7 Lessons We Learned from the 2012-2013 TV Season

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Although there are still few season finales left, we've officially reached the end of the 2012-2013 television season. Most of the big networks are done with their fall-to-spring programming, and now it's time for cable to take over with its diverse summer offerings. But before we get lost in summer classics like Breaking BadTrue Blood, and Wipeout, it's important to take stock of the last nine months! While the current tentpoles of the status quo held true (big ratings for The Voice and The Big Bang Theory, problems for NBC), we discovered some new things between September and May; here are the seven biggest lessons we learned.


1. Long-running reality competitions are losing their luster (finally!)


Sure, The Voice is the most popular unscripted show on the air right now and somehow, NBC running two cycles of it this season didn't end up impacting the singing competition's ratings much at all. However, the show is still relatively new and the charm of Adam Levine and Blake Shelton simply will not be denied. And SurvivorThe Amazing Race, and The Bachelor have kept on keeping on. Elsewhere though, big tentpole reality competition shows are cratering. American Idol's ratings and buzz have been so porous this season that the judges panel is getting a complete makeover, which especially hurts in the shadow of The Voice's triumphs. Fox is betting (perhaps naively) that another regime change at the table will bring viewers back in January, but with The Voice doing well and The X Factor continuing to exist and suck the last remaining life out of Simon Cowell, things don't good for Fox. 

Over at ABC, Dancing With the Stars finally reached low enough of a nadir that the network had no choice but to cut its stranglehold on Mondays and Tuesdays for 2013-2014. Come next season, DWTS will only air one day a week so that ABC can try to make up some of the ground on CBS on Tuesday nights. Meanwhile, thankfully, The Celebrity Apprentice faltered big time this spring for NBC. Maybe now the show is finally unprofitable enough that NBC will stop being in business with that awful creature Donald Trump. Hopefully.

While Apprentice might be on the way out, Idol and Dancing are not in true jeopardy of being canceled in the next few years, but both Fox and ABC have to be ready to overhaul their schedules sooner rather than later. 


2. Big names don't necessarily bring success

As the film industry continues to fracture, more recognizable "film stars" are making their way to television—and this season, lots of previously popular TV actors returned after realizing that the movies had nothing for them. But big names don't necessarily pull in viewers, especially when the various star vehicles aren't any good. While Kevin Bacon helped shepherd The Following to sizable success, Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis couldn't make Vegas work, Matthew Perry guided a third straight show (Studio 60Mr. Sunshine, and now Go On) to single-season status, and Jenna Elfman (and I guess Bill Pullman and Josh Gad) didn't boost 1600 Penn's chances. Meanwhile, the internet love for folks like Connie Britton, Hayden Panettiere (both on Nashville), and Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project) only barely translated to success for their respective shows. And perhaps the biggest name of them all, Britney Spears, had little to no impact on The X Factor's ratings after the first few weeks. In an era of such diverse, niche audiences, big stars mean very, very little. 


3. It's REALLY hard for the broadcast networks to create a new hit


We have now reached the "Broadcast Networks Are in Trouble" portion of the program. We know that the television business is a fickle mistress and that new shows rarely succeed. This season was sort of weird in that a healthy number of newbies survived and will return for a second season (by my count, we have 10 right now: NashvilleElementaryChicago FireThe NeighborsArrowBeauty and the BeastThe Carrie DiariesThe Following, Revolution, and The Mindy Project, with Hannibal as possible later addition), but many of them aren't particularly popular by any metric. Revolution started off hot and then people watched a few episodes and realized it wasn't the next big thing NBC wanted it to be. Elementary and Chicago Fire did fine considering their problematic 10pm timeslots (no one is watching live at this hour anymore, unless they're watching Scandal), and Arrow is a CW Hit, which means it's not really a hit at all. The NeighborsThe Mindy ProjectThe Carrie DiariesNashville, and Beauty and the Beast could have easily and justifiably been canceled. This leaves The Following as the likely sole true "hit" of the 2012-2013 freshmen class, and its extended delay of not returning until January (oh, and a crappy first season) might take a bite out of that success. A number of these shows are pretty good and sometimes even very good, but it is growing more difficult for them to capture big ratings or in many cases, big buzz. This is at least partially caused by...


4. Cable's growing domination is no longer just about Sunday or HBO

...this. Don't get it twisted, the broadcast networks are really struggling to make their original series work on Sunday nights. With HBO, AMC, Showtime, and even History and Sundance programming big event or prestige dramas on Sundays, the broadcasters are kind of screwed. NBC does big business in the fall thanks to football, but come January, they basically give up. Fox's comedies do okay, but both CBS and ABC program some of their more important programs in the Sunday-night slots, and this season ABC in particular took some hits. Ratings for Once Upon a Time dropped quite a bit, Revenge imploded on every level and both of the network's 10pm dramas (666 Park Avenue and Red Widow) were basically dead on arrival. At the same time, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead continued to break both their own and television-wide ratings records, while things like The Bible and Vikings took further chunks out of the network audience. 

But cable isn't just taking over Sundays. It seemed like every week, we were reading stories about a random cable show substantially topping the broadcast offerings in the important demographics. Duck Dynasty hysteria is in full swing, and shows on BET, Bravo, and A&E pretty regular garnered more than competitive ratings. Heck, reruns of The Big Bang Theory on TBS often perform better than new episodes of some of our favorite broadcast shows. Of course, this isn't a new development—but it IS more pronounced than ever. Cable is only going to continue to erode the broadcast audience. 


5. Certain timeslots are still pretty poisonous 

I wrote about this not too long ago, but the point is still an important one to reinforce. Problem areas like ABC Thursdays at 8pm, NBC Thursdays at 10pm, and CBS Tuesdays at 10pm continued to be problem areas this season. This year, the shows in those timeslots were much better than the what the networks had generally offered in recent years (Last ResortHannibalVegas, and Golden Boy are/were all solid), but the viewers weren't there. However, I also want to note that the post-Modern Family half-hour continued its very weird troubles, as nothing that aired behind it did especially well (How to Live With Your Parents for the Rest of Your Life is dead, and Suburgatory is now a midseason player). Late in the season, Fox tried to use American Idol to boost the ratings of its comedies (Raising HopeNew Girl, and The Mindy Project) and somehow, the shows did worse in that once-cushy timeslot than they did on their own on Tuesday nights. Furthermore, while The Voice helped Revolution and Go On in the fall, its long break ultimately damaged those show's spring ratings quite a bit. So it's not just the historically troubled timeslots that spell trouble; the time periods after popular shows are struggling as well. While we know that timeslots and lead-ins don't mean what they used to, these results are still kind of staggering. 


6. The CW can actually survive (and perhaps thrive) without high school

For years, The CW kept developing the same types of shows over and over again, and they were all about attractive, rich, white high school students with uninteresting problems. This season brought a development slate mostly full of shows about a concept previously foreign to The CW executives: adults. Emily Owens, M.D. and Cult certainly didn't work and Beauty and the Beast is a weird mess of a show, but hey, ArrowSmallville anchored the network for the first years of its existence and thankfully, head honcho Mark Pedowitz has realized that the network needs to recapture the viewers who watched it instead instead of going after the same young, female-focused stories. 

And for the most part, the move worked. Arrow gave The CW a new series to build around on Wednesday nights. The series was a big hit by The CW's standards, did relatively fine in the important demographics, and made a nice little two-hour block with SupernaturalBeauty and the Beast certainly isn't a hit by any means, but it also grew into a more confident and assured story as the season progressed. Meanwhile, the network purged itself of Gossip Girl and 90210, the last vestiges of its previous (and terrible) regime, and allowed Hart of Dixie and Nikita, two other adult programs, to do their things without any disruption or interruption. Cut to last week's Upfronts and the announcement of a new CW schedule that has little to do with high school (save for The Carrie Diaries and new show Star-Crossed), and that's built around new centerpieces (The OriginalsThe Tomorrow People, and The 100) that are more focused on adult themes (mostly with a supernatural or sci-fi twist). 

There's no guarantee that these new shows will be hits, but there's clearly an intent by The CW to make a change in direction and after a year or so, it seems like this is the correct path. The network is still all about the youngest, prettiest, whitest, and supernatural-est people on TV, but at least they're not all in high school anymore. 


7. It's hard out there for a sitcom, no matter its type

We entered this season with a number of substantial sitcom blocks: CBS aired comedies on Mondays (8pm to 10pm) and Thursdays 8pm to 9pm); ABC tested them on Tuesdays (9pm to 10pm), Wednesdays (8pm to 10pm), and Fridays (8pm to 9pm); Fox focused on Tuesdays (8pm to 10pm); and NBC tried them on Tuesdays (9pm to 10pm) and Wednesdays (8pm to 9pm) in addition to staple block on Thursdays (8pm to 10pm). That's an unbelievable amount of comedy, probably the largest amount since the mid-'90s boom. However, we—and the networks—discovered that when there are so many comedies going up against one another, there's no way all of them are going to survive. The stiff competition led to a number of struggles for even some of the more established shows, while a number of the newbies had no chance of a sophomore season. 

By my calculations, 32 comedies aired across those timeslots in 2012-2013 and 17 of them will not be back next year (though that includes The Office and 30 Rock, which might've returned if NBC had had its way). The three-way duel on Tuesday especially took its toll, as ABC lost both Happy Endings and Don't Trust the B**** in Apartment 23, NBC lost Go On and The New Normal, and New Girl's ratings did not thrive in the way Fox hoped they would, bringing Mindy down with it. And the battle didn't really discriminate, hurting critical favorites (Happy Endings and Don't Trust the B**** in Apartment 23, plus Ben and Kate a half hour earlier), reinforcing the point about about the diminished returns of star power (Go On), and damaging the one show that we would all probably refer to as a "hit" (New Girl). Tuesdays not only strained our DVRs, they quickly became ratings sinkholes for networks, and I would guess that the stiff competition played a big role in that.

Meanwhile, you might say that the broader comedies thrived, while the niche, internet-friendly comedies died. Happy Endings and Don't Trust the B**** reflect that, as do New Girl's moderate troubles and the continued, slow death of NBC's Thursday-night comedy block. In contrast, ABC's established Wednesday comedies and CBS's Monday and Thursday blocks did big business, as they do. However, it's important to remember that Modern Family's ratings and critical praise did decline in a not negligible way, while 2 Broke Girls did not fare as well at the top of the 9pm Monday hour as CBS probably would've hoped. And NBC went broader with Animal PracticeGuys With KidsGo On, The New Normal, and 1600 Penn and every single one of them failed. If The Office and 30 Rock hadn't ended, NBC's Thursday block would literally look exactly the same next year—CommunityParks and Recreation, and those two shows—which is both insane and amusing. And at Fox, Ben and Kate was probably the broadest show in that Tuesday comedy block and it was basically dead on arrival. So while the internet's favorites took big hits, the season wasn't exactly flawless for the more general-leaning efforts either. Except for The Big Bang Theory.

In any event, the networks have scheduled even more comedies for next season, so this intense competition won't be coming to an end. And it's likely that CBS and ABC will continue to grow, while NBC and to a lesser extent Fox (which has the quality, but simply can't seem to get people to watch) will struggle a bit to find traction with audiences. But if this season is any indication, the increased competition means that comedies of all types will fall. 


What nuggets of wisdom have YOU gleaned from the 2012-2013 season?

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