"Brothers & Sisters," starring Calista Flockhart, is… (Randy Holmes, ABC )
As TV executives huddle in screening rooms the next few days, watching pilots for proposed fall series, they're having to adjust to a couple of big surprises.
Not long ago few would have predicted that "American Idol" would still be TV's No. 1 show, even without Simon Cowell. And even fewer would have guessed that the most-watched comedy, "Two and a Half Men," would be facing life without Charlie Sheen.
In fact, it's been a rough year for broadcasters all around. The major networks got pummeled by critics for a slate of uninspired new offerings last fall, which no doubt helps explain why each suffered notable ratings erosion this season. No. 4 NBC was hammered the worst, with double-digit declines in major categories, according to the Nielsen Co.
So executives are facing tough decisions about the futures of some onetime audience favorites that might be bulldozed to make way for new series. Among the long-running shows that are, in the industry's lingo, "on the bubble": ABC's family drama "Brothers & Sisters," NBC's perennially endangered comic caper "Chuck" and Fox's crime drama "Lie to Me." Their fates are likely to depend on how appealing the new pilots seem when executives watch them.
Other series, such as NBC's heavily publicized "The Event," ABC's superhero drama "No Ordinary Family" and CBS' "The Defenders," are considered near-certain bets for cancellation.
Despite its high ratings, "Two and a Half Men" should also be added to the "bubble" list, since Sheen was fired from the show amid a spectacular public meltdown and CBS and Warner Bros., the studio that makes the show, are scrambling to adapt the comedy without its big star. Most insiders consider it a foregone conclusion the show will return in some form, but the details have yet to be worked out.
"That's a decision they're going to have to make," Brad Adgate, an analyst at Horizon Media in New York, said of CBS. "If you don't have 'Two and a Half Men' on Monday night, what do you put there?"
Luckily for CBS executives, their network is the one perhaps best-positioned to handle such uncertainty heading into the "upfronts," the annual selling season that begins later this month, when networks present their fall schedules to advertisers in New York. CBS is the most-watched network by far, although it's also the oldest-skewing, with an average viewer age of 55. Tuesday night, for example, is rock-solid on CBS with the "NCIS" franchise, one of the most popular on TV.
Because it has the fewest holes in its lineup, CBS ordered just 16 drama and comedy pilots, compared with 22 for NBC and 24 for ABC. (Fox also ordered 16, but it programs just two hours on weeknights compared to three for its rivals.)
But the Sheen case has created a major strategic problem. This season the network moved its sitcom "The Big Bang Theory" to Thursdays, where it has helped the network establish a comedy base on that night for the first time in years. "We got the beachhead we wanted," said Kelly Kahl, CBS' scheduling chief.
If the network has to move ahead without "Two and a Half Men," executives might be forced to roll "Big Bang" back to Monday as well as delay a plan to try comedies on Wednesday. CBS officials have made it clear that they would not welcome such a retreat.
Another complication for CBS: The enduring strength of "Idol." Many observers expected Fox's singing contest to fall apart without the snarky presence of Cowell, the show's putative star, who left to develop "The X Factor" for Fox this fall.
But with new judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez, "Idol" has remained a ratings powerhouse, even after its regular pattern was shifted from Tuesday-Wednesday to Wednesday-Thursday. Indeed, Fox is poised again to win the ratings race among viewers ages 18 to 49 — the category most advertisers covet — by at least half a ratings point over its nearest challenger, CBS.
"We confounded everybody," said Preston Beckman, Fox's scheduling guru, who added that the strength of the show "was always about the kids" who compete and not necessarily the judges.
That doesn't mean Fox faces no challenges. The network served up one of this season's biggest flops, the drama "Lone Star," which was yanked after two airings. And Fox faces risky launches in the fall for "X Factor" and especially "Terra Nova," a costly sci-fi epic that is already generating rumors of production woes. Beckman characterized both premieres as top priorities for Fox. "X Factor" is considered a likely bet for Wednesday and Thursday this fall, the same slots occupied by "Idol."