The last two television seasons have had it all. We've seen everything from the birth of a broadcast network (the CW) to the most debilitating industry work stoppage in 20 years. Now it's time to take a closer look at each of the five major broadcast networks and see what they are doing right, what needs improvement, and where they stand.
Like any true report card, we won't be judging the networks on any one category alone. Although overall ratings are a factor, they are not the only factor. Also, we will be looking at the time period from Fall of 2006 (when the CW debuted) to present.
Class is now in session. We ask that ABC, CBS, CW, Fox and NBC please take their seats. It's time to hand out the report cards.
It's been a solid couple of years for ABC in terms of ratings, critical opinion and popular buzz. Two very significant events for the network were the emergence of "Dancing with the Stars
" as a true powerhouse and the resuscitation of the Thursday night lineup.
"Dancing" originally found success as a summer series in 2005, but it wasn't until 2006 when it truly became a dynamo. Both weekly installments of the celebrity spectacle absolutely dominate the competition and also provide an ample lead-in for newly launching shows or struggling critical darlings. In many ways, "Dancing with the Stars" is ABC's answer to "American Idol
Moving "Grey's Anatomy
" from its successful Sunday night timeslot to Thursday's was risky. In the end, the risk paid dividends as "Grey's" more than held its own against "CSI
." Along with "Ugly Betty
," ABC has accomplished the inconceivable and posed a legitimate challenge to CBS' long untested dominance of the night. It sure beats a lineup that featured "Push, Nevada
" and "Are You Hot?" a few years back.
Other successes for ABC include the critical and popular favorites such as "Lost
," "Brothers & Sisters
" and "Desperate Housewives
" and buzzworthy 2007 debuts like "Pushing Daisies
On the downside, ABC has had just awful luck with sitcoms as of late. "Cavemen
," "The Knights of Prosperity
," "In Case of Emergency
," managed about a full 22 episodes between them. In fact, "According to Jim
" is the only long running "hit" sitcom on the network. When "According to Jim" is considered a hit, you know that you are in trouble.
CBS has been sharing the spoils with Fox for the past few seasons. While Fox has the edge in the all-important 18-49 demo, CBS is able to brag about consistent victories amongst total viewers. "America's Most Watched Network" has done a good job of staying the course, but that's about it. CBS has not offered much innovation in scheduling or programming recently, and they have not had success when trying to do so (i.e. the "Viva Laughlin
CBS has remained afloat thanks to procedurals such as the "CSI" series, "Without a Trace
" and "Criminal Minds
" and signature reality shows "Survivor
" and "The Amazing Race
." CBS is also home to the best sitcom on television today, "How I Met Your Mother
." Too bad it regularly gets pummeled by "Dancing with the Stars" on Monday nights.
The CBS strategy of remaining steady and not taking risks is risky in itself. Maintaining the status quo isn't enough these days. The television landscape is rapidly changing, and CBS will almost surely see its dominance erode if it just stays the course. It's time for some innovation from The Eye. Oh, and if CBS cancels "How I Met Your Mother," karma will ensure that it spends the better part of the next decade in the basement.
Poor CW. The marriage of netlets UPN and WB was supposed to create a "supernetlet" that would be more able to compete with the Big Four. Instead, what we got was the equivalent of a runty Chihuahua, trying desperately to run with the big dogs. So sad.
A common misconception was that the CW would benefit because it would draw the combined number of old UPN and WB viewers. Seeing how UPN and the WB had radically different audience demographics, it was foolish and presumptuous to assume that the new network would have an aggregate of the old netlets' shares.
It is hard to be too judgmental of the CW, because it is after all a new network. However, a few key mistakes have been made. The decision to revive the already deceased "7th Heaven" instead of picking up the still in its prime "Everwood
" is one of the largest. Including "Veronica Mars
" on its initial schedule was smart, but canceling it after its third season was most certainly not. The series had a small but passionate fan base and was a critical darling. Its numbers from last season actually don't look so bad compared to some of the disasters from this year.
Most embarrassing: "Online Nation." The reality series highlighted web sites, blogs and trends. Its ratings were pathetically low, and the fourth and final installment was seen by less than 600,000 viewers - a lower audience than a great many cable shows.
Oh, Fox. Many viewers have a love/hate relationship with the network, but no one can argue about the continued dominance of juggernaut "American Idol
." Thanks in large part to its premier reality series, Fox has been near or at the top for the last several years. This year, despite the absence of strike casualty "24
," Fox will still do well because of "Idol." But those numbers are somewhat artificial. Aside from "American Idol," "24" and "House
," there isn't all that much success on the Fox schedule. The Sunday night animation block puts up decent, but hardly large numbers. Other nights are similar, and of course there is the bevy of blink-and-you-miss-them shows that have become a staple of the world's most impatient network in recent years.
Ideally, Fox would like to use pre and post "Idol" timeslots to feature new series or critically acclaimed shows that suffer from a severe lack of ratings. Unfortunately, they have not done that enough in recent years (at least not successfully). The one major exception is "House," which was a fledgling series heading for an early demise before it received the coveted post-"Idol" spot in the spring of 2005. It has now become a monster hit in its own right.
So what can we expect in the future from Fox? More of the same, at least for the time being. Fox will ride the "American Idol" horse for as long as possible, but eventually they are going to have to come up with some new hits. Because a schedule of "Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader" and season 32 of "The Simpsons
" just won't cut it.
Finally, we have NBC. NBC was left for dead a few years back, but has since risen from the grave (in a non-zombie way) thanks to a schedule that features shows that are heavy on the critical praise. Too bad the ratings don't always follow. "The Office
," "My Name is Earl
," "Friday Night Lights
," and "30 Rock
" are all acclaimed and have collected numerous awards. Still, they all own ratings that are at best mediocre. Still, one has to admire the quality of programming that is being produced by the network, despite the dearth of numbers.
Old stalwarts like the "Law & Order
" series are fading fast, although the acquisition of "Sunday Night Football" has helped soften the blow in the last couple of years. NBC sometimes relies a little too heavily on unscripted programming such as "Deal or No Deal," but it is hard to blame them. That is one of the few shows on the schedule that is routinely competitive in its timeslot.
Things may not look great for the network right now, but that should change in the future. NBC is currently the antithesis of CBS. They have attempted to get back in the game by scheduling diverse, original and quality programming, and although the strategy has not led to ratings yet, it will someday. One has to admire the choices that NBC has made, even if the numbers are not in their favor.
How would you rank the networks? Which is your favorite? Least favorite? Leave a comment and let us know!
Story by Derek Krebs
Starpulse contributing writer