Year-round programming strategies notwithstanding, we've reached the conclusion of the traditional September-to-May television season. While some things always seem to stay the same (The Big Bang Theory might outlive us all), each year manages to bring significant change to the television landscape, in one way or another. So just like we did at the end of the 2012-2013 TV season, we thought it'd be useful to look back at the last nine(ish) months and take stock of what we learned in 2013-2014. Here are the eight big takeaways:
1. The broadcast model is really struggling—even at CBS
As broadcast network ratings have existed in a perpetual free fall over the last half-decade, CBS long remained an outlier, the last bastion for hope in the traditional honest-to-goodness broadcasting model. While ABC, Fox, and NBC propped themselves up with Shonda Rhimes and singing competitions, CBS somehow managed to churn out new hits in both the comedy and drama realms. That wasn't the case in 2013-2014, however. No, 2013-2014 was very different, and for CBS, probably kind of scary.
In the all-important 18-to-49 demographic, CBS's ratings are down a troubling 17 percent from the 2012-2013 season. Most folks would agree that ABC (down 5 percent from 2012-2013) and Fox (on par with last year, somehow) had disastrous seasons, and yet their ratings didn't fall nearly as far as CBS's did. Now, it's important to note that A.) CBS still tops its competitors in total viewers, B.) It's pretty easy to experience gaudy percentage drops when your ratings are relatively high to begin with, and C.) CBS still has The Big Bang Theory, all 14 NCISes, and solid ratings performers all over the schedule.
But consider this wild fact: CBS is only bringing back TWO shows from its 2013-2014 freshman class: The Millers and Mom. The other six newbies—Intelligence, Hostages, We Are Men, The Crazy Ones, Bad Teacher, and Friends With Better Lives—have all been dispatched to the big Netflix queue in the sky. Two out of eight doesn't elicit full-on abject horror, but when we're talking about CBS, it's close—especially when both The Millers and Mom could have very easily been canceled based on their performance (The Millers is almost certainly riding the ratings coattails of Big Bang).
Perhaps the most telling pieces of evidence we have about CBS is what the network did at the Upfronts this year. First, the Eyeball picked up two more additions to the lucrative, old CSI and NCIS franchises—or, as I see it, the CBS equivalent of reaching for a binky. Second, CBS shifted its schedule around more than expected, and much more than in recent memory, which is a signal that Les Moonves and Nina Tassler know that things need to improve, and fast.
CBS will probably be fine, especially because ABC seems dead-set on developing and airing some of the worst shows on an annual basis and because Fox is hamstrung by music competition fatigue and its failed comedy expansion. But you never know with these things. NBC, our collective punching bag, was in a tailspin for a decade before finally turning things around this season on the back of a few big hits.
Full disclosure: TV.com is owned by CBS.
2. But the struggles aren't entirely due to terrible programming
It's easy to point to declining ratings on broadcast and assume that the numbers are low because the shows aren't any good, or because can't stand up to cable. However, I don't really think that was the case this season. While there were a few awful new series out there—We Are Men, Super Fun Night, Dads, Hostages—many of the freshmen were at least mediocre and watchable in a very inoffensive way.
If we acknowledge that the pilot system is a broken, dumb crapshoot, any season that yields Sleepy Hollow, Trophy Wife, Enlisted, The Originals, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Blacklist, Reign, and Almost Human should be labeled some kind of success. Even second-tier stuff like About a Boy, Growing Up Fisher, The Tomorrow People, Resurrection, and Mom was pretty good. Mix those in with creatively strong returning series like Hannibal, The Good Wife, Parenthood, Person of Interest, The Mindy Project, Arrow, and a dozen other rock-solid, shows and I'd argue that broadcast television is in a good place. People just aren't watching it how they used to.
3. Football is television's most popular—and most valuable—show
Okay, so we probably already knew this. But now there's even more evidence! Of course NBC's Sunday Night Football ended the season as the highest-rated show on television, and of course CBS will continue to screw up our DVRs on Sunday nights because it's willing to let football overrun into primetime. However, in 2013-2014, we learned that the broadcast networks are willing to let football hold court during the week as well, as CBS put in the big-money downpayment for the rights to eight weeks' worth of Thursday Night Football. And might I remind you that those eight games will be simulcast on the NFL Network? That's right, football is SO valuable that CBS is willing to air simulcasts, in primetime, on the most profitable night of the week. That's nuts.
4. Time slots don't matter, unless the networks decide they do
The more you follow the television industry, the more you realize that network executives are always going to make the decisions they want to make, using whatever logic they want. As viewers, we want to think that a good show that's doing okay in a poor time slot might have a better chance of survival, because we assume that decision-makers recognize all the same things that we do about a show and the context in which it airs. While there's little doubt that people like Fox's Kevin Reilly or ABC's Paul Lee see what we see—and that they know so much more—it doesn't always translate in the ways we would like.
In 2013-2014, Reilly and Fox scheduled Enlisted for Friday nights, delayed its premiere from fall until January, and then pulled the show from the schedule because of underperformance. Wait, you mean you're telling me that a show stashed on Fridays behind the low-rated and soon-to-be-canceled Raising Hope isn't going to thrive? WHAT?
Similarly, over at ABC, Paul Lee slotted Trophy Wife into the network's rebooted Tuesday lineup. The logic made sense at first: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would be a success at 8pm, which would buoy The Goldbergs, which in turn would help Trophy Wife. Well, you know how that went. Trophy Wife limped through the season in a problematic time slot, all while ABC refused to try scheduling the show behind Modern Family. While the post-Modern Family slot hasn't exactly been automatic gold, it made little sense for ABC to keep Super Fun Night and Mixology in that time period while Trophy Wife, the most obvious potential Modern Family partner in five years, was never even given the chance.
In these two instances (and surely many others), the networks set their shows up to fail, then sent up the proverbial white flag when it actually happened. So is there any point left in time slot strategy or schedule flexibility?
5. Big and/or familiar properties don't automatically lead to success
Hollywood is always looking for the path of least resistance with regard to drawing viewers, and we're currently in the midst of an era defined by franchises, adaptations, reboots, etc. This season, the networks trotted out a number of notable projects that were either based on or affiliated with something else: Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Dracula, Ironside, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, Bad Teacher, The Tomorrow People, Rake, Chicago P.D., About a Boy, and The Originals. A few of those series have been granted a second season, but none of them really lit the world on fire between September and May.
If we read the tea leaves a bit, this season's failed franchise-y projects suggest that the networks should quit rebooting really old projects that trade in nostalgia (Ironside, The Tomorrow People), or hoping that recent iterations of any given franchise will immediately continue to pay dividends (Bad Teacher, Wonderland, Rake).
Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was obviously the most high-profile project in this lot, and its struggles illustrated that no level of box office success can convince people to change the channel to ABC every week, especially during periods where the show doesn't connect to the films, or when it's not that good to begin with. There are a number of reasons to keep mining franchises for more content, but the networks need to be smarter about it.
6. Everybody—and I mean everybody—wants a piece of the original scripted programming pie
This trend has been building for years and years, but it does feel like we've passed some kind of point of no return with the number of networks and channels and online platforms producing original scripted programming. A decade ago, the broadcast networks had to deal with HBO, Showtime, and the occasional solid entry from the big cable channels like FX, USA, and TNT. Now, Sundance is making some of the best television around, and Discovery is putting huge amounts of money into projects like Klondike. Guys, WGN America is making scripted TV now. WGN AMERICA. And that's just on the actual boob tube. On the web, it's Netflix and House of Cards, it's Amazon and a dozen pilots for our viewing pleasure, it's Hulu and its co-productions, it's freaking Crackle and Yahoo and Microsoft/Xbox, it's a dozen new companies every week.
This glut of additional original programming is going to have a substantial impact on the industry. Not only is it already harder for the broadcast networks to compete for viewers and talent, but there's also a chance that the TNTs and the Amazons of the world will buy less syndicated (or library) content. Why spend millions of dollars on Castle reruns when you can try to pump out your own Castle rip-off?
7. Embracing the silliness of your show's premise is always the way to go
At this time last year, the most outrageous two series appeared to be Sleepy Hollow and Reign. And here we are 12 months later, and not only have they both procured second seasons, they're among the more well-regarded offerings of the 2013-2014 season. While I wouldn't name either show as one of my absolute favorites, I think we can track some (though not all) of their respective successes to how clearly they commit to their weird and silly storylines. Flat-out owning what doesn't appear to work on paper goes a long way toward improving the show—because everyone understands the tone and purpose—while making it easier for the audience to give you the benefit of the doubt. We want to laugh with these shows, not at them.
8. Unless you're The Big Bang Theory or Modern Family, comedy is now almost exclusively a niche business
I've hammered this drum a couple times over the past year, but the comedy situation isn't getting any better for the broadcast networks. Yes, we can all point to The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family as poster children for the triumph of loud, broad comedies, but at this point, we should really only be talking about The Big Bang Theory. Modern Family's ratings aren't what they used to be, and we're now in year five of that show not producing another solid comedy performer in the 9:30pm time slot.
Across the five networks, the comedy outlook is bleak. ABC canceled six sitcoms (Back in the Game, Mixology, The Neighbors, Suburgatory, Super Fun Night, and Trophy Wife) in 2013-2014. CBS canceled four (Bad Teacher, The Crazy Ones, Friends With Better Lives, and We Are Men) and lost How I Met Your Mother. Fox ditched five (American Dad! which is departing for TBS, plus Dads, Enlisted, Raising Hope, and Surviving Jack) and never aired two others (Murder Police and Us & Them). And NBC said goodbye to five as well (Community, Growing Up Fisher, The Michael J. Fox Show, Sean Saves the World, and Welcome to the Family). Even some of the projects that survived, and that we love here on TV.com—Parks and Recreation, New Girl, The Goldbergs, even Mom—have relatively low ratings. Less than three million people watched the New Girl finale live! It's crazy to think that Fox built an entire comedy block around that show less than two years ago.
This season really showed that the problem isn't that all network comedies are bad, or that people don't like them; it's more that comedy has become so niche-ified that very few sitcoms are going to lure that old-school, massive live viewership. Our comedy tastes are much more specific and individualized and after a decade or more of shows that appeal to more personalized tastes, we don't want to go back. ABC and NBC both tried to reestablish the importance of the family comedy this year, but simply not enough people are going to care deeply enough about shows like Growing Up Fisher to keep it around. It was a fine, well-meaning program that no one is ever going to create a hashtag campaign for—not like they did Community.
Plus, comedies aren't EVENT PROGRAMMING; maybe you feel like you can wait until five episodes of The Mindy Project build up on the DVR without being spoiled. With more personalized viewer tastes and fewer reasons to watch immediately, the networks are going to have a hard time convincing us that we need to watch comedy live. Sadly, this trend will probably continue into the 2014-2015 season.
What nuggets of wisdom have YOU gleaned from the 2013-2014 season?