The broadcast networks are in an unusually grim midseason slump.
During the past three months, networks have premiered 11 freshman shows that, by and large, have failed to connect with viewers. From CBS’s “Armed & Famous” to ABC’s “In Case of Emergency,” the broadcast networks have thrown nearly a dozen new shows against the wall, only to watch them all slowly (in some cases, quickly) slide down the Nielsen charts.
The midseason massacre has left ABC, NBC and CBS more vulnerable to Fox, whose “American Idol” power now makes Tuesday and Wednesday tough nights to launch new programs.
How badly the midseason shows have failed this season is of particular concern for the networks, which could use good ratings news to court advertisers being seduced to spend more money on new media such as the Internet. The networks also are heading into the annual upfront advertising selling season, which last spring favored buyers more than sellers.
Usually, at least a couple of shows pop midseason. Last season, for example, CBS’s drama “The Unit” and comedy “New Adventures of Old Christine” found a midseason audience and renewals. Two years ago, break-out drama “Grey’s Anatomy” debuted on ABC midseason, “Medium” took off on NBC and CBS successfully launched “Numb3rs.” So far, this year’s misses are worse than most of last season’s midseason flops. A year ago “Courting Alex” averaged a 4.1 rating among adults 18 to 49, according to Nielsen Media Research; “Four Kings” averaged a 3.5; and “Skating With Celebrities” clocked a 4.2-all significantly higher ratings than this year’s crop turned in.
“When you look at last year, at least the midseason shows were averaging better and some continued on,” said Rob Yarin, VP of programming at Frank N. Magid Associates. “This year’s midseason shows are not a good crop and they’re not registering with viewers.”
Media consultant Rusty Mintz suggested lack of traction could be attributed to the unusually high volume of serialized programs during the fall and midseason, which tend to have a narrow window to draw viewers. Though he cautioned it’s still too early to know if the lack of traction is “a blip or a trend.”
One key factor that could support either theory is that many replacement shows launched unusually early. Last season, most midseason shows debuted in January or later. But many fall 2006 shows stumbled out of the gate, and replacements were quickly called into play.
ABC has been the hardest hit this round, taking five replacement swings at bat-“Day Break,” “Big Day,” “Knights of Prosperity,” “In Case of Emergency” and “Show Me the Money.”
Though “Knights” and “Emergency” are still on the schedule, “Knights” averages only a 2.0 rating among adults 18 to 49; “Emergency” averages a 1.9.
ABC’s lack of midseason traction has resulted in a porous schedule for the network. ABC was top-ranked throughout the fall, but now regularly lands in fourth place on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday nights. NBC has fared best with midseason efforts. The network’s “Grease: You’re The One That I Want” keeps its head above water on Sunday nights (3.1) and “1 vs. 100” fills a slot on Fridays (2.9).
Still, both shows are trending downward, with “Grease” hitting a series low last week.
Mitch Metcalf, executive VP of program planning and scheduling at NBC, said the network’s biggest midseason push doesn’t begin until March, when detective drama “Raines” and crime saga “The Black Donnellys” premiere.
“Our midseason shows are really yet to come,” he said. “We choose to premiere our reality shows in January, we needed to get Sunday night going after football, and `Grease’ has improved the time period for us.”
As for Fox, network executives effectively consider the start of the season in January, rather than fall, when Fox carries playoff baseball. Their midseason doesn’t begin until March or so.
Lots of Reasons
Experts gave a varied list of reasons why so many new shows are failing to connect: The quality of the programs, the amount of serialized content (even comedies “Knights” and “Big Day” have a serialized component), the difficult comedy and reality market, and the overwhelming number of options that already developed a committed audience. “Part of it is also that ratings for most TV shows have been down,” added Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media. “A lot of shows are having a hard time fulfilling what their time periods were doing a year ago.”
Midseason shows are traditionally second-string efforts, shows of lesser quality than the fall contenders, but they do have some advantages: Networks have a better idea of which time slots will be competitive during the midseason and can more effectively position shows. Also, there are fewer new titles competing for viewers’ attention all at once.
As for the May upfronts, one expert said the fates of midseason shows should have little impact.
“Upfront is like the first day of baseball season,” said Jack MacKenzie, executive VP at Frank N. Magid Associates, “everyone has a chance to win the pennant.”