NBC Edges Out Rivals In Fall TV Ratings

It seems almost miraculous: after nine years at the bottom of the broadcast ratings pile, NBC won this fall season. But this silver lining has a huge cloud, says Eric Deggans, who is the TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning.

This season, NBC has been the Cinderella story of network television. It was surfing at the bottom of the network ratings for years, but this fall, NBC came out on top. TV critic Eric Deggans explains why.

ERIC DEGGANS: NBC was once the punchline of every other joke in network television. Formerly the home of Must-See TV, it was reduced to airing series about Playboy and Chelsea Handler while lagging in last place. And then this happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE VOICE")

CARSON DALY: Welcome to "The Voice." I'm Carson Daly.

DEGGANS: "The Voice" was already a hit last spring. So the suits at NBC got the bright idea to slap the show on this fall, too. Frankly, I thought they might kill off the series by airing it too much. But it worked.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing) You stupid boy. Oh, you've always got to be right.

DEGGANS: But NBC's biggest hit is a different kind of unscripted contest: Sunday Night Football.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL THEME SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Touchdown.

FAITH HILL: (Singing) Sunday night football on NBC.

DEGGANS: Together, "The Voice" and "Sunday Night Football" vaulted NBC from worst to first in ratings that matter, viewers aged 18 to 49. These are the people advertisers pay to reach with commercials for soft drinks and tennis shoes.

But there's a cloud in that silver lining. Neither the "The Voice" nor football is what network TV used to be known for - quality scripted programming. Instead, when the 18 to 49 crowd made a hit out of a quality drama, they went to cable television.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WALKING DEAD")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Get up, right now. There are walkers outside.

DEGGANS: But this fall, "The Walking Dead" drew more 18 to 49 viewers than many other fall shows on cable and broadcast. AMC's zombie drama, "The Walking Dead" is a bloody, explicit series that broke all the rules of television. Forget about bonding with characters over a long time. On "The Walking Dead," key characters can die at a moment's notice. And the idea that TV heroes should be likeable? On this show, hero Rick Grimes killed a man in cold blood.

Conventional wisdom says TV shows which break these rules can't draw huge audiences. It's the excuse network TV executives often use for why cable shows, especially dramas, seem so much more groundbreaking.

This past fall, network TV didn't really have a scripted breakout hit. But they still have a chance to set things right and avoid becoming a repository for reality TV competitions and sports. That's because of shows like movie star Kevin Bacon's new serial killer drama for Fox.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE FOLLOWING")

KEVIN BACON: (as Ryan Hardy) We have to get to Sarah Fuller.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: What did she tell you?

BACON: (as Ryan Hardy) Carroll's going to make a move. He wants to finish what he started. That would be Sarah.

DEGGANS: "The Following," debuting in early 2013, promises a higher level of television than the next CSI spinoff. And there's more sophisticated shows coming, like the CW's "Sex and the City" prequel and "Deception," the crime-drama-meets-soap-opera on NBC. "The Voice" has already proven one hit can turn around a whole network. Now, it's time for broadcasters to find that one new scripted hit which can turn around their future.

GREENE: That's Eric Deggans. He's TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times.

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