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Can the Broadcast Networks Keep Up This Fall?
September 20, 2019  | By Mike Hughes

Let's check the calendar one more time.

Is this really the second half of September? Then shouldn't we be abuzz about the new shows on the big broadcast networks – ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox?

That used to be the case, you know. One fall, NBC had banners throughout K-Mart stores. Another, ABC, had Desperate Housewives ads on dry cleaner hangers. Grids kept showing us what the day-by-day line-ups would be in the season ahead.

And now? K-Marts are closing, a desperate housewife is going to jail, and even TV Guide didn't print a new-season grid.

The Emmys mostly ignored the big four networks; NBC has two best-series nominees (This Is Us and The Good Place), while the others have none.

The New York Times reluctantly listed all the new shows but focused on streaming and cable. It added: "There are all the broadcast-network debuts, many of which won't be spoken of again."

Is that true? Will the big four become invisible and unspoken-of? Fielding questions from the Television Critics Association last month, their programming chiefs begged to differ.

Karey Burke of ABC pointed to a Nielsen list of the regular season's 50 most-watched shows. "All but six" were on broadcast, she said. "That surprised even me."

And that's in the 18-49 age category where cable thrives. If you simply take total viewers, broadcast has all but three of the top 50. The only exceptions are HBO's Game of Thrones (No. 4), ESPN's Monday Night Football (No. 13) and AMC's Walking Dead (No. 44).

Burke points to quantity: "At ABC, we reach nearly 150 million people (at least once) every month."

CBS' Kelly Kahl tops that. "We love reaching a huge audience, 240 million people this past season." He gets there by using a full season (rather than a month) and by being No. 1 overall. That Nielsen list (which includes seven-day delayed viewing via DVR or on-demand) puts his Big Bang Theory and NCIS at 17.4 and 15.9 million, trailing only Sunday football; only five cable shows top 4.5 million.

That doesn't mean all is well for networks, though. Situation comedies are usually their strength; last year, only eight were in the top 50 – including Big Bang (now gone) and three shows that basked in its shadow.

Now even one of the successful sitcoms (Fox's Last Man Standing) is temporarily on the shelf. Fox is starting the season without a single live-action (non-cartoon) sitcom.

Fox's Charlie Collier claims it's "an embarrassment of riches" while others might see it as a desperate attempt to stop viewers from time-shifting. They're most likely to delay scripted shows so, in the fall, Fox will be unscripted for half of each week – pro football on Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons, wrestling on Friday nights, college football Saturday afternoons and nights.

Then there's half of Wednesdays with The Masked Singer. Its success, Collier said, "is influencing the types of unscripted shows that we're pursuing – bold and brash, risk-taking and fun."

For viewers, that could be a good sign. Comfortable networks get bland; now, the big ones must try new things. At Fox, Collier talks about specials – including a six-episode sitcom – that will note Christmas  "in a very different way that feels very Fox."  At ABC, Burke ranges from an unusual Little Mermaid (juggling movie animation and singers working live), and a miniseries eyeing "the history of the civil rights movement through the eyes of its heroic women." At NBC, the final season of The Good Place is key to recapturing Thursdays.

The crucial question, of course, is whether the big four can come up with top-quality shows the way cable and streaming networks do. Critics disagree on this, but I'll offer a fairly optimistic view. Judging strictly by the first episodes, I'll say the new shows on the four broadcast networks include a few promising programs. 

There's one terrific comedy. That's Perfect Harmony (top, 8:30 p.m. ET, Thursdays, NBC), with a rare blend of warmth and snark. Also, two really good ones. They're both CBS shows that take opposite paths – the slow and sweet Bob (hearts) Abishola (8:30 p.m. ET, Mondays) and the quick-cutting The Unicorn (8:30 p.m. ET, Thursdays).

There's one strong drama – Stumptown (10 p.m. ET, Wednesdays, ABC). Also, a couple of dramas show promise with a brisk pace, bright settings, and occasional humor. All Rise is at 9 p.m. ET, Mondays on CBS, and Almost Family, 9 p.m. ET, Wednesdays on Fox (beginning Oct. 2).

There are two shows – both airing Tuesdays on ABC – that have dandy openers but leave us wondering about their future. mixed-ish (9 p.m. ET) seemed to burn through a lot of the plot in one half-hour, while Emergence (10 p.m. ET) is a fascinating sci-fi tale, but the sort that networks often abandon prematurely.

And there are others – some of which (CBS' Carol's Second Act, Fox's Bless the Harts) might not be spoken of again.

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