Next Monday through Thursday, the five broadcast networks will present their fall schedules. (Univision presents Tuesday, and several cable networks will present over the next few days as well.) This is traditionally the biggest, most exciting moment in the TV industry, when advertisers are ready to pony up the big bucks and take chances on the new merchandise. But since network TV is dying and all, this is a year of great uncertainty. Things could improve, but more likely than not, they’ll get worse. This fall could determine the fates of lots of executives—and maybe even a TV network or two. With that in mind, here are 12 questions about the networks’ fall schedules. (For data, I’m relying on the wonderful ratings repository Spotted Ratings, which is the single best ratings site on the ’net.)
1. Is NBC going to abandon Thursday-night comedy entirely?
NBC has been beleaguered in recent years, but The Voice is providing it some leverage at present, while Wednesdays don’t set the world on fire but are at least stable. So far NBC has only renewed Parks And Recreation out of its current Thursday-night lineup. (Community and Go On, which both aired on Thursdays this season, are still waiting to hear.) With the relative paucity of new comedies the network has picked up, this might suggest that NBC could have interest in tearing apart its traditional Thursday-night two-hour comedy block, which stretches back to the ’80s. Normally, I’d predict that this block would disappear, but NBC also has the closest thing to a self-starter comedy pilot: the new Michael J. Fox project. The pilot should draw a large audience, and if it’s any good (early buzz indicates it is), many of those viewers could stick around. Will NBC use that show to open up Thursdays and hope for a Cosby Show-like rejuvenation? It’s possible, but the network doesn’t really have the tools to prop it up. Cosby had Family Ties, Cheers, and Night Court, all low-rated shows, but at least ones that were young and slightly known quantities. At worst, Fox would have to be paired with the older Parks and two new shows. The only real candidate for “young, overlooked” show on NBC’s potential slate is Go On, and the audience has already sampled and largely abandoned that series, a nearly impossible problem to overcome. So I’ll bet that NBC blows up comedy Thursdays, then puts Michael J. Fox on after The Voice.
2. How much will Fox cut back The X Factor and American Idol?
Both singing shows have seen huge ratings slumps—to go along with a larger overall slump in reality performance shows that’s mostly been disguised by the rise of The Voice. And where Fox picked up only five new shows last season, it picked up nine this time around, something that will only work if it’s planning on cutting back at least one night of each singing show—if not both. X Factor, in particular, could easily be shrunk, and I wouldn’t be surprised if its performance show is slimmed to an hour and its results show to a half-hour, making room for a new drama and a new comedy that will have at least a slightly successful lead-in. If it works, then the more successful Idol could be shrunk as well.
3. Might CBS and ABC get out of the Sunday drama business?
The rise of cable hits like The Walking Dead and Game Of Thrones, to say nothing of PBS’ Downton Abbey, has underscored a problem for CBS and ABC, which both bet big on moving quality dramas to Sunday nights and largely fell apart in the face of said decision. CBS has an excuse to stick with its current 60 Minutes, Amazing Race, Good Wife, Mentalist lineup, simply because it allows the network to blunt the devastating effects of fall football overruns by not scheduling any important hits on Sunday. But The Good Wife, which once seemed like it might run for years, is mostly on the schedule because CBS likes having a critical hit. ABC’s problems are more significant, with both Once Upon A Time and Revenge plummeting in recent months. (In Revenge’s case, a weak second season is just as much to blame.) If either network is going to cry uncle, I’d bet on ABC. But both could make a case for abandoning the night to cheaper reality or multi-camera sitcoms, then moving their dramas to other nights when they might stabilize.
4. Will this be the season of multi-camera sitcoms?
TV critics like to come up with a “story” for every fall season. In 2004, Desperate Housewives and Lost spoke of the resurgence of ABC. In 2005, Everybody Hates Chris, My Name Is Earl, and How I Met Your Mother inspired talk about the return of comedy, a theme that returned as recently as 2009 with Modern Family and Community. This year could turn into the autumn of the multi-camera sitcom, if everything plays out just right. NBC’s new John Mulaney project and CBS’ Will Arnett vehicle (written by Greg Garcia and co-starring Margo Martindale and Beau Bridges) are both multi-camera, and the word out of pilot tapings suggests they might be the strongest multi-cams in years. Toss in Anna Faris—an actress known for garnering warm critical notices—in Mom, and we lazy hacks might spin this into a theme.
5. Has The CW abandoned reruns entirely?
The CW ridded itself of long-running shows Gossip Girl and 90210 and canceled insta-flop Emily Owens, M.D., but other than that, it picked up every other series in contention for next season, including the low-rated Carrie Diaries. Then it picked up five new dramas as well. And all this on a network that only programs 10 hours per week (and usually nine, since Friday nights are often signed over to reruns). The CW often behaves like the TV network that TV fans say they want—planned endings for its shows, more focus on online buzz than actual numbers—and it seems as if it might be trying to find a way to go with as few reruns as possible, programming new episodes straight through the season and maybe even into 2014. Is that even possible? We’ll find out next Thursday.
6. Where will ABC put Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.?
ABC’s got a great opportunity with its new Marvel-inspired, Joss Whedon-created series, a spinoff of The Avengers that will help fill in the backstory of the film studio’s so-called “Phase 2.” Since Monday Night Football left the network, it’s had a harder and harder time finding much-in-demand male viewers. This new project seems destined help in that area, and I’m hoping ABC builds out Tuesday nights—which are surprisingly weak—with the new show, rather than sticking it on Thursdays, where it will lead into Grey’s Anatomy, a show with which it seems highly incompatible.
7. How will CBS find room to expand its comedy offerings?
CBS has an embarrassment of riches, including what might be TV’s last mega-hit in The Big Bang Theory, a show that does gangbuster numbers at 8 p.m. but might perform even better at 9 p.m. The network has long been curious about expanding its Thursday-night comedy block by an hour, but it runs into the terrific performance of Person Of Interest at 9 p.m., which it probably shouldn’t ditch. Elementary at 10 is a bit softer, but the network clearly believes in it. The question becomes whether CBS will move either program—perhaps to Mondays at 10 or Sundays—in order to build that extra hour of comedy, or if it will turn some other timeslot over to more laughs. One intriguing possibility: making Survivor and The Amazing Race, both sagging, share a timeslot on Sundays. Who knows if this is what CBS will do, but it seems as if it would open up an hour of space and solve any number of problems the network has.
8. When will Scandal be ready to take over for Grey’s Anatomy?
Scandal came into its own in this season, and it finally solved a headache for ABC: What will it use to replace Grey’s Anatomy, the sole remaining powerhouse from that amazing 2004-’05 season? (Grey’s, by some measures, is still the top drama on TV, even nine years in, but Scandal has been nipping at its heels.) ABC is fond of big, bold moves, but I don’t think they’ll yet swap Scandal and Grey’s, choosing instead to make sure Scandal can maintain for another season. Still, the network really does need to have its Grey’s succession plan in place, so don’t be surprised if it happens anyway.
9. Glee: What the fuck?
Glee has been rapidly eroding in the ratings since its season-two height, and as season four drew to a close, it seemed as if Fox might ditch the expensive show entirely or give it a shortened fifth-season order to see how it worked in another timeslot. (Competing against Grey’s has only proved that Glee is ultimately no Grey’s in terms of being a ratings powerhouse.) Instead, Fox picked up the show for two more seasons, a move that stinks of overconfidence. The network might be planning to move it back to Tuesdays or even take a stab at using it to shore up one of the Monday slots until The Following returns at midseason, but the two-season renewal of Glee, at first blush, seems like a pretty stupid move.
10. What’s up with reality shows?
Outside of The Voice, nearly every other reality show is down significantly from last year. American Idol gets all the headlines, but ABC’s Dancing With The Stars, forced to compete directly with The Voice, is also in freefall, and Survivor opened this latest cycle so softly that some wags talked of cancellation. (It has since recovered.) All five networks had schedules built to accommodate particular reality hits at one time, and all five are now faced with how to manage the decline of these franchises, an entirely new question for TV executives to have to figure out. There are reality bright spots—The Bachelor and Shark Tank spring to mind—but none of them are on the level that the bigger shows were even a year ago. The Voice stands alone, and how the other reality shows manage their declines will say a lot about where CBS, ABC, and Fox stand in a few years.
11. How will NBC schedule its dramas?
NBC renewed five dramas last month—Parenthood, Grimm, Revolution, Law & Order: SVU, and Chicago Fire—but it only has so many post-Voice slots and only so many ways to use them. Parenthood, which did okay on its own, seems most likely to stay put on Tuesdays, but the other four seem like a complete toss-up. Revolution seemed like a hit of its own volition earlier in the season, but its spring numbers have crumbled significantly enough to suggest it could bomb when forced to stand on its own, as Smash did this year. But is it worth NBC using some of its valuable post-Voice real estate to keep the series propped up, when it might be able to turn Chicago Fire, which has grown into a reliable performer in a tough timeslot, into something even bigger? And then there’s Grimm, which is a great performer on Fridays and may deserve a chance elsewhere—not unlike how Fox turned The X-Files into a much bigger show on Sundays than it had ever been on Fridays almost 20 years ago. NBC’s long-term future may be most tied up in this question, and it’s probably what the network’s executives will be thinking about most thoroughly this weekend.
12. Will anyone convince advertisers to take DVR ratings seriously?
Advertisers aren’t completely averse to using so-called Live+3 or Live+7 numbers, but they clearly place a greater emphasis on viewers who watch within a few hours of air (and, ideally, live). This is why CBS’ shows seem to exist on another ratings planet entirely and why the network is able to coast along, seemingly free from care. Yet even CBS has made noise about trying to get advertisers to take DVR viewers more seriously as monetizable commodities. The problem, of course, is that so many DVR viewers use their DVRs to skip commercials, and that problem will never go away. (CBS is vociferously fighting Dish Network’s “Hopper,” which makes skipping commercials easier than ever.) If the networks are to survive this current collapse, they’ll need to make more and more money off viewers who watch TV later. It’s a tall order, but it’s the top priority of every network head, which suggests that it will become a reality, at least in part, and maybe even as soon as this fall.