With just over six weeks to go before the broadcast networks unveil their programming plans for next season, planning is heavily underway to fix what these broadcasters touted as the "perfect" primetime line-ups at the upfronts last May. The rise of digital, of course, has led many to question the future of broadcast. And another year of more original programming options than ever before (aka "Peak TV") only adds to the difficulty of actually finding an audience. No outlet in any environment has it easy these days.
Obstacles aside, the caliber of the programming remains of the utmost importance for everyone. It always comes back to tapping into what the audience is interested is consuming (which is never an easy feat). And then, of course, the goal is to find the appropriate time period. Even in the growing digital arena where the "when you want where you want programming philosophy" prevails, lead-in and counter-programming on the broadcast networks still matters.
With that in mind, here is a look, by network, at just what exactly needs to be addressed. Saturday, as always, is excluded from any discussions since no network will aggressively program it. And because Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox is officially underway, I have paired ABC and Fox.
ABC and Fox
Fox, as previously discussed, is now more mass appeal in natural, with the return of "Thursday Night Football" and the arrival of wresting’s "Smackdown Live" on Friday next fall all the more reason to believe the once emphasis on cutting-edge programming will continue to be dumbed down. With wresting on Friday, there is only one direction for Fox to move in next season: up.
Since "Last Man Standing," formerly a Friday night staple on ABC and now on Fox in the same time period, will be in need of a home, I can see ABC putting it back as the Friday night anchor. As much as ABC prides itself on its family-programming theme, only one sitcom, "The Conners," was successful this season from a traditional ratings standpoint (even veteran "Modern Family" is down), and generic "Last Man Standing" is just the ingredient it needs to jumpstart the HUT-challenged evening.
That means that ABC’s "Fresh Off the Boat" could be history (as well it should be at this point). While three-year old "Speechless," also a current ratings-bust, is in need of a fourth season for off-network, ABC should rid its line-up of sitcom fumblers like sophomore "Splitting Up Together" and newbies "Single Parents" and "Schooled." Let’s hope creatively worthly (but also ratings-challenged) "The Kids Are Alight" is granted a second season, however. Quality should count and this half-hour is like "The Wonder Years" of present day.
As for the "The Conners," the recent second season renewal was a no-brainer. Too bad, though, that it is only for 13 episodes. But with two more episodes that the 11 half-hours in season one, let’s hope the writers give Michael Fishman as D.J. a storyline. Oh, and there is another Conner son, Jerry Garcia, and his cousin, Jackie’s son Andy, to contend with.
Fox, unfortunately, will not change its animated Sunday theme. So, expect "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy," both shells of their former selves by the traditional ratings, to continue on the evening. But wouldn’t it be great for Fox to make a bold move and position worthy Ryan Murphy action drama "9-1-1" in the Sunday 8 or 9 p.m. hour? Note to Fox (or any broadcaster): Look how well NBC has fared on Wednesday by making its aggressive Chicago-themed move this season.
If it does not move back to ABC, Fox could utilize "Last Man Standing" to anchor Tuesday. Current time period occupant "Lethal Weapon" needs to go, and that would give the Tuesday 9 p.m. hour a potential boost. The return of "Empire" (minus dumbbell Jussie Smollett) and "Star" is likely on Wednesday.
On ABC, "Dancing With the Stars" is a likely returnee on Monday, and there is still life left in the old warhorse to ignite interest in a live results show. So, I would pare the results down to one half-hour and position it in the Tuesday 9:30 p.m. half-hour to give the Tuesday 10 p.m. time period a boost. While moving "A Million Little Things" out of veteran "Grey’s Anatomy" saved that drama, the network is lagging overall at 10 p.m. and the emphasis must be on repairing the hour to give the late local news for its affiliate stations a lift.
One way to do so, perhaps, is to move "Shark Tank" from Sunday, where it has been unsuccessfully buried for the last two seasons, and give it a 10 p.m. weeknight time period. I would also give up on freshman drama "The Rookie," and consider Nathan Fillion when ABC decides to reboot "Castle." And, trust me, it will.
As for that killer Sunday opposite football on NBC, ABC should take the aggressive route and drop the reality for some new scripted dramas. Perhaps, Dick Wolf is the man to tackle it with the network’s planned revival of "New York Undercover." After all, he seems to have the Midas touch.
Let’s face it…life without "The Big Bang Theory" will take its toll on Thursday (not to mention the network’s weekly and season average). The chance of some sort of a new spin-off is certainly likely; no network knows how to really let any successful series go. But no concept has even been discussed yet (other than CBS Entertainment President Kelly Kahl suggesting he would consider the idea at the recent Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour). And "Young Sheldon" as the Thursday 8 p.m. anchor, a probable move, will lose steam minus the lead-in support from Adult Sheldon and company.
My suggestion, instead, is to focus on something entirely original in the comedy department out of "Young Sheldon" and promote it excessively. While a new "Big Bang" spin-off will warrant initial sampling, I still believe the better long-term solution is something more original. And I would rid the Thursday line-up of recent entry "Fam" and forget about another season of "Life in Pieces" (which opens season four on April 4) and that unnecessary reboot of "Murphy Brown." Neither has the goods to built with in the future (no does "Man With a Plan" on Monday, for that matter). In other words, CBS has too many mid-level rated sitcoms on its line-up.
Since Tuesday and Friday work well, the network needs to address holes on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday. One of the obstacles on the Eye net at present is the growing number of modest performing scripted dramas (such as "Magnum, P.I.," "SEAL Team," "S.W.A.T.," "Madam Secretary" and "Elementary"). While "Criminal Minds" is finally concluding next season, it outstayed its welcome by about three seasons.
The immediate positive news for CBS on Monday is sitcom "The Neighborhood," which has progressed adequately throughout its first season. But the rest of the night is a concern (including older-skewing "Bull" at 10 p.m., which is an unlikely returnee following accusations last fall of sexual misconduct by Eliza Dushku against series star Michael Weatherly).
"Survivor" on Wednesday at this point will outlive us all. If it isn’t broke, no need to fix it. But 9-11 p.m. in midweek is soft (the jury is still out on newbie reality/competition "Million Dollar Mile"). Thursday will not benefit without aforementioned "The Big Bang Theory." And Sunday is a haven for the Grecian formula aged crowd. With drama "God Friended Me" and "NCIS: Los Angeles" adequate opposite "Sunday Night Football," weak link "Madam Secretary" should probably go.
Of the four main broadcast networks, NBC has the least amount of primetime hours in need of fixing. And it can thank the return of "Sunday Night Football," two nights of singing competition "The Voice," family drama "This Is Us," and the Wednesday night of Dick Wolf Chicago-set dramas – "Med," "Fire" and "PD" – for that distinction. This alone means one half of the network’s 22-hour weekly schedule is intact. And, then there are returning freshman dramas "Manifest" and "New Amsterdam," which can easily remain in their respective Monday and Tuesday 10 p.m. ET time periods (or move to Thursday or Friday, perhaps, to ignite those evenings).
The Peacock network’s obstacle, year after year, is its lack of hit comedies. Even critical favorite "Will & Grace," which returned after a 10-year absence last season with respectable ratings, is on the considerable downside. Outside of Thursday, only Friday remains an option for sitcoms on NBC, and that is unlikely to happen. So, what NBC must do is find the one new comedy it believes has the most potential and promote it to the hilt as the Thursday 8 p.m. option. With "The Big Bang Theory" on CBS about to end, there could be potential. And the answer is not to keep "Superstore" in that time period (or "The Good Place" and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," for that matter).
While NBC should be admired for at least still programming Friday with scripted programming options, "Blindspot" and "The Blacklist" are soft at best. So, yes…it is time for a new Friday night scripted drama. And because NBC overall has less holes to fill, it is just the network to do it.