Despite the growing usage of DVRs and online streaming, timeslots still matter. To be fair, the success of certain hour-long periods of the TV schedule is mostly determined by the shows within them, but over time, some timeslots seem to take on a life of their own. For example, NBC’s Thursday-night comedy block held a lot of cultural capital for 20-odd years. No matter the shows, audiences knew to expect a certain level of comedy—and a certain type of comedy, at that.
But a timeslot’s existence can go the other way, too: Consider NBC’s Thursday-night comedy block in 2013. For any number of reasons, a network can simply fail over and over again to make shows work in a particular time period, regardless of whether they change the type of show they put in the trouble-spot, try to shift the programs that bookend it, or simply pray that the competition doesn't air new episodes of NCIS or American Idol. In recent history in particular, it feels like more and more timeslots have grown "poisonous," impossible for networks to figure out. Below, I've listed the four biggest danger zones. Let's see if we can't figure out why they're so treacherous, why don't we?
Before we begin, a few caveats: Fridays and Saturdays don’t count. I get it, “Friday night death slot” and all that, but it’s widely accepted that TV networks don’t program those two days in the same way they do the others. Also: We’re talking primetime here. If you’re upset about the scheduling for Paula Deen’s newest iteration of Cooking With Butter on the Food Network, I feel your pain, but I won't be addressing it here.
ABC, Thursdays at 8pm
Recent victims: Zero Hour, Last Resort, Missing, Charlie’s Angels, My Generation, The Deep End, FlashForward
Recent successes: Wipeout, sort of
The Competition: The Big Bang Theory, The X Factor, and American Idol; previously Survivor
The Verdict: ABC has completely failed to land a show that successfully leads into Grey’s since Ugly Betty vacated the timeslot after the 2008-2009 TV season. In the four seasons since Betty moved, ABC has placed seven brand-new shows in its 8pm sinkhole, and not a single one of them lived to see a second season. What's more, FlashForward is the only one that earned a full-season order; My Generation, Charlie’s Angels, and Zero Hour were all dead within a few airings. After My Generation flamed out in 2010, the network just shoved reruns and Wipeout in there and that was really the only time the hour wasn’t a total disaster.
The question here is where to place the blame—with the timeslot and the competition, or with the quality of the shows themselves? While the best answer is probably always “a bit of both,” it’s the most true here. To be fair to ABC, lots of people thought FlashForward was going to be a hit, and for a while, it was. But then the show went off the rails and ABC made matters worse by keeping it off the air for too long (so, yeah, NBC definitely made the right choice doing the same with Revolution). The Last Resort pilot was tremendous and despite some expected bumps, the series was one of the better new offerings of the 2012-2013 season.
But every other show the network has put there? Bad. Some of them, like Charlie’s Angels and Zero Hour, have been laughably so (I can barely begin to explain to you what My Generation was). Once CBS and Fox wised up and decided it was good business to put their most profitable shows on Thursday nights, ABC was certainly fighting an uphill battle. Yet, in recent years, it's started to feel like the network just uses the time period as a dumping ground for its dumber projects, putting them there because executives know they’ll fail and everyone can just move on. ABC should have moved Castle to Thursdays at 8pm this past fall and if they don’t do so next year, it’s almost guaranteed to result in another season’s worth of pain.
NBC, Thursdays at 10pm
Recent victims: Do No Harm, Awake, Prime Suspect, The Firm, The Marriage Ref, The Jay Leno Show, Southland, Outsourced
Recent successes: 30 Rock, The Apprentice, Rock Center with Brian Williams, all of them only sort of
The Competition: Elementary, Scandal, whatever's on your DVR; previously: The Mentalist and Private Practice
The Verdict: While ABC’s disaster at 8pm on Thursday has resulted in most out-and-out failures in recent years, NBC’s struggles two hours later on the same might probably hurt a little more, especially for folks who remember the glory days when NBC’s 10pm slot on Thursdays used to be the most valuable and prestigious in all of television. Hits like ER and Hill Street Blues will do that. But since ER concluded in the spring of 2009, NBC has systematically ruined the hour’s value with weird scheduling decisions and bad product.
Southland did fine enough in April and May of 2009, but then-network president Jeff Zucker decided he didn’t want to pay for expensive scripted shows on Thursdays (or any days) at 10pm, resulting in everyone’s favorite experiment to ridicule, The Jay Leno Show. Though Zucker’s head might have actually been in the right place considering NBC’s current state of affairs, the failures of Leno’s 10pm effort severely damaged the timeslot and NBC went ahead and killed it by airing episodes of The Marriage Ref and The Apprentice there in the spring and fall of 2010.
The network then tried the three-hour comedy block that didn’t really work—though hey, it effectively killed Outsourced—before running right back to scripted drama. But the damage was done. For two straight seasons, NBC has trotted out high-profile dramas in the slot, only to watch them falter, resulting in all-time lows in both ratings (Do No Harm) and quality (The Firm). Solid shows like Prime Suspect and Awake had no chance. We’ll see how Hannibal does when it debuts in about a month. I’m guessing not well.
Well, at least there’s always Rock Center.
The CW, Tuesdays at 9pm
Recent victims: Cult, Emily Owens, M.D., Ringer, Hellcats, Privileged, Life Unexpected, Melrose Place
Recent successes: The L.A. Complex, 90210
The Competition: NCIS: LA, New Girl, The Mindy Project; previously The Voice, Dancing With the Stars, Lost
The Verdict: To be fair, I could have picked just about every timeslot on The CW for this story. Although many of the network's shows survive for multiple seasons, they rarely stay in the same place on the schedule. The now-thankfully-canceled 90210 has been jerked around the early part of the week throughout its entire run. But Tuesdays at 9pm seem particularly troubling for The CW, mostly because even in a season when the network has stabilized Wednesdays and done well on Thursdays, the timeslot is still a disaster.
I’m a CW apologist, but its troubles on Tuesdays feel more like a result of stiff competition more than anything else. After the manic schedule-tinkering that impacted Privileged stopped, the network had to deal with heavy-hitters like NCIS: LA, Dancing With the Stars, and The Voice, and this past fall it had to compete with three different comedy blocks hoping to draw a fairly young audience. When you’re a small, limited network to begin with, these competitive nights are going to be difficult to survive without a really, really good show (like The CW has on Thursdays at 8pm with The Vampire Diaries).
However, I won’t front: Some of these shows have been pretty bad. Ringer was one of the worst shows of both 2011 and 2012 and despite my disgusting interest, Cult isn’t any better. Hellcats, Emily Owens, and Melrose Place weren’t as awful, but they weren’t any good either. Life Unexpected was moved to Tuesdays to die in 2010 and the best thing the network has had in this timesplot in years; The L.A. Complex somehow managed to air all its episodes despite having embarrassing ratings. Talk about faint praise.
Fox, Mondays (8pm AND 9pm)
Recent victims: The Mob Doctor, Terra Nova, Alcatraz, The Chicago Code, Lone Star, Lie to Me
Recent successes: House, The Following, Bones, 24
The Competition: Dancing With the Stars, The Bachelor, How I Met Your Mother, 2 Broke Girls, The Voice; previously The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men
The Verdict: This one is a little more complicated because Fox has been all over the place in the last few years, moving shows around and avoiding a lot of consistency. The network did very well in the springs that House and 24 aired together until 2010, but things were a little dicey in the falls of 2008 and 2009 (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Prison Break sunk in 2008; Lie to Me did okay in 2009), and since September of 2010, Fox has regularly finished third or fourth on Mondays.
In three seasons, Fox Mondays have brought us Lone Star, The Chicago Code, Terra Nova, Alcatraz, and The Mob Doctor, five shows that never made it to a second season (though The Chicago Code definitely could have, given its ratings at the time). Fox spent a large sum of money to promote each of those five shows and probably spent even more just to get the problematic Terra Nova onto the air. None of them were cheap to produce.
Of course, amid all this failure, Fox had House and now has The Following to make the numbers better, and Bones has been something of a savior for the network with its solid, steady performance over the past few years. In this instance, the high-profile failures hurt, but they don’t hurt as much because they're tempered by a few successes. Still though, with Bones likely on the way out after next season and The Following only scheduled for winter-to-spring runs, Fox is definitely going to avoid any more substantial risks like these ones in the future.