Fox's Terra Nova barges into a very tight race this fall.
Fox's Terra Nova barges into a very tight race this fall.
While the world of cable gets more creative, it's still the job of the four and a half major broadcast networks (NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, and the CW — which has yet to become consistently competitive with the other four) to try to find mainstream hits. And those hits are getting harder and harder to find and to maintain once you have them.
In the fall, everybody throws a bunch of stuff at the wall, hoping that just a small amount of it will stick. Remember — the vast majority of the new shows will fail, unless history is an incredibly incompetent guide to the future. And one thing that can help or hurt a new show is where it lands in the schedule, both because some days (Monday) just tend to do better than other days (Friday) and because the competition is much fiercer in some slots than others. So here are five of the scheduling battles we'll be watching in the fall.
Manic Monday. Contrary to the way networks and journalists sometimes talk, it's certainly possible for more than one network to be strong in a particular chunk of the schedule. Look at Monday nights, where the juggernaut Dancing With The Stars on ABC hasn't stopped CBS from developing a highly successful night of comedies, anchored by How I Met Your Mother and the newly Sheen-less Two And A Half Men. That night will be joined this season by 2 Broke Girls, a perky-girl comedy starring Kat Dennings that CBS is very excited about. Men will get some early gawkers for sure as it moves on without its star, but how long they'll stick around is very difficult to predict.
But even given that already crowded field, Fox is trying to stomp into this same night with its highly touted, much-delayed hour of dinosaur-adjacent adventure, Terra Nova. Meanwhile, NBC has expanded its a cappella competition The Sing-Off, which has performed well as a limited-run series around the holidays, to a full fall season. That season will air Monday nights, right up against Dancing With The Stars. This wouldn't seem to bode well for Sing, given that it doubtless shares a significant chunk of its audience with the similarly goofy but well-intentioned Dancing.
Dancing, singing, Ashton Kutcher and dinosaurs not enough for you? Monday is also the gaping maw into which the CW is flinging one of its few new offerings, Hart Of Dixie, starring Rachel Bilson as a doctor who moves to a small southern town in a pilot that sounds suspiciously reminiscent of the Michael J. Fox film Doc Hollywood. Bilson's best hope is probably a move to another slot. (Well, that and convincing people she can play a doctor.)
Zooey D. versus SMG. Tuesday is a bit of a soft night in television; NBC's The Biggest Loser has been around for a while now, and the bloom seems to be off the Glee rose a little bit these days, and CBS has moved The Good Wife to Sundays. But the most interesting story is at 9:00 p.m., where Zooey Deschanel (of 500 Days Of Summer) stars in New Girl, the perky-girl comedy that Fox is really excited about. Deschanel has her devotees (hint: many of them are male TV critics), and the pilot is better than a lot of the new fall comedy offerings, but there's an interesting obstacle in the way.
Sarah Michelle Gellar is returning to television in Ringer, an identical-twin thriller that originally was developed at CBS but was given to the CW when CBS passed. There's still a lot of Buffy love out there, and the CW is perhaps betting that somewhere between Vampire Diaries and Gossip Girl lies a show with both mystery elements and soapy elements that's just right for their audience.
NBC's [probably doomed] Wednesday night comedies. Just about the only thing NBC has going for it these days that airs in prime time is its Thursday night comedy block, which, while not a ratings powerhouse, is beloved and wins awards. With 30 Rock off for a while because of Tina Fey's pregnancy, the network had a perfect opportunity to slot the Christina Applegate-Will Arnett-Maya Rudolph single-camera comedy Up All Night in with Community, Parks and Recreation, and The Office. It would make all the sense in the world. So they didn't do it, of course.
Instead, they added the awful, laugh-tracked (or audience-goosed), multicamera Whitney, an unfunny show that manages to seem both tasteless and horribly dated. It feels like a rejected NBC comedy from about 1994, and it will now be the dud of the night just like Outsourced was last fall — and just like Suddenly Susan and Veronica's Closet and The Single Guy and Boston Common were in the old days of NBC Thursday comedy.
Arnett and Applegate have been exiled to a new effort to expand NBC comedy into Wednesdays — an effort that will pair it with the not-bad, wait-and-see Free Agents (starring Hank Azaria). This new comedy hour will go up against not only ABC's much better established Wednesday comedy tradition (specifically against The Middle and the solid new Suburgatory), but also Survivor and the new and heavily promoted singing competition, The X Factor.
Up All Night is a monumentally better show than Whitney, and it's infinitely more tonally consistent with the rest of NBC Thursday, and it's the one that's been sent off to be chewed up by competitors. Shame. Here's hoping Whitney flames out fast and the promising Up All Night gets a better spot.
It's lucky to be A Gifted Man. If I had to pick a show with the easiest path to becoming a modest but durable hit, I would pick A Gifted Man, CBS's gauzy drama about a prickly doctor who begins to be visited by the ghost of his ex-wife. It's a perfect fit for Friday nights for the CBS audience that liked The Ghost Whisperer, and it has a good cast: the able Patrick Wilson, the (no pun intended) gifted Jennifer Ehle as the wife, and even Margo Martindale as the wisecracking assistant, now that she's finished with her devastating turn on Justified.
Extreme Makeover: Home Edition will air on Fridays this fall, but other than that, the competition is really limited, and expectations are relatively low. Fridays at 8:00 is where NBC is putting the final season of Chuck, a show that's unlikely to create a huge problem, and Fox runs Kitchen Nightmares. Really, if it can overcome the general malaise of being on Friday nights, A Gifted Man has a pretty plum spot in which to become nothing particularly special and run for six or seven seasons anyway.
New stuff on Saturday? CBS was feeling its oats a little in terms of its available programming when it set the fall schedule. How can you tell? They're going to run new episodes of a scripted show, Rules Of Engagement, on Saturday nights. Saturday! That is literally the only scripted show a broadcast network will air on Saturdays this fall — and it's a change from the developing practice of assuming nothing can succeed in that slop pit of Saturday. Rules, which will be in its sixth season, has always been one of those solid performers that nobody talks much about. (It's the buzz flip side of some of the CW's shows, which get plenty of attention on Twitter but tiny ratings.)
It's surprising to link CBS or Saturday or Rules Of Engagement to experimentation, but if the network finds that it can bring in an audience, perhaps regular programming will return to Saturdays.