker a cheap deal for HE.

That just makes the performance of the dramas all the more scary. I was expecting Revenge to do much better with Once as a lead-in, but with Once itself being somewhat of a disappointment, it's kind of understandable. The whole network in general just seems to have fallen flat. Nashville can't be counted on for 2.0. Scandal is the only show I can see with a bit of tailwind, but it still has a fairly low ceiling at 10 PM. And can someone tell me what exactly is the point of trying YET AGAIN to force a drama into the Thursday 8 PM slot? Why not go back to unscripted, to make the resulting loss to Vampire Diaries less expensive? Use these shows on Tuesday, where they might be able to gain some traction against NBC's Voice-dependent comedies and whatever CBS feel less contempt for.

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