The reason we spend way too much time each year focused on the business side of "the new fall season" is that it's just so inherently competitive. It's basically the battle royale of television! The big four networks (plus The CW) unveil new and (theoretically) improved schedules that aim to come out on top of the five-way dogpile in each time slot, all in the hopes of scoring those sweet, sweet ad dollars. The head-to-head nature of these face-offs often result in the maddening cancellations of excellent shows while terrible ones live on. The entire spectacle has turned us—innocent bystanders who just want to watch our stories!—into amateur number-crunchers, paying way too much attention to statistics and overnight ratings. So let's just cut to the chase and answer the main question that all networks wish they could ask us directly: Which big network do we currently like the best overall?
The American Broadcasting Company is no stranger to the ups and downs of network brawlin'. In the early '90s ABC was a sitcom titan, boasting tons of top-rated shows like Roseanne and Home Improvement. After spending some time behind the pack both in the ratings and in critical consensus, it had a resurgence with dramas like Lost and Desperate Housewives before slipping back into third place again. However, ABC's been back in the saddle lately with an array of diverse, well-reviewed series like Modern Family, Once Upon a Time, and Happy Endings.
The Not-So-Good: The new Reba McEntire sitcom Malibu Country is neither great nor particularly reputable. Same goes for The Neighbors and Last Man Standing. Then there's ABC's array of mainstay low-brow reality series like The Bachelor(ette)(Pad), Dancing With the Stars, and Wipeout.
The Columbia Broadcasting System has been a dominant force on TV ever since it decided to just nakedly grab for a larger (yet older-skewing) demographic. Ratings behemoths like the CSI and NCIS franchises score huge numbers but go largely ignored by critics and tastemakers. It's the same story with Chuck Lorre's multiple sitcoms: Huge numbers, yet a complete paucity of buzz. Can you name the male lead on Mike & Molly? I can't!
The Good: CBS's biggest stabs at attracting hipper viewers have included 2 Broke Girls, How I Met Your Mother, and Elementary. But still, most of CBS's best shows skew older: The Good Wife, Person of Interest, Survivor, and its two late-night shows, Late Show with David Letterman and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.
The Not-So-Good: CBS airs a lot of interchangeable procedurals that are somehow both inappropriately graphic and bland, like Blue Bloods, Criminal Minds, CSI, and NCIS. Plus a handful of CBS's new shows haven't exactly lit the world on fire: Partners, Vegas, and the recently canceled Made in Jersey.
The CW has to be one of TV's most frustrating stories. How can a network with so much market penetration still get sub-cable viewership? It's likely to do with how The CW intentionally ruined its own brand years ago by continuing with the WB's and UPN's strategy to attract younger viewers but then further narrowed its demographic to just 14-year-old girls. It means that relatively solid genre shows like Nikita have floundered and The CW hasn't been able to launch a reputable comedy in years. If we're being honest, nothing less than a full housecleaning and rebranding could turn this ship around. If The CW was halfway savvy, it'd reformulate itself as the next AMC or FX, producing risky, watercooler series that would be under-the-radar critical hits until they suddenly became ratings bonanzas. But then what do I know about The CW's business model? Nothing. Maybe they even think they're doing a good job.
The Good: The Vampire Diaries, Supernatural, and Arrow all exist at various stages of terrific. Arrow especially has the greatest shot at crossover appeal, assuming male viewers will ever not be totally put-off by The CW brand.
At 25 years old, Fox is still technically one of the most youthful networks around, but unlike The CW, it's been able to parlay that youthful spirit into success. Much of that has to do with the still highly rated (if not quite as beloved) American Idol, but also with the success of Fox's Sunday-night Animation Domination block and now its fledgling Tuesday comedy block, both of which have been buzz magnets. Add to that its genuinely interesting penchant for taking risks (Fringe, Touch, Glee) and Fox is one of the savviest networks on TV when it comes to achieving high ratings while also maintaining a modicum of artistic credibility.
The Good: Even in its old age, The Simpsons (which is 1,000 years old in TV years) is still one of TV's best comedies; up-and-comers include Bob's Burgers, New Girl, Raising Hope, Ben and Kate, and The Mindy Project. Fringe will be finishing out its (miraculous) fifth season in early 2013, plus Bones and Glee remain some of the oddest (and decently rated) shows on the network.
The Not-So-Good: Too much Gordon Ramsay: Kitchen Nightmares, MasterChef, Hotel Hell, and Hell's Kitchen. Too much Seth MacFarlane: Family Guy, The Cleveland Show, American Dad!. Too much Simon Cowell: The X Factor. Plus, consider whatever ill will Fox has built up over canceling Firefly and ruining Dollhouse and it may be hard to earn back many viewers' respect.
The National Broadcasting Company has commanded a lot of our attention over the past decade, going from one of TV's most "must-see" destinations to becoming a laughingstock, seemingly over and over again. Still though, regardless of its often dubious decision-making (The Jay Leno Show, Knight Rider, American Gladiators), NBC airs some of TV's best and riskiest television.
The Good: Specifically in the comedy category, shows like 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and Community aren't big ratings-grabbers but they occupy a lot of critics' mindspace. Go On and The Office are both well-liked and well-rated. Meanwhile Parenthood and Grimm have been risky and modest hits while Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and Saturday Night Live continue to hold down the fort, quality-wise, in the late-night arena.
The Not-So-Good: Yeah, sorry, Jay Leno is still terrible. The Voice is already showing signs of going the way of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, oversaturation-wise. Chicago Fire, Whitney, Up All Night, and Guys With Kids are low-ratings- and low-opinion-generators. NBC's biggest hit of the fall, Revolution, is likely an emperor's new clothes situation. (You can put that quote on my tombstone, I don't care.) So yeah, overall, NBC still has a lot of work to do.