It’s an interesting time in which we live. With some exceptions, our entertainment is controlled by a select few companies that own the movies studios and broadcast networks which provide the programming of our lives. ABC, for instance, is owned by the Walt Disney Corporation, which means that as enormous an operation it might be, it is just a piece of a much, much larger pie.
The pie is so large, in fact, that when one part of it is having a great run of success, it can overcome the lack of such by another piece. Take, for instance, the fact that Disney is poised to have the highest-grossing year in the history of movies, while its broadcast network, ABC, is stuck in the midst of a quagmire of relatively low ratings and an overall hemorrhaging of viewership. Good news for one part of the company, not so good for another.
The financial situation is not so simple, either, with ABC seeing gains in revenue in the third quarter this year over the same time last year ($1.7 billion, up 5 percent over 2015), as well as in the nine-month period that ended on July 2nd ($5.3 billion, up the same 5 percent). However, and you knew there was a “however” coming, operating income has seen a sizable drop, from $300 million in 2015 to $282 million this year (a fall-off of 6 percent), and from $842 million over the nine month period that just ended in 2015, to $783 million this year, a drop of 7 percent. Increased revenues are good, but when the operating income doesn’t match it, you gots problems.
Problems, plural, is the word that covers a lot of what ABC is facing these days. Considering that it has been the top-rated network exactly once this century (all the way back in the 2000-01 season), and that it has not once had the top-rated show during the same period, that’s bad enough. But when overall viewership in the key ratings demos drop precipitously, and none of the network’s new shows are among the most-watched on broadcast television, it’s time to take a look at making some big changes.
Luckily, ABC has already taken a big step in that direction, hiring Channing Dungey as entertainment president of the network back in February, becoming the first African-American to lead a major broadcast network at a time when lack of diversity in Hollywood has come under increasing scrutiny. The 46-year-old, who has been a Walt Disney Co. executive for more than a decade, helped develop hits like Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, about which we will talk shortly. Her promotion came at a time when the network had fallen into fourth place among that prime demographic, viewers aged 18 to 49, in a season that ended with the network down a whopping 18 percent in that specific area.
Now, the network would argue that if you take sports out of the equation — specifically football and baseball — then it actually climbs to the top of the chart, tied with CBS at 1.9 percent, but that’s still a big drop from the year before, which makes it something of a pyrrhic victory. This is especially true when you consider that it didn’t have a single scripted show in the top 20, and only four in the top 40. On top of that, each and every one of its eight most successful, returning scripted shows (which means we exclude the 2015-16 rookie Quantico and the canceled Castle) lost viewership from the year before. That’s right, each and every one of them.
Let’s start with the highest rated show. No, not Scandal, that was the year prior, and what had been the ninth-most watched show on television fell to number 29 in 2015-16, losing an average of two million viewers per episode. Last year’s best performer, aside from continued stalwart Dancing With the Stars, which was number eight in the ratings, was Grey’s Anatomy. Thirteen years the show has been on, and while it slipped three spaces from 2014-15 (from 18 to 21), it only lost an average of 300,000 viewers per episode from one year to the next. That doesn’t sound so good, but in context, it’s certainly not bad, because of the eight shows referenced here, only one lost fewer viewers than Grey’s. That would be the Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing, which only shed 200,000 viewers per episode, and was the only show to improve its final placing, from number 60 in 2014-15 to 56 last year. Kind of an ignominious honor, really.
That should give you an idea of how bad things have been. The third show in the Shonda Rhimes lineup on Thursday night, How To Get Away With Murder, went from 30 to 32 and lost 1.4 million viewers in the process. Modern Family fell from 24 to 36 and lost 2.2 million viewers. The Middle stayed steady at number 53, but lost a half million viewers, while The Goldbergs remained at 57 but lost 600,000, and Black-ish dropped from 54 to 60, losing 1.7 million. Add it up, and those eight shows lost close to nine million viewers total.
For a frame of reference, if one show averaged nine million viewers last year, it would have ended up as the 47th most watched show on broadcast television. Right in the middle of ABC’s list of highest-rated shows on the network. Did I mention the word “hemorrhaging” before? Because this is what it looks like when you are hemorrhaging viewers.
Disney’s ownership of Marvel would make you think that relationship would translate well to TV, but unlike the success the company has had at the movie theaters, this relationship has been a mostly frustrating one. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is entering its fourth season, but has been a disappointment in both ratings (number 85, with 5.5 million viewers per week) and content almost from the start, in spite of its pedigree of being co-created by Joss Whedon. Likewise, while the critics loved the midseason spinoff Agent Carter, starring Hayley Atwell, audiences didn’t, and the period spy drama was cancelled after two seasons. ABC liked Atwell enough to cast her in one of its new shows, the legal drama Conviction, but we’ll get to that. More important is the fact that at least one other potential Marvel show, the S.H.I.E.L.D. spinoff Marvel’s Most Wanted, didn’t make it through the development process, and nothing else has come close. Basically, Marvel is having more television success with Netflix than it is with its own, in-house broadcast network, which ain’t good.
Falling into the “just fine, I guess” category are the likes of John Ridley’s American Crime anthology series, which is a critical hit and awards magnet, but doesn’t attract too many viewers. Likewise, shows such as Once Upon a Time, Fresh Off the Boat, Dr. Ken, The Catch, and The Real O’Neals all were renewed without large followings. The unscripted department continues to be solid, with perennials like The Bachelor, Shark Tank, and The Bachelorette all bringing in good numbers, but nothing like they used to. The Bachelor, just for one instance, used to be a Top 10 show. Last year, it was 41.
If that’s not enough, the network has had its share of high-profile — and high cost — failures, like the latest go-round of The Muppets, which only lasted a season, and the soap opera Blood & Oil, which didn’t make it past 10 episodes. Castle was retired after seven seasons, Nashville was initially cancelled before it was picked up by CMT, while The Family, Of Kings and Prophets, and Wicked City were all enormous flops.
With so many new openings in the schedule, there is a lot of space for new shows, and even for new old shows, like Secrets and Lies, a cop drama starring Juliette Lewis that aired its first season in 2015 and hasn’t been seen for a year and a half, but somehow finds itself with a spot on the fall schedule, and in the prime slot of Sunday nights at 9, in the midst of old standbys America’s Funniest Home Videos, Once Upon a Time, and Quantico. Monday nights at 10, following Dancing With the Stars on TV’s most competitive night, Conviction makes its debut in October, and might have a genuine shot against CBS’ Scorpion and fellow rookie drama Timeless on NBC.
Both the Tuesday and Wednesday night comedy blocks each have a new half hour, with American Housewife debuting in the 8:30 slot on Tuesday night and the Minnie Driver-led Speechless in the same spot the night after. Nothing is beating NCIS or night two of The Voice on Tuesdays, but Wednesday night is interesting, and not just because reviews of Speechless are terrific. Survivor still rules the first hour of Wednesday nights, and Blindspot had an excellent rookie season and is expected to return strong. Fox has the movie adaptation Lethal Weapon, and The CW has season five of Arrow, but ABC’s counter-programming comedy block will definitely snag its share of viewers. Ideally, more than it did last year, which would be a nice change.
Thursday nights in the fall will be a shift from recent years in that it will contain a show not executive produced by Shonda Rhimes. Notorious, starring Daniel Sunjata and Piper Perabo, and coming from the Blacklist veteran Josh Berman and newcomer Allie Hagan, about a lawyer and a TV producer trying to control the media and the justice system, steps into Scandal’s spot because of star Kerry Washington’s pregnancy. It fits right in between Grey’s and HTGAWM, which should at least give it solid ratings from the start. Friday’s combination of comedy (Last Man and Dr. Ken), reality (Shark Tank), and news (20/20) is the status quo.
Which is kind of the problem. Jimmy Kimmel is great in late night, alternately just ahead of or just behind Jimmy Fallon. ABC is, obviously, a part owner of Hulu, but also streams on its own website, and it has the Oscars every year through 2028, so there’s that. But that’s all small potatoes in comparison to prime time. Part of the network’s issues over the past few years have been the reliance on the same old, same old. Blood & Oil is a perfect example. A soap opera in the style of Dynasty with Don Johnson as the star? Talk about a show straight out of the ‘80s — no wonder it died a quick death.
The network has 10 comedies on its schedule, more than anyone else, but with one big exception — The Big Bang Theory, which is, of course, on another network — comedies aren’t the ratings winners they used to be. Which means that Dungey needs to lead something of a major overhaul to the schedule, one that attracts viewers, rather than sheds them. While it’s possible that Shonda Rhimes’ run is nearing an end, that feels like a premature diagnosis. Putting too much reliance on her and her particular brand of drama, however, has clearly led to diminishing returns.
More dynamic storytelling would help, and one item on the development slate that has already been green lit sounds like it might fit the bill. Kyra Sedgwick returns to television with Ten Days in the Valley, about an overworked TV producer whose daughter goes missing. Sounds intriguing. Sadly, not much else does. Charlie Foxtrot is about a dentist at Fort Bragg who has to care for his brother’s family after he’s killed in action. Criminal follows a hedonistic con man and his rag-tag team who need to complete missions for the government to clear their names. Documenting Love is pitched as a Mad About You clone. Doomsday is a conspiracy thriller taking place in a dangerous, post-9/11 world. Zach Braff stars in a new sitcom based on the podcast Start Up.
All of them have put pilot commitments and several of them production guarantees, as well. Obviously, it’s all about execution (black-ish is about an upscale African-American family and the issues they face, which we’ve seen plenty of times before, but it works because of how the elements all come together), but these ideas all sound like versions of other shows. A perfect example is Deception, about a master illusionist who helps the FBI solve crimes. Shades of Psych or The Mentalist. At least three other projects — the single camera comedies Hail Mary, based on an Australian show, and Pearl, with Candice Bergen as a dying matriarch trying to control her family, and the drama (and Archie Panjabi vehicle) The Jury — are all being redeveloped, which means anything can happen.
Let’s be honest here. There have been so many cop shows, legal shows, and medical shows over the years, you would think there are only so many ways one could tell those stories, and yet people keep finding new and interesting(ish) ways to do so. The projects mentioned in the preceding paragraph could all end up being brilliant, but on the surface, they just feel a bit … well, rote. It’s possible that the network brass knows something we don’t, or it could be more of the same. Hopefully, it’s the former.
All in all, there are major issues that need to be solved and literally millions of viewers who need to be brought back into the fold. Channing Dungey and her team have their work cut out for them, and a fairly difficult road to maneuver to get back on top.
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