Nellie Andreeva

As broadcast network executives were leaving for their holiday destinations last week, most of them were certainly glad to get away, and not only because of  the dreary wet Los Angeles weather. The broadcast networks had little to cheer about this fall, which failed to produce breakout hits of the size of Modern Family or Glee a year ago. This year, the breakout hits were all on cable: The Walking Dead on AMC and Rizzoli & Isles on TNT, which ranked as the top basic cable series of 2010 among adults 18-49 and total viewers, respectively. The biggest new reality hit was also on cable, MTV’s Jersey Shore, which launched at the very end of 2009. Here are some notes on the fall season, evaluation of the performance of the individual networks and a look ahead at midseason.

- The biggest thing on TV this season has been football, which set ratings records for NBC and ESPN. It dwarfed the entertainment competition not only in live viewing but also in Live+7 where scripted series gain a significant chunk of their viewership.

- It’s nearly impossible to launch a new series at 8 PM. Two of the 3 new 8 PM series, NBC’s Undercovers and ABC’s My Generation, are history, while ABC’s No Ordinary Family was on a ratings decline until moving to 9 PM where its numbers stabilized. NBC’s new reality series School Pride barely registered in the Friday 8 PM slot, raising concern over CBS’ plan to launch new drama Chaos in the slot in midseason.

- Big-name producers don’t guarantee success unless the name is Chuck Lorre. While the Lorre-produced new CBS sitcom Mike & Molly is the highest-rated new series this fall in the 18-49 demo, J.J. Abrams’ Undercovers went bust as did the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced ABC legal drama The Whole Truth, while another Bruckheimer series, Chase, is fading. The jury is still out on Dick Wolf’s Law & Order spinoff Law & Order: Los Angeles, which has had so-so ratings so far. Next up are Shonda Rhimes with ABC’s Off the Map and David E. Kelley with NBC’s Harry’s Law.

- Texas proved the unluckiest setting for new series. Of the four freshman series set and filmed in the Lone Star state, My Generation, Lone Star, The Good Guys and Chase, 3 have been already been canceled and one, Chase, is struggling.

The networks (all ratings are season-to-Dec. 19):

Total viewers           18-49

8.2 million  +4%      2.8/8 n.c.

The good: Football. The red-hot Sunday Night Football (21.1 million, 8.0 rating in 18-49) is up 12% in viewers and 10% in 18-49. And the limited holiday reality series The Sing-Off did well.

The bad: Everything else. SNF is the only NBC series in positive territory year-to-year and the main reason for the network  to be on par with last fall’s performance deflated by five nights of The Jay Leno Show at 10 PM. Leading the declines among returning series is veteran reality series The Biggest Loser, (8.2 million, down 21%; 3.1 in 18-49, down 24%). The network’s new series also sputtered: Outlaw and Undercovers have been canceled, while Chase, The Event and Outsourced are middling.

Total viewers           18-49

7.8 million  -15%     2.8/8 -18%

The good: Glee. The musical dramedy is soaring in its second season to become Fox’s highest-rated series (12.5 million, +41%, 5.3, +29%)

The Bad: Like NBC, besides Glee, all other returning Fox series are down, led by former flagship drama House, which has taken a dive (10.5 million, -33%, 4.1 in 18-49, -35%). Fox was also hurt by a shorter, Yankee-less World Series as well as lackluster freshman class, which produced two cancellations, Lone Star – the first new series this fall to get the axe – and Running Wilde, as well as one series that has shown some potential, the modestly rated comedy Raising Hope.

Total viewers           18-49

9.3 million -4%        2.7/7 -7%

The good: Like Glee, ABC’s sophomore comedy Modern Family (13.2, +34%; 5.3, +36%) is flying high in Season 2. And so is another sophomore series that gets far less attention than Modern Family or Glee, ABC’s The Middle (9 million, 2.8),  which is up a whopping 26% (in viewers) and 22% (in 18-49) despite airing in an earlier time slot, 8 PM, vs. 8:30 PM last fall. Also hot is ABC’s reality veteran Dancing with the Stars, up double digits with a very well-cast cycle, helping crime dramedy Castle to post double-digit gains.

The bad: Of the network’s new series, two, My Generation and The Whole Truth, have already been canceled, with Detroit 1-8-7 also on thin ice. The other two freshmen, No Ordinary Family and Better with You, are only modest performers for now. The network’s Dancing with the Stars spinoff Skating with the Stars, was a flop. And, except for Dancing, the network’s veteran series are all down by double-digits, led by Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (8.4 million,-22%; 2.3 in 18-49, -30%) and Desperate Housewives (13.1 million, -17%; 4.4, -20%)

Total viewers           18-49

12.3 million +3%     3.2/9 n.c.

The good: The network has been the biggest ratings winner this fall with the strongest freshman class among the major broadcast networks led by Mike & Molly, Blue Bloods and Hawaii Five-0. CBS’ bold scheduling move on Thursday has paid off, with The Big Bang Theory establishing itself as the new top-rated series on Thursday, and Survivor keeping its Thursday ratings levels in its shift to Wednesdays 8PM, dramatically improving that time slot.

The bad: Two of CBS’ freshman series, $#*! My Dad Says and The Defenders, have been underperforming and are getting an early first-season exit with shorter orders. The network’s two other scheduling moves, of CSI: NY to Fridays and CSI: Miami to Sundays, may have shortened prematurely the life span of the veteran procedurals with big audience erosion due to the time-slot changes. Overall, the declines among returning series at CBS are more modest than those at other networks, with The Mentalist‘s (16 million, 3.5) 15% drop in the demo probably the most alarming.

Questions for midseason:

- Can comedy work at 10 PM? After the hour had been dominated by dramas and newsmagazines for decades, two networks, NBC and ABC, are launching 10 PM comedy blocks in midseason. Comedies at 10 PM have been a staple on cable, so why not also on broadcast TV? But then, dramas have struggled mightily at 10 PM on the broadcast networks while thriving on cable.

- It is a big year for the queen of daytime and the king of reality TV who are both embarking on new ventures. Will they be able to replicate their success? Will Oprah Winfrey’s cable network OWN work? Will Simon Cowell’s X Factor be as big as the show that made him a star in the U.S., American Idol?

- Will American Idol work without Simon? And will it lead to a sea change on Thursdays where it will air for the first time this season?

- How many singing reality series can the broadcast nets sustain? In the U.K., X Factor pushed out Pop Idol and alternates with Britain’s Got Talent. Here in America, in 2011 we will have American Idol, X Factor, America’s Got Talent and The Voice. What’s more, The Voice, NBC’s recently announced singing competition from Mark Burnett and John de Mol, will go head-to-head with Idol.

- What choices will Robert Greenblatt and Paul Lee make in their first pilot seasons at NBC and ABC, respectively?

TV Editor Nellie Andreeva - tip her here.

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