Despite suffering through a lethargic fall, the networks had reason to be upbeat as the TV season came to a close on May 25. Reality veterans American Idol and Dancing With the Stars staged healthy comebacks, while plenty of scripted series still showed some legs. Here's a roundup of prime time's hits and misses from 2010-2011.
American Idol Some thought TV's No. 1 show would be doomed without its signature judge Simon Cowell, but that turned out to be wishful thinking on the part of Fox's competitors. Idol was up 5 percent for the season, with an average of 25 million viewers. The producers delivered on a promise of younger and more authentic contestants. Another big help: two finalists who performed country music, which does well on TV. Even the relatively suspense-free May 25 finale drew 29.3 million, a 21 percent jump over last year.
NCIS It's not often that a show in its eighth season continues to grow. But the CBS procedural drama keeps finding new fans, drawing 17.6 million viewers — up 2 percent over last year — and ranking as TV's most-watched scripted show. "It's comedic and viewers like the characters, most of whom have stayed with the show," says Brad Adgate, senior vice president at ad-buying firm Horizon Media.
Dancing With the Stars ABC's savvy casting, which combines topical tabloid fodder (Bristol Palin, Kirstie Alley) and comforting favorites (Jennifer Grey, Ralph Macchio) proved to be a winning formula. The show posted double-digit ratings increases on both the performance and results shows, making it the No. 2 series behind American Idol.
The Voice Did prime time need another singing competition? If it can tap the star power of Cee Lo Green, Blake Shelton, Christina Aguilera and Adam Levine, the answer is yes. "These guys are at the height of their careers," says Adgate. "It's not like they're putting Neil Sedaka on. Getting them on the show is a coup for NBC." The Peacock network is depending on it to lead a turnaround next season. Says one competitor: "It gives them hope."
Social media This was the year that social media went from being a fad to being a large part of every network's marketing plan. Execs woke up to the fact that conversations on Twitter and Facebook were driving viewers to the screen, both for live events like the Oscars and breakout series like NBC's The Voice. Viewers also witnessed the implosion of Two and a Half Men, via Charlie Sheen's Twitter feed, and its rebirth — as Ashton Kutcher took to the website to confirm his arrival.
Charlie Sheen The former Two and a Half Men star may have made "Winning" his catchphrase, but his firing puts him square on the losers' list. Sheen overplayed his hand when he didn't heed the requests of CBS and Warner Bros. to go to rehab. He shut the door on any possible return after publicly denigrating Men executive producer Chuck Lorre. "Once it went hyperpersonal, it was tough to reel it back in," says one source close to the show. Sheen should have done the math — there are a lot more actors in Hollywood than hit-show creators.
Superheroes Viewers are still holding out for a hero. As Smallville ends its run, neither of this year's newcomers — ABC's No Ordinary Family and NBC's The Cape — made the cut. (NBC's Wonder Woman pilot also crashed.) Also not faring well this year: aliens (V and The Event were both canceled) and comedy couples (Perfect Couples, Mad Love, Traffic Light — all gone).
The Law & Order brand Chung-chung. Despite an eleventh-hour attempt to retool and revive Law & Order: Los Angeles, NBC canceled the show, leaving the network with just one Law & Order series (SVU) for the first time in more than a decade. Oversaturation of the Law & Order series on broadcast and cable might partly be to blame, and NBC's poor health (providing LOLA weak lead-ins) didn't help. LOLA was also greenlighted without a pilot — not always a good move — and lost any momentum it had by going on a lengthy hiatus in late winter. (For changes in SVU's future, see page 9.)
Freshman series The law of TV averages dictates that most new shows fail. But this past fall was brutal, with just five out of 23 newcomers coming back. That was extra disappointing after the previous year yielded big hits Modern Family and Glee. Consultant Shari Anne Brill calls last year's new shows "a crop of mediocrity." That's one trend the networks will try hard to reverse next season.