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TV networks at midseason: a need for hit shows

Except for No. 1 CBS and its CW cousin, there hasn't been much to crow about. They'll be talking about new shows at the Television Critics Assn. tour.

January 10, 2011|By Scott Collins, Los Angeles Times

What kind of season has it been for the broadcast networks?

Well, ABC and Fox are in viewership slumps after most of their new shows misfired. And with TV reporters gathering this week in Pasadena for their biannual industry junket, NBC and CW aren't even bothering with the usual executive question-and-answer sessions.

"This is the first time we haven't had a major broadcast network holding an executive session," Susan Young, president of the Television Critics Assn., said of the NBC absence.

At least NBC has a reasonably good excuse. The network is on the verge of being officially acquired by cable giant Comcast, and executives can't really say much until the new team arrives. As for CW, a mini-network associated with CBS, it hasn't scheduled a winter TCA session with its entertainment president, Dawn Ostroff — reportedly leaving — in four years, a spokesman said. (The irony is that on the strength of teen soaps such as "Gossip Girl" and "90210," CW is having one of its best seasons in years.)

The past few months haven't given the long-suffering NBC much to talk about anyway: The dramas "Undercovers" and "Outlaw" have already been sacked, and "The Event" fizzled after a strong start. NFL games have been the only real bright spots, and those came screeching to a halt this month (the rest of the postseason games will air on CBS and Fox).

But to be fair, once you get past No. 1 CBS and its CW cousin, none of the networks has much to crow about. Fox suffered one of the most brutal series failures in recent years with "Lone Star," a heavily hyped drama about a con man that was axed after two episodes. After striking comedy gold last year with "Modern Family," ABC — which kicks off the broadcast portion of the TV press tour Monday — has likewise run into a dry spell, with "Dancing With the Stars" largely keeping the network afloat.

"The new season has been somewhat disappointing, so I think it's important the networks can get some midseason hits," said Brad Adgate, a TV analyst for ad firm Horizon Media in New York.

Clearly the best-positioned network is top-ranked CBS, which is up 2% in prime-time viewers through Jan. 2 and found the No. 1 new drama in its "Hawaii Five-0" remake. It has the breathing room to make a few big and potentially risky scheduling moves. Chief among them: A bid to expand the audience for the Tom Selleck cop drama "Blue Bloods" by temporarily upgrading it from Fridays to Wednesdays.

At the press tour, the network will host panels for two midseason entries — the espionage caper "Chaos" and the romantic sitcom "Mad Love" — as well as a session for last season's courtroom breakthrough "The Good Wife." In the years ahead, CBS will need all the help it can get with one-hour series, as the "CSI" franchise that has carried for most of the past decade continues to erode.

ABC's situation is somewhat confounding. The network is down just 4% in viewers, which sounds not so alarming. But most of its strength is because of "DWTS" and the attendant controversy over Bristol Palin, who made it to the finals last fall to the delight of some viewers and the outrage of others.

The real core of ABC's female-skewing schedule — once-edgy but now-aging scripted dramas such as " Desperate Housewives," "Brothers & Sisters" and "Grey's Anatomy" — has withered this year. What's more, the network is trying to right itself internally after longtime entertainment chief Steve McPherson was replaced last year by Paul Lee, the former ABC Family czar.

"The network needs some midseason success," Steve Sternberg, a veteran industry analyst, said with some understatement. At the press tour, ABC's big promotional push will be for "Off the Map," a new medical drama from "Grey's" creator Shonda Rhimes about young doctors in South America.

After its bruising fall, Fox is essentially starting over in midseason. To those living in caves for the past year: "American Idol" will return Jan. 19 with two new judges (Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez) and a renewed emphasis on the young contestants. The network will also host TCA panels on the crime drama "The Chicago Code," the animated comedy "Bob's Burgers" and — even though it's not due to appear until the fall — the sci-fi epic "Terra Nova." Apparently at Fox, the future can't come quickly enough.

That leaves NBC, which pre-merger finds itself in what has become an accustomed mess. Analysts find few reasons to be optimistic about its midseason chances.

This winter, "More than half of the network's non-Saturday schedule hours will be filled by reality and 'Dateline,'" Sternberg said. "Only Monday and Thursday will have all-scripted programming." Another sign that the network is steering away from costly one-hour dramas: an all-comedy Thursday.

But the network isn't ready to give Jay Leno another whirl in prime time just yet. Its press tour sessions will include a big push for "The Cape," a comic-book drama in the old "Heroes" Monday time slot that seems like nothing so much as a wistful bid for that show's glory days.

And if that doesn't work? Well, by the time the next press tour rolls around this summer, NBC executives will hopefully have figured out what they want to say.

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