In Depth

Deconstructing the TV Season From Hell

It’s become an instant cliché: The 2007-08 TV season was broadcasting’s annus horribilis, a year from hell that brought only pain and misery to the business.

“There will always be an asterisk next to this season,” said Fox scheduling chief Preston Beckman. “It’s like Roger Maris and his 61 home runs.”

But behind all the chaos and catastrophes of the last nine months—the writers strike, the confusion over DVR data, “Viva Laughlin”—an actual TV season played out.

New shows struck out or succeeded. Networks improved some time slots and faded in others. Executives’ career fortunes rose or dimmed.

“It was an extraordinarily challenging season, but through it, the networks were still able to launch some successful shows,” said ABC Executive Vice President Jeff Bader. “There were no breakouts, but there were successes.”

In other words, while the season just ended was unlike any other in TV history, in some ways, it was just like any other. Here’s a look at the people and trends that popped during the 2007-08 campaign. (All ratings numbers cited are for the 18- to 49-year-old demographic unless otherwise noted.)

The New Deans of Drama: Greg Berlanti and Josh Schwartz

During the 1980s and ’90s, David E. Kelley and Steven Bochco were TV’s go-to writer-producers, each juggling multiple series at any given moment. This year, Mr. Berlanti and Mr. Schwartz began emerging as possible successors to that legacy.

Mr. Berlanti, who scored a hit during the 2006-07 season with “Brothers & Sisters,” added two more ABC dramas to his resume this season. “Dirty Sexy Money,” averaging a 3.0/8, was a solid, buzzworthy part of ABC’s new Wednesday lineup. In the spring, “Eli Stone”—despite earning a smallish 2.8/8 as it struggled to find an audience in the post-strike chaos—had critics raving by the end of its run and will return next season.

Mr. Schwartz, meanwhile, took on the Herculean task of launching two new hourlong dramas in September: NBC’s “Chuck” and The CW’s “Gossip Girl.” The former was just about the only bright spot on the Peacock network’s fall schedule, while the latter emerged as a certifiable pop-culture phenomenon that, thanks to its download dominance on iTunes, threatened to redefine the definition of “hit show.”

Save the Cheerleader, Save the Network

“Heroes,” the show that was supposed to be NBC’s ticket out of the ratings basement, suffered a massive sophomore slump. After launching its second season with nearly 17 million total viewers, it ended its run in December with barely 11 million geeks still following the show’s increasingly convoluted storylines.

While the strike had nothing to do with the show’s Nielsen collapse, the early halt in production meant producers didn’t get the chance to win back fans right away. On the positive side, the strike delay provided plenty of time for them to regroup.

It’s hard to imagine “Heroes” ever recapturing the buzz of its first season. But as ABC’s “Lost” has proven, viewers are willing to give shows they love a second chance.

The Comedy Queen: Wendy Trilling

NBC gets all the hype, but CBS quietly positioned itself this season as the sitcom’s savior.
“Two and a Half Men” continued its reign as TV’s No. 1 half-hour, while that show’s creator, Chuck Lorre, launched another success last fall with “The Big Bang Theory.” And while it doesn’t always get a lot of love from senior CBS Corp. executives, “How I Met Your Mother” has given the Eye network endless blogosphere buzz and reaches younger viewers who might otherwise not even know CBS exists.

“They might not be the critical darlings, but they’re certainly favorites among viewers,” said Kelly Kahl, CBS’ senior executive VP for program planning.

“Mother,” for example, averaged a 3.3/9, more than NBC’s vaunted “30 Rock” or “My Name Is Earl.”

Even rivals are willing to give CBS comedy props.

“They come out of the season having kept alive the tradition of a ‘Must-See TV’ comedy block with four-camera shows,” said Fox’s Mr. Beckman. “Their patience has paid off there.”
CBS looks to expand its comedy empire this fall by moving utility player “The New Adventures of Old Christine” to Wednesdays and pairing it with newcomer “Project Gary.” It plans to bolster its Monday block with the single-camera half-hour “Worst Week,” which played well in clip form when screened for advertisers in New York earlier this month.

All the comedy kudos can’t be claimed by CBS, however.

ABC, whose blockbuster track record in launching drama hits hasn’t been matched on the half-hour front, finally achieved a comedy breakthrough this season with “Samantha Who?” Slotted behind “Dancing With the Stars” on Mondays, the Christina Applegate vehicle clicked with ABC’s target audience, averaging a nice 3.9/9.

“It’s a comedy that was right in our wheelhouse, a strong female-centered show,” said ABC’s Mr. Bader.

Reality (Still) Rocks

The writers strike forced networks to rely on unscripted shows in a big way for much of the season. Some reality producers had worried the glut of unscripted would damage the genre, but if anything, the last season only proved how much of a cornerstone reality programming has become for the networks.

Not surprisingly, Fox—led by Mike Darnell, president of alternative programming—had the season’s splashiest unscripted hit with “Moment of Truth,” the train-wreck game show in which contestants reveal dark secrets in order to win cash. Its success proved reality’s Dark Prince still had his mojo, as did the successful “Hell’s Kitchen” spinoff “Kitchen Nightmares.”

But while Mr. Darnell once again stole the headlines, the folks at ABC’s reality division had reason to be happy, too.

“Dancing with the Stars,” despite some ratings declines, remains one of the Alphabet’s anchors, as does “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” on Sundays. ABC also has a strong bench of quiet utility players, including “Wife Swap,” “Supernanny” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”

“Reality is an incredibly important part of our mix,” Mr. Bader said. “Those shows were down much less than our big scripted shows. They’re very reliable.”

Not every network fared as well with the genre.

NBC thought it had a hit on its hands with “American Gladiators,” which premiered to nearly 12 million total viewers during its first late-winter run. But returning for a second season in the middle of the May sweeps turned out to be a big mistake: More than half the show’s audience has abandoned it.

A Bad Year for Freshmen

While ABC had a good fall, the other networks got a chilly reception for most of their new shows last season.

CBS had a tough time convincing viewers to check out its much-hyped class of dramas, which veered away from the network’s time-tested procedural formula. By May, the network had decided to pull the plug on all of them, even those such as “Moonlight,” which attracted a rabid (but tiny) fan base.

“We talked about trying some things and pushing the envelope,” Mr. Kahl said. “Maybe in retrospect we pushed a little too far.”

Fox, meanwhile, may have played it too safe. The once-rebellious network struck out with conventional fall fare such as the cop drama “K-Ville” and the why-is-this-not-on-CBS comedy “Back to You.” And while midseason hour “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” did well enough to merit a second season—a huge premiere gave it a 4.5/11 season average—courtroom drama “Canterbury’s Law” and cult-ish crime show “New Amsterdam” barely registered.

Over at NBC, “Chuck” did OK, but the very expensive “Bionic Woman” malfunctioned badly. Sci-fi romance “Journeyman” quickly fizzled. Procedural drama “Life” didn’t do all that well, either—its 3.0/8 landed it at No. 66 for the season—but NBC executives believed in the show enough to give it a second shot.

And Then There’s the CW

While “Gossip Girl” ended up fine, viewers might not even remember the network premiered shows called “Life Is Wild,” “CW Now” or “Online Nation.” All struck out in a big way.

“Reaper” had more of an impact, but not much. Nonetheless, CW executives decided to bring the show back for a midseason run next year.