The fall 2015 network lineup: Does TV still matter?

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Fox's series "Empire" launches second season.
Fox's series "Empire" launches second season.

"Mr. Television" returns with his take on the new shows, his advancing demographic and the relevance of network TV in the Netflix age

I admit it. My summer guilty pleasure is "Big Brother." I miss "Jersey Shore." And I can’t wait for the return of "Survivor" every fall. And, guess what: I am not in the demo the broadcasters and advertisers covet. I am one of those people who should be in a rocker watching repeats of "Murder, She Wrote."

Perception is not always reality, however. After all, I recently changed my toothpaste brand, and I am thinking of buying a car other than a Toyota. So, let me begin this preview of the 2015-16 network television season by squelching one current myth: Network television is not dead.

Streamers like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, no doubt, are getting the lion’s share of attention at present. The rise of original programming on the trio is staggering, and the caliber of many of these series is quite good. But until we actually know who — and how many people — are watching, it is safe to assume that no show among the three (beloved "Orange is the New Black" included) is capable even of coming close to the reach of a popular network series.

Of course, not every show on network is "NCIS," "The Big Bang Theory," "Sunday Night Football" or "Empire." And four out of five freshman network series are unlikely to make it into a second season. But coming off this forgettable summer season, there could be a smaller rate of new network series failures this fall.

By the traditional Nielsen ratings, CBS will easily extend its perennial total-viewer winning streak. NBC is the network to narrowly beat in adults 18 to 49 thanks to blockbuster "Sunday Night Football." And five network audience levels should be similar to last season, which is certainly a positive as the competition rapidly increases.

Particularly promising is new Monday 10 p.m. ET drama "Blindspot." While NBC wasted the lead-in support from "The Voice" on "State of Affairs" last fall (Katherine Heigl … blech!), opening the series with a naked woman covered in tattoos certainly caught the attention of this critic.

"Scream Queens" on Fox from Ryan Murphy looks like pure fun, an escape following generic-looking new comedies "Grandfathered" (with John Stamos) and "The Grinder" (with Rob Lowe) in the Tuesday 9 p.m. hour. (Aren’t those two the same person?) And the "Dallas" fan in me (damn TNT for ending the recent revival on a cliffhanger!) would like to think Sunday 9 p.m. ABC drama "Blood & Oil" (with Don Johnson) is worth getting to know. There is something so appealing about an attractive, dysfunctional family. But facing football on NBC could be a suicide mission, because the broadcast networks are not digital streamers. Nielsen ratings still count (and ABC should find a better time slot for appealing new drama "Quantico" instead of out of "Blood & Oil").

With series based on comic book superheroes visible everywhere, it is understandable why CBS would give "Supergirl" a shot. But you won’t see Melissa Benoist morph into the sexy Monday night crime fighter until Oct. 26. By then live variety hour "Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris" will be nearing the end of its initial 10 episodes. The only thing missing in that first haphazard episode (on Sept. 15) was a big splashy pool for Neil to dive into courtesy of 1970s variety-shlock producers Sid and Marty Krofft. Sheesh!

While I will also give a potential thumbs up to new CBS Tuesday 10 p.m. drama "Limitless," based on the movie, fans of Bradley Cooper will be disappointed to know he is only making occasional appearances. And the probable older-skewing appeal of NBC’s "Chicago Med" on Tuesday and CBS’ "Code Black" on Wednesday proves that sometimes the familiar is a better formula.

Curiosity, meanwhile, could warrant initial interest in the revival of "The Muppets," which is anchoring ABC on Tuesday. But the idea of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy tackling real life issues is as wacky as CBS casting Matthew Perry as Oscar Madison in the revival of "The Odd Couple" (which returns in midseason).

Bottom of the barrel is sitcom "Truth Be Told," which — opposite ABC’s also bland "Dr. Ken" on Friday—will not solve NBC’s current comedy woes. But you might certainly get a chuckle (or two) out of The CW’s hour-long "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" on Monday, which should fit well in critically acclaimed (but low-rated) "Jane the Virgin."

In the category I will call "I Really Wanted to Like, but …" we have dramas "Minority Report" and "Rosewood" on Fox and "The Player" on NBC; and CBS comedies "Life in Pieces" and "Angel From Hell." While not necessarily the crème of the crap, only "Life in Pieces" will probably register in the ratings because it airs out of "The Big Bang Theory." Let’s kill another myth: Lead-in still counts.

Unfortunately, the chance of a new network hit series the caliber of Fox’s "Empire" is nil. And the proven returnees will continue to dominate the landscape; call it "that familiar thing." But the success of "Empire" is indeed the perfect reason why network television is still a particularly valuable vehicle. It can still be huge, and it is not evaporating anytime soon.


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