The 2013-2014 television season is officially here, and like you, we're ready for our favorite shows to return and all the new ones to make us happy (either by being awesome or by being terrible). But for ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox, and NBC, this is a stressful time. It's been a long summer, and for certain networks, it's been a long couple of years. Every new season brings new hope that a major shift is just around the bend, or that cancerous holes in the schedule can be cured, or that dominant shows and stars can continue to thrive.
As the new season begins, we thought we'd take stock of where the five major broadcast networks stand—their strengths, their weaknesses, and more. By the end of this story, you'll be fully prepared to make updated jokes about NBC's desperation or CBS's* never-ending love for old people. Let's break them down, in alphabetical order.
*TV.com is part of CBS Interactive, a division of CBS
RATINGS RANKING IN 2012-2013: #2 in total viewers; #4 in the 18-49 demographic
KEY DEPARTURES: Happy Endings, Body of Proof
BUZZWORTHY NEW SHOWS: Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, The Goldbergs
WHAT'S WORKING: Modern Family and Grey's Anatomy are still hugely successful anchors on Wednesday and Thursday, giving the network two of the top scripted shows in the important demographics. Dancing With the Stars dipped a bit last season, but still manages to pull in a lot of viewers on Mondays, and its pairing with Castle is never not going to work. Scandal developed into one of, if not the, most-talked-about drama on broadcast last year thanks to some fantastic plotting and savvy social media promotion. Shark Tank made some real noise on Friday. On Sunday, Once Upon a Time and Revenge didn't work as well together as the network might have hoped, but neither declined in ratings as much as you might think. ABC has solid, recognizable shows that people like to talk about on every night of the week except for Tuesday.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK LAST SEASON: Speaking of Tuesday, yow, what a sinkhole. Dancing With the Stars' results show overstayed its welcome last year, while the poorly timed comedy block of Happy Endings and Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 failed almost immediately. Things got so bad that The Taste and Celebrity Wife Swap were anchoring the schedule. Unsurprisingly, the 8pm Thursday slot also killed a few more shows, this time sucking the life out of Last Resort and Zero Hour, before ABC just went with Wife Swap, the scheduling equivalent of a white flag.
The network also failed yet again to develop a post-Modern Family comedy into a hit; Suburgatory, The Neighbors, and How to Live With Your Parents (for the Rest of Your Life) all followed the same pattern set by Cougar Town, Happy Endings, and the rest. That's a concern. Furthermore, ABC probably expected Revenge to take a hit moving to a more competitive night, but the network probably (and hopefully) didn't assume that the show would go off the rails like it did in Season 2. Showrunner Mike Kelley's gone, but there's no guarantee that his departure solved anything. The show could flame out even further in Season 3.
THE BIG QUESTIONS: Of course, it all starts with S.H.I.E.L.D. ABC and its corporate partners have a lot of money (and future money) in this project, and it's also being primed to clean up the mess on Tuesday. But will the internet buzz translate to real success that helps raise the tides of all the new Tuesday comedies as well? Initially, the Once Upon a Time spin-off was intended to run in the interim time while the mothership was on a seasonal break. Now it's airing in the deadly Thursday-at-8pm slot. Are we sure this is a good idea, both in concept and in execution? And finally, will much-discussed shows like Revenge and Nashville find stable creative footing despite various behind-the-scenes issues?
BEST CASE: S.H.I.E.L.D. is the instant hit ABC and the internet want it to be, solving the network's Tuesday situation; Scandal grows even bigger in Season 3, assuring the network that Thursday will be fine for years to come; on the back of Rebel Wilson, Super Fun Night is the post-Modern Family comedy audiences we were waiting for.
WORST CASE: S.H.I.E.L.D. starts pretty well but stalls out after a mid-season break, forcing Joss Whedon to direct a few spring episodes to raise the show's profile again; pop culture moves on from Scandal and the show falls back to earth while major cast departures hurt Grey's for the first time; the new Tuesday comedies bomb and Super Fun Night proves why it has been re-worked multiple times in development; Emily VanCamp publicly asks that Revenge's episode be cut, citing creative issues.
RATINGS RANKING IN 2012-2013: #1 in total viewers and in 18-49 demographic
KEY DEPARTURES: CSI: NY, Rules of Engagement
BUZZWORTHY NEW SHOWS: Hostages, The Millers, The Crazy Ones
WHAT'S WORKING: Most everything, per usual. The Big Bang Theory was the most popular non-football show on TV in the 18-49 demographic last season, and by a wide margin. Five of the top 10 shows in total viewers are CBS originals: NCIS (1), The Big Bang Theory (3), NCIS: Los Angeles (4), Person of Interest (5), and Two and a Half Men (10). Across the network, total viewer ratings actually increased, a rarity in today's ratings climate, and CBS won in the 18-49 demographic for the first time in 21 years. The network's schedule doesn't have many holes: The Monday and Thursday comedy blocks and Tuesday's NCIS doubleshot are difficult to compete with. Elementary didn't totally break out into a MEGAHIT, but critics and audiences like it quite a bit. Let's put it this way: Things are so good at CBS that Partners, a terrible comedy that CBS pulled after six episodes because it was flailing, ended up with same or better ratings than Nashville, The Mindy Project, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and Law & Order: SVU.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK LAST SEASON: Very little, obviously. The Tuesday-at-10pm. slot continued to pester CBS's executives, but its competitors probably would've been happy with how Vegas and Golden Boy, both canceled, performed for CBS last year. Hawaii Five-0 just sort of existed on Monday nights.
THE BIG QUESTIONS: CBS is at the point where its big questions are mostly based on "experimentation." Meaning, will the split-season, event-style scheduling for Hostages and Intelligence actually pay off? Elsewhere, expanding to a full two-hour comedy block on Thursday was a given, and now it's just a matter of whether or not the network picked the right combination of shows with its new batch of sitcoms. Are The Millers and The Crazy Ones the right fit for The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men? And will Person of Interest's shift to Tuesday shore up that problematic area?
BEST CASE: CBS has another CBS year; both Hostages and Intelligence pop with audiences and CBS embraces shorter seasons; the comedy blocks thrive, and people love Robin Williams again; Person of Interest becomes an ever bigger hit on its new night.
WORST CASE: The bottom falls out a little bit; Most of the new comedies tank, especially The Crazy Ones and Mom and CBS is forced to call up The Spade for more Rules of Engagement; VIewers see through Hostages flimsy premise, forcing the network to bring Intelligence on earlier than they wanted; A race-related controversy overtakes the coverage of one of CBS' big reality shows.
RATINGS RANKING IN 2012-2013: #5 in total viewers and 18-49 demographic (duh)
KEY DEPARTURES: Gossip Girl, 90210
BUZZWORTHY NEW SHOWS: The Tomorrow People, The Originals, Reign
WHAT'S WORKING: With The CW, everything's relative. Any success pales in comparison to that of the other networks, and many shows survive on The C-Dub's schedule for years even though they'd be axed almost immediately elsewhere. Nevertheless, for the first full year of Mark Pedowitz's term as head honcho, things went pretty well. Most of the marketing money went into Arrow and that investment paid off. The show is very good, and held its own on Wednesday nights. Pedowitz recognizes that his network's destiny is to peddle mid-level 'genre' fare (comic adaptations, sci-fi, supernatural, horror, etc.), and Arrow is a great step forward in that regard. Beauty and the Beast is the weirdest show, but people like it. The Vampire Diaries has moved nicely into its second stage—it's no longer as great as it was, but it certainly hasn't gotten awful yet—and Nikita and Supernatural turned in rock-solid seasons that were drew in enough viewers to justify bringing them back again.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK LAST SEASON: Well, what wasn't working is gone, so. With Gossip Girl and 90210 off the schedule, The CW's era of pretty, rich, white people is finally over. That sort of materialistic soap would feel out-of-place on the network now. And although Hart of Dixie and The Carrie Diaries are both very entertaining in their own ways, they're also kind of off-brand at this point. It's not fair to say they aren't working creatively, but who's willing to bet they return next fall?
THE BIG QUESTIONS: Because The CW is working with different scales and really at a different pace, the dominant issue every season is this: Can we develop one show into a CW-sized success? The likely candidates for a breakout hit are The Originals and The Tomorrow People, but with the former, might we be wondering if scheduling it away from its home series was a mistake come November? (Probably.) And is it possible that Game of Thrones hysteria helps Reign thrive on Thursdays? (Probably not.)
BEST CASE: The Amell Family Revue—Stephen's cousin Robbie headlines The Tomorrow People—move pays off on Wednesdays; The Originals does fine on its own and fans who get bored with the First Family return to TVD as well; Reign isn't as awful as it looks; Supernatural's ratings somehow improve on its nineteenth new night.
WORST CASE: The audience's interest in current CW properties or performers doesn't transfer to the new shows, sinking The Tomorrow People and The Originals; Arrow loses the thread in Season 2 and Stephen Amell uploads a Vine of himself eating an entire package of Oreos; Reign debuts to a .02 18-49 demo rating; the Wonder Woman pilot gets fast-tracked, with Shenae Grimes in the lead role.
RATINGS RANKING IN 2012-2013: #3 in total viewers; #2 in 18-49 demographic
KEY DEPARTURES: Fringe
BUZZWORTHY NEW SHOWS: Almost Human, Sleepy Hollow, Brooklyn Nine-Nine
WHAT'S WORKING: Despite big dips and diminished buzz, American Idol finished the year as the fifth or sixth most popular show on TV. When almost everything is on the decline, the show's audience erosion was no surprise, even if much of it came at once. Similarly, joke all you want about the irrelevance of The X Factor, but it (somehow) finished in the top 20 in ratings, and gave us a few memorable moments as well. The decision to hold The Following until the midseason and turn it into a substantial event paid off big; it was the most popular new show by far. Glee and New Girl also saw their ratings drop, but turned in creatively strong seasons. The Sunday-night comedy block never falters.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK LAST SEASON: Fox's lack of drama development over the last few years is a little frightening. Fox clearly focused on comedy in 2011 and 2012, but doesn't have a whole lot to show from that decision. While New Girl is fantastic, it's not popular enough to anchor an entire night of programming, and The Mindy Project has been given a reaaaaally long leash. Fringe is gone, The Mob Doctor tanked, Touch withered away, Bones is pretty old, and though it's not a technically a drama, Glee is on the way out as well. The network can't get by on Kevin Bacon and murder cults forever. And the ratings dip for Idol is a big deal, just like The X Factor petering along for little-to-no reason is a big deal. Fox finished second in the 18-49 demo for the first time in ages last year; it's primed to remain in second place (or lower) for a long time unless something pops in 2013-2014.
THE BIG QUESTIONS: Despite the successful tentpoles at the center of this schedule, there are tons of questions. Can Almost Human or Sleepy Hollow give the network a new hour-long hit and keep Mondays afloat until The Following returns in January? On Tuesday, does the comedy block work better with less direct competition, or does it fall so far that Fox has to scratch the whole enterprise? Will either one of the singing competitions do something, anything interesting this season? And will the shows that are currently scheduled to air on Friday at some point (Bones, Raising Hope, and Enlisted, which was just moved to January) actually ever air there, or will the schedule be in such shambles post-World Series that they'll appear much earlier in the week? Fox is a Choose Your Own Adventure book this season.
BEST CASE: J.H. Wyman brings the elements that made Fringe a solid hit in its early going to Almost Human, and the show makes noise on Monday while Sleepy Hollow grows into a joke we all earnestly enjoy as opposed to one we just hashtag about on Twitter; a stable judges panel and a few big-time performers make The X Factor more entertaining than ever; Brooklyn Nine-Nine is an immediate hit, mostly because people love to see Andre Braugher do comedy; word-of-mouth and Netflix viewing help New Girl gain more mainstream popularity.
WORST CASE: Almost Human debuts to Fringe Season 5-level ratings and Sleepy Hollow is this year's Zero Hour, forcing Fox to rerun last season of The Following before Thanksgiving; The X Factor and American Idol continue to fade and Fox considers paying Simon Cowell $100 million to return to the latter; Cory Monteith's death disrupts the Glee set, creating its most disjointed and disliked season to-date; New Girl's ratings fall and the Tuesday comedy block dies for good; 70 percent of the network's schedule stars Gordon Ramsey; Dads becomes a mega-hit.
RATINGS RANKING IN 2012-2013: #4 in total viewers; #3 in 18-49 demographic
KEY DEPARTURES: 30 Rock, The Office,
BUZZWORTHY NEW SHOWS: The Blacklist, The Michael J. Fox Show, Ironside
WHAT'S WORKING: For all the jokes so many of us like to make, last year wasn't so bad for NBC. Sunday Night Football and The Voice are two of the three most popular shows on the air, and neither one of them is going anywhere anytime soon. The judge swap and additional session didn't impact The Voice very much at all (mostly because as long as Blake Shelton and Adam Levine are there, people are in). Revolution was struuuugling by the end of last season, but it started out strong enough to finish in the top 20 in the 18-49 demographic, and Chicago Fire became a nice middle-of-the-road show pretty quickly. Despite the huge disparity in online buzz, Parenthood was actually as popular as Scandal last season (think about that). With those three dramas plus Law & Order: SVU and Hannibal, NBC has a fine quintet of shows that a whole lot of different people, across different demographics, enjoy. And again: FOOTBALL.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK LAST SEASON: Last year's comedy situation was a full-blown disaster. Community and Parks and Recreation are somehow the only two comedies that survived, and if The Office and 30 Rock hadn't announced they were ending, they'd probably be back too. That means that NBC has basically failed to develop a new sitcom for half a decade, which probably isn't what you want when you're historically known as a hotbed of great comedy. While the network's suriving drama series are all decent-to-good (I'm being nice to Revolution out of respect for Eric Kripke), it's not like they're major hits; they're fine.
The big issue here is that NBC is coasting on its two big winners. Sure, football and The Voice aren't necessarily going anywhere, but NBC can't really acquire more football and The Voice's audience will eventually erode, just like Idol's did. With The Office gone, NBC doesn't even have that third halfway-popular show that it can pretend to hang its hat on come press event time.
THE BIG QUESTIONS: I see three primary and crucial matters. First, the revamped Thursday-night block. Michael J. Fox is a safe bet to draw viewers, but how many? And isn't it kind of a problem that the majority of viewers have already basically said "no thanks" to Parks and Rec, and that the other two new shows look like something NBC found behind an old VHS player in the archives? Secondly, the dramas moving around. Is Chicago Fire worth the post-Voice bump? Can Revolution survive on Wednesdays, even if the show is improved? Will Parenthood just die on Thursdays at 10pm? And finally, the new dramas. Is anyone that nostalgic for Ironside? Is it remotely possible that The Blacklist is actually good?
BEST CASE: The Football-Voice combo continues its successful run and The Voice actually grows with Christina and Cee-Lo back in the fall; The Blacklist becomes the breakout drama series of the fall and sets up another James Spader Emmy win; The Michael J. Fox Show debuts to 11 million viewers and Parenthood revives the glory of the 10pm drama on Thursday; Dracula becomes a sleeper hit on Fridays, thanks primarily to Tumblr hysteria.
WORST CASE: America falls ill with Sudden Voice Distaste and Adam Levine holds out for more money, skipping the spring session; The Blacklist tanks almost immediately, forcing NBC to move Revolution back to Mondays even though nobody's watching it on Wednesdays; The Michael J. Fox Show is only a moderate success, while the rest of the new comedies struggle; Community finishes the season as the network's most popular comedy; Hannibal Season 2 never airs because NBC decides to give Jay Leno another show in the spring.
Which networks intrigue you the most going into the fall? Do you think they'll see their best or worst case scenarios come true?