Death, taxes and CBS: The network primetime scorecard

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Ten weeks in, CBS has a lock on total viewers for the season. But the 18-49 demo is still up for grabs

With apologies to Benjamin Franklin, there are certain things you can’t escape in this life: death, taxes and CBS’ reign as the most-watched network.

Through Nov. 29 — 10 weeks into the current television season — CBS is, once again, leading in total viewers, according to Nielsen. Of course, NBC is tops in adults 18 to 49, but a lot of that is due to "Sunday Night Football," a crutch it will have to do without when the season ends in January. Yes, CBS will have lost "Thursday Night Football" as well, but with a more stable lineup, the network will not take nearly as big a hit.  

So with the Eye net a lock in total viewers for the entire season (its 11.78 average viewers, at present, is 1.81 million — or 18% — above second-place NBC), the top spot for adults 18 to 49 will soon be up for grabs. (See chart below)

Will NBC hold on?
The good news for the Peacock net is that "The Voice" has held up. And the successful arrivals of "Blindspot" and "Chicago Med," the latest in the Windy City franchise from Dick Wolf, mean that NBC is relatively solid in the scripted-drama department. Freshman "The Player" fizzled on Thursday, of course, and lackluster "Heroes Reborn" suggests that sometimes it is better to leave well enough alone. But the real challenge at NBC remains the lack of hit scripted comedies. While the latest entry "Superstore" got sampled this week out of "The Voice" on Monday (as will upcoming "Telenovela" with Eva Longoria next week), the two paired together in the Monday 8 p.m. hour in January have no chance of garnering much interest. Don’t be fooled.

CBS, once again, has the most hit shows of any broadcast network. And "Supergirl" on Monday, a truly bold move, has brought younger, more social media-savvy viewers to the traditionally older-skewing network. But aging dramas like "Criminal Minds," "Elementary" and "Hawaii Five-O" continue to lose steam. And CBS crowing that all four of its new series this fall have received additional episode orders is disingenuous, considering how comedy "Life in Pieces" is squandering the lead-in support from "The Big Bang Theory," and dramas "Limitless" and "Code Black" are modest at best. CBS must focus on the next generation of hit shows, and nothing this fall (or coming up in midseason) fits that description.

Thankfully for ABC, "Dancing With the Stars" hasn’t lost its groove. And both the Wednesday 8-10 p.m. comedy block and Thursday’s "Shondaland" lineup ("Grey’s Anatomy," "Scandal" and "How to Get Away with Murder") are solid. Throw in the compatibility of critically panned sitcom "Dr. Ken" out of "Last Man Standing" on Friday (into still reliable "Shark Tank") and promising frosh drama "Quantico" on Sunday, and the alphabet net looks none too shabby. But no network is perfect, ABC included; drama "Wicked City" goes down as the first new series canceled this fall. (And "Blood & Oil" on Sunday could be the next victim.) "The Muppets" proves that not all reboots are necessary. And veteran scripted hours like "Castle" and "Once Upon a Time" are fading.

Fox, of course, is focused on "Empire," which in Season Two remains the biggest hit show in years. And social-media bonanza newbie "Scream Queens" on Tuesday proves that there is more to survival than those pesky traditional Nielsen ratings. But aside from freshman drama "Rosewood," which benefits by leading into "Empire" (the official descriptor is "pre tune-in"), the rest of the network is a mess. And ongoing slippage for veteran Sunday night animated comedies "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy" is the story no one writes. Although the arrival of "American Idol" in midseason was once synonymous with an immediate boost for Fox, even this upcoming final season is unlikely to pack much punch. And always-reliable crime solver "Bones" may be put out to pasture this spring following the lawsuits filed by series stars David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel over lost profits.  

Bringing up the rear, as usual, is The CW, at least according to the traditional Nielsen ratings. But keeping "DC’s Legends of Tomorrow" in reserve till midseason (and scheduling it on Thursday, which gives it three consecutive nights of superhero-themed dramas) will only lift the network to more attention in social media. Good intentions often mean nil, so the network will have to address the low-rated combination of struggling hour-long comedies "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" into critically acclaimed "Jane the Virgin" on Monday. "Supernatural" can only last so long. "iZombie" is a disappointment out of "The Flash" on Tuesday. And moving tired "The Vampire Diaries" to Friday (into struggling spin-off "The Originals") will not save either series (or the evening). But veteran "America’s Next Top Model" is finally a wrap, and those three hours of comic book superheroes will probably lead to a fourth next season if The CW plays its programming cards right. Sometimes all you need is a theme.

By the Numbers (9/21/14 – 11/29/15)
(Percent Change Versus the Comparable Year-Ago Period is in Parentheses)

Total Viewers:
CBS: 11.78 million (-3), NBC: 9.97 (no change), ABC: 8.04 (-12), Fox: 6.35 (+ 1), CW: 1.95 (-10)

Adults 18-49:
NBC: 2.9 rating/10 share (- 3), CBS: 2.5/ 8 (- 4), ABC: 2.2/ 6 (-12), Fox: 2.1/ 7 (no change), CW: 0.8/ 3 (-11)

Source: Nielsen Media Research