It's hard out there for a broadcast network. Basic cable shows like The Walking Dead and Sons of Anarchy are scoring big ratings, while Showtime's Homeland is the toast of the water-cooler crowd. "We seem to be coming to a point where there are enough series to watch without coming to broadcast television," says one network veteran. The networks are also competing with themselves, as viewers in nearly half the country now use DVRs — which has helped big hits such as Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory grow even bigger but made it tougher for new shows to get a foothold. As a result, ABC, CBS and Fox have seen significant ratings dips compared with last year, causing worry among advertisers who still depend on the broadcasters to deliver mass audiences. Here's how each network is faring so far this season.
Dancing With the Stars: All Stars has been less than luminous (down 22 percent on Mondays, and down 33 percent in the advertiser-favored 18-49 demographic). Nashville is a critical darling, but the network's strength is attracting urban upscale viewers who are reluctant to sample a show about country music. While ABC picked up the comedy The Neighbors for a full season, new dramas 666 Park Avenue and Last Resort have sunk in the ratings and it's not yet known if they will earn full-season orders. "They have a lot of question marks," says an executive at a rival network. Grade: B-
Still the most watched network, with an average of 11.5 million viewers, CBS is down 10 percent from a year ago and 18 percent in the 18-49 demo. Sure, freshman dramas Vegas and Elementary are solid performers, but the new sitcom Partners is a dud, and Made in Jersey was the season's first cancellation. "Based on previous years, CBS batting .500 is a little off," says Brad Adgate of ad-buying firm Horizon Media. Grade: B
Turns out The CW audience loves its shirtless comic-book heroes. Arrow, which premiered with 4.1 million viewers and has held onto most of them, has given The CW a bona fide new hit (and it's been picked up for the full season). But the mini-network's other new shows, Emily Owens M.D. and Beauty and the Beast, are limping along. Grade: C+
Despite the buzzed-about addition of Britney Spears, The X Factor is losing the battle of the singing competitions to NBC's The Voice, while the network's New Girl and Glee have declined. Fox, down 24 percent in viewers age 18-49, still sees high creative promise in new sitcoms The Mindy Project and Ben and Kate, which have been given full-season orders despite lackluster ratings. The network is expected to soon take out a hit on the ratings-challenged drama The Mob Doctor. Mid-season hopes ride on the arrival of the Mariah Carey-led American Idol and the new Kevin Bacon drama The Following. "It's not too unusual to see Fox near or at the bottom in the fall, but can Idol pull them up like it did the past eight years?" asks Adgate. "Not so sure this time around." Grade: C-
After years in the wilderness, NBC is experiencing the residual boost that comes with a hit reality competition like The Voice. Dystopian drama Revolution, which averages almost 9 million viewers, has done a far better job of capitalizing on the lead-in from The Voice than Smash did last season. And Go On and The New Normal are delivering NBC's strongest numbers for new sitcoms in several years. Scheduling chief Jeff Bader says the reason for the ratings lift — up 24 percent in the 18-49 demo — is not complicated: "It comes down to putting on stuff that people want to watch." Grade: A-