When ABC announced its fall schedule in May, the network's critics and competitors were skeptical. Not only were its aging dramas quickly eroding, but ABC faced a formidable task in launching a whopping 13 new series.
It seemed like a tall order for ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee, who was coming off his first full development season at the network. But as NBC sinks into an even deeper slump, ABC has somehow managed to defy the odds. It doesn't yet boast the ratings prowess of top-rated CBS and Fox, but Lee is encouraged by his network's ability to debut a handful of promising new series. "We have a lot of very strong pieces," he says. "At the same time we've got to make sure we sustain them and that they stay strong through the year and beyond."
ABC had badly stumbled out of the gate last year with DOA shows like My Generation and The Whole Truth. But this season, execs staggered the network's launches, with some new shows not even appearing until late October. Plus, the network caught a bit of luck, managing to ride the comedy revival wave and tapping into two genres — fantasy and soap operas — where it turns out there was a void to fill. "They desperately needed to get an infusion of new shows," says Horizon Media's Brad Adgate. "But now they've got some wind in their sails."
Early success stories include Once Upon a Time, a Sunday surprise that is now TV's No. 1 new drama among adults 18-49. "We knew it was an amazing piece of television," Lee says. "There's so much ambition in its storytelling." Meanwhile, Revenge, the sudser that Lee calls "delicious," is making the network competitive on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. (where ABC's performance is up 127 percent in the demo).
The network has also grown its Wednesday night comedy block, thanks to centerpiece Modern Family — TV's No. 2 scripted show among adults 18-49 and ABC's most-watched sitcom since the 1998-99 season. Newcomer Suburgatory and sophomore sensation Happy Endings are also driving ABC's sitcom success; and on Tuesdays, Tim Allen's Last Man Standing is giving ABC its best comedy performance in its time slot in a decade.
Not everything has worked, including ABC's Charlie's Angels reboot. "I don't think we quite managed to breathe life into that franchise," Lee admits. "It didn't work this time, but it doesn't mean we wouldn't do it again. You've got to do something to break out from the clutter." Period drama Pan Am is also struggling, and Lee hopes that some tweaks, such as putting the focus back on the four central flight attendant characters, will give it a bit more direction. "I think there's a huge amount of goodwill toward that show," Lee says. Among comedies, only Man Up! has opened to soft numbers.
Veteran series like Grey's Anatomy, Dancing With the Stars and the soon-to-retire Desperate Housewives are also on the slide. Lee believes Dancing could reverse that trend with a more compelling cast in mid-season. "Dancing goes up and down," he says. "Sometimes it's about whether we catch the mood of the country. We were lucky enough to do that twice last year. I feel that it will come back. And now that this season is coming to an end, I think people are finally starting to really relate strongly to that cast."
Three hours a week of older-skewing Dancing, however, continues to contribute to the graying of ABC's audience, which now registers a median age of 53.7 (the oldest the network has ever been.) "Older viewers and women tend to watch more TV, so it's not all that surprising that they're doing this well," Adgate says.
Meanwhile, with so much new product working, ABC may now find itself in the odd position of not having enough room for its hefty midseason bench. Shows waiting in the wings include campy Kristin Chenoweth-led drama GCB (seen by many as an obvious Desperate Housewives replacement); Shonda Rhimes' D.C.-set series Scandal, starring Kerry Washington; the Ashley Judd vehicle Missing; and thriller The River, none of which has a time slot yet.
Lee is also bullish on upcoming comedy Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 and is even still touting the critically panned cross-dressing sitcom Work It. "We have an idea of where we're going to put it all, although we haven't quite got all the jigsaw pieces in place yet," Lee says. For next season, Lee says ABC is looking to capitalize on its comedy successes; in drama, the exec says he's looking for sophisticated character dramas that speak to an "affluent female audience."
Despite its recent new successes, ABC is still down a touch from last season, averaging 9.7 million viewers (down 1 percent from 9.8 million last fall). CBS, in comparison, is up 2 percent (13 million) while Fox is up 21 percent (10.1 million). But while ABC has managed to stem its bleeding, NBC is still in freefall, down another 9 percent (to 7.3 million).
It's clear that ABC won't challenge CBS and Fox for the top spot this season. But as long as Lee and Co. don't start building expectations too high, Adgate believes the network will be fine. "It's encouraging, and they have to be pretty pleased that they planted some seeds," he says. "Sometimes it pays to be a little patient."