Like NBC, ABC has been perpetually mired in the bottom half of the network rankings in the 18-49 demographic, unable to rise up above CBS or Fox even when all of its big hits were fresh and new around five years ago. Unlike NBC, however, ABC consistently acts as if everything is going hunky-dory, and for the most part, TV reporters are content to report this. After all, the network only fell to fourth place this year, after many years in third, and it only fell to fourth because NBC had the Super Bowl, an asset the network can’t boast next season. (The Olympics, which will boost NBC’s summer fortunes, fall outside the auspices of the usual TV season.) In all likelihood, ABC will rise to third again (unless America abruptly rediscovers its love for Matthew Perry and monkeys), but it won’t challenge for second or first. And that’s okay. That’s where ABC thrives.
Yet ABC acts like it’s in first, or at least second. And why wouldn’t it? It has a huge number of hits, both actual—Modern Family, Grey’s Anatomy—and theoretical—Revenge, which has average ratings but makes lots of magazine covers. If you just looked at its schedule, based on the level of media coverage and Internet excitement its shows have, you’d probably assume it was doing much better than it is. And, indeed, the ABC schedule lacks real holes. It’s smartly put together, and the decision to swap new comedy The Neighbors with very funny sophomore show Suburgatory, so the latter follows the Modern Family juggernaut, removes one of the real question marks for the network. The network grew more than any other in the 10 p.m. hour, and it returned six new shows from last season to the air. ABC is a third-place network that both looks and acts like a first-place network, and if this were 1999, it probably would be.
But it’s not 1999. The younger demographics watch less and less broadcast TV, and that leaves the network in a place where it’s entire lineup could be sunk because the cast of its biggest show wants more money.
Unfortunately, the Modern Family situation is currently in the middle of presumably delicate negotiations. It will eventually be worked out—these things always are—but it also leaves ABC president Paul Lee with essentially nothing to do but say he’s “optimistic” about the situation, over and over and over again, to the point where he seized on a non-Modern Family question at Friday morning’s Television Critics Association press tour executive session to disquisition for several minutes about his history working in Brazilian soap operas. (Among other things, he lost 60 extras in a slum in Rio—he cracked they might still be there—then took that experience back to his native United Kingdom to work on Triangle, which is still apparently voted the worst soap in British history.)
To be sure, there was little Lee could say. The negotiations are ongoing and being conducted in secret. If any information leaks, it will come decades from now, in somebody’s tell-all book, and by then, nobody will really care. Though the Modern Family negotiations have been the story in the TV news world this past week, the real struggle is between the cast of the show and 20th Century Fox Television, the studio that produces the program. ABC has a say in the process, but its level of clout is considerably less than the studio, which actually signs the checks.
If Fox decided abruptly to give everybody in the cast $5 million per episode, it wouldn’t affect ABC all that much at present. The licensing fee the network pays for the show won’t go up dramatically, until the contract the studio signed with the network is up and other networks can bid on it. (And even then, giant hits have never switched networks because everybody involved is worried such a move would—understandably—kill the show, though this may shift in the DVR era.) The only way the negotiations would affect ABC would be if they fall apart, and Fox pulls a Dukes Of Hazzard, replacing all of the actors with new ones. (Go and watch that clip. It is glorious.) That, almost certainly, would kill both the show and the network airing it. But it won’t happen, so even if Lee has a contingency plan, he’s fine just saying he’s “optimistic.”
Actually, Lee was “optimistic” about everything. He said the word “love” so often, it was a wonder he avoided quoting Anchorman and saying he loved lamp. When he left The Neighbors out of an opening spiel about how the network had a “pretty good year!” (which, again, was a fourth-place year) and how its new shows would continue that streak, there was some thought that it reflected the network’s shifting feelings about the critically beleaguered show, which is about people moving into a planned community of aliens. (No, really.) When pressed on this point, Lee said, “I should have mentioned Neighbors because it's very important to me. I love Neighbors.” Because Lee loves everything! It’s all just the best, and nothing could ever go wrong! (This is also the man who talked about how much he loved Work It back in the day.) And while Lee has a point that the very broad Neighbors makes more sense at 8:30, where kids could find it, it’s still a bad show that’s inexplicably on a network schedule. This was the best ABC’s comedy development had to offer?
Lee was also high on all of the network’s new dramas, though he had reason to be. Nashville and Last Resort are among the season’s best new pilots, and 666 Park Avenue has some issues but is fun trash at its best points. Even as the comedy development this season seems boring and reductive, the network is following up on the success of Once Upon A Time and Revenge from last season with other dramas that take chances and do interesting things. Lee described his process as looking for interesting stories, rather than traditional formulas, and while that occasionally leads the network to put series on the air that make absolutely no sense as TV series (as, arguably, Last Resort could prove to be), it also means that the network is the most likely to come up with something fantastic (or at least something that grabs a devoted audience) out of the blue.
Yet Lee’s general pluck and vinegar will probably reflect the network’s fortunes (so long as Modern Family comes together), simply because the network’s got a long list of good performers, many of which are young shows. In addition, the flagging Dancing With The Stars should be boosted by an all-star season, which will include popular former contestants like Pamela Anderson, Bristol Palin, and Emmitt Smith. (Many of the contestants announced are mostly famous for being on Dancing With The Stars, but that’s presumably what the audience for the show wants.)So long as Revenge can shore up the old Desperate Housewives timeslot, everything will be just fine, though it won’t be spectacular. Though ABC introduces a boatload of new shows every year, it projects a stronger image than NBC does because Lee and his team create a sense of stability, even where one doesn’t exist. And that plays into the basic TV journalist idea that broadcast networks are the most important story in the TV universe and that this will never change, even though it already is. ABC may be the number one network of our theoretical 1999, but at least it’s going to be the number one network of that alternate universe in perpetuity.