With the 2011-12 television season well underway, it’s become increasingly clear that this isn’t the best fall the broadcasters have ever had. Back in May, when the networks touted their new offerings to advertisers, it appeared they were trying to take some risks with their programming.
But the opposite is true: most of those shows featured what the networks hoped were built-in audiences for retro brand settings (Pan Am! The Playboy Club!) or remakes of vintage television (Charlie’s Angels, it’s back to pop-culture heaven for you), but viewers largely stayed away from these and many of the new fall shows.
Those claiming that viewers’ attention is elsewhere, such as on the Internet, likely don’t have a response for the oversize audience for things like AMC’s The Walking Dead, now the highest-rated cable show on the air, or the first post–Charlie Sheen episode of CBS’s Two and a Half Men. (The latter could be due to sampling, but the show has remained consistently in the range of 14 million to 16 million viewers since then.) It seems as though people are watching television, but they’re increasingly just not that excited about what’s airing on the broadcasters. (Just look at the declining fortunes of once-invulnerable reality franchise The Biggest Loser.) Which is downright worrisome, as the networks have to replace aging series and churn out new and zeitgeist-grabbing programming on a yearly basis. And sorry, Fox, but that wasn’t The X Factor, despite the nonstop hype.
But when you look at the out-of-the-gate failures of shows like The Playboy Club, How to Be a Gentleman, Free Agents, and Man Up! (and the dwindling returns on big-budget fare like Terra Nova), the picture is even more cloudy and portentous, and that’s to say nothing of the reality drivel at the CW, which gave us the not-at-all-lamented H8R.
Almost collectively, the networks largely chose to hold on to their more challenging or provocative new shows for midseason, giving us a fall that was largely devoid of real hits, but did produce some crowd pleasures nonetheless with such shows as Fox’s Zooey Deschanel–led New Girl, ABC’s soapy Revenge, its suburban single-camera comedy Suburgatory, fairy-tale-based Once Upon a Time (despite rather mixed reviews), and the surprising resilience of second-year sitcom Happy Endings, which proved itself a utility player (and critical darling) airing after Modern Family.
Still, overall it’s been another mixed bag for the broadcasters: CBS and Fox both managed to snag more viewers this fall, while NBC and ABC stumbled. The latter two, overly reliant on aging brands, will need to dig deeper come midseason if they have any chance of regaining momentum. Or risk plummeting further still.