Analysis: NBC ascends, bench buoys CBS while Fox and ABC face uphill battle

There’s a discernible dividing line this season between TV’s haves and have-nots.

As the major nets prepare to spin their stories at the winter Television Critics Assn. tour in Pasadena during the next two weeks, an ascending NBC is the 2012-13 campaign’s biggest story, riding top shows “Sunday Night Football” and “The Voice” (above) to a surprising worst-to-first transformation among adults 18-49. CBS, while down from last year, is easily the most balanced net and the strongest overall going forward.

On the other end of the ratings spectrum are ABC and Fox. ABC has some pockets of strength, but Fox is struggling across most of its sked.

Overall, the broadcasters are having a tough time without much in the way of buzzworthy new shows while cable continues to chip away. Dramas like AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” and niche reality shows on several networks — many of them doing especially well among men — are now often beating the Big Four in key demos.

Through 13 weeks of the season, the major broadcast networks were down a collective 7% in adults 18-49, according to Nielsen. NBC was the only gainer (up 24%) while second-place CBS was down 12%, third-place ABC was off by 8% and fourth-place Fox tumbled by 25%.

Fox has won eight straight seasons in the adults 18-49 demo, but that run is in jeopardy.

CBS and NBC are neck-and-neck in the battle for the lead among adults 25-54, and the Eye is running away with the race for overall viewership, a category it has dominated for more than a decade.

Here’s a deeper dive into the status of each of the Big Four networks at the midseason mark.

NBC

After years of creative bankruptcy and weak leadership, the Peacock is pushing a lot of the right buttons these days. The quality of its new programs is vastly improved, and the net’s skedding strategy has paid off with a ratings surge. It wrapped fall as No. 1 in 18-49 for the first time in nine years.

Of course, it helps to have had “The Voice” to employ as a weapon in the fall — and the placement of the young, hot music contest on Monday turned out to be smart as it underscored that the shows that defined the night for rivals in recent years (“Dancing With the Stars,” “House,” “Two and a Half Men”) were either fading or have gone missing.

The net is No. 1 in 18-49 on three nights: Monday and Tuesday with “The Voice” and Sunday with football.

“Revolution,” which followed “The Voice” on Monday, is the season’s No. 1 new series in 18-49, and Tuesday comedies “Go On” and “The New Normal” (which air in the hour after “The Voice”) give the Peacock some half-hours that can help define its comedy brand.

NBC will experience a few tough months without football and “The Voice” (as well as “Revolution,” whose hiatus coincides with “Voice’s” winter break). The net will get a chance to see how two other shows that were aided in their first seasons by airing after “The Voice” — “Smash” and “Go On” — can do without the music contest airing in front of it.

Aside from “The Voice” lifts, NBC has also likely benefited from increased circulation overall; it’s up on every night and roughly flat year to year with Sunday’s football.

“Parenthood” is beating dramas on ABC and CBS among 18-49ers in its Tuesday hour, and first-year Wednesday drama “Chicago Fire,” one of the shows predicted by many to go up in flames early, has hung tough, hitting a new demo high this week.

NBC took a lot of heat for assembling a lackluster Thursday lineup of low-rated comedies and newsmag “Rock Center” at 10 — and is paying for it with an abysmal ratings perf. But its resources were better spent elsewhere, and it allowed for “The Office” and “30 Rock” to have a swan-song run on their longstanding night. And as “Rock Center” moves to Friday, “Do No Harm” seems like a good replacement for the net to close out Thursday.

Another plus for the Peacock this season is its younger skew: Of its top 10 series, only “Law & Order: SVU” has a median age above 50, and NBC is the only network to have a younger median age this season (48.0) than last (48.9). In this regard, it’s now closer than it’s ever been to youngest broadcaster Fox (45.9) and the Peacock’s median age is nearly identical to that of the general primetime TV viewing population (47.8).

Bottom line: NBC will finish fourth a lot of weeks as winter wears on, but its overall outlook going forward is fairly rosy.

CBS

CBS put a lot of its eggs in Thursday’s basket, with mostly good results, and the net is a dominant No. 1 on the night in adults 18-49 — up 14% from last year.

The move of “Two and a Half Men” behind megahit “The Big Bang Theory” has made for TV’s top-rated comedy hour (with “Men” retaining a hefty 70% of its lead-in). This has boosted 9 p.m.’s “Person of Interest” (the biggest gainer among returning dramas on any net this fall), while rookie drama “Elementary” is slightly ahead of last year’s “The Mentalist” in the 10 o’clock hour.

“Elementary” has been a solid performer, but CBS was likely hoping for more given the net’s considerable strength in the night’s preceding hours. This is one of the reasons why the Sherlock Holmes drama was chosen to get the post-Super Bowl slot, when millions of eyeballs will be sampling it for the first time.

It hasn’t been a great fall for new CBS shows, as the net quickly put “Made in Jersey” out of its misery and pulled “Partners” from Monday. Vet “Rules of Engagement” should strengthen Monday and lift “2 Broke Girls,” which has done fairly well in the 9 o’clock slot but is down from last year when it was sandwiched between “How I Met Your Mother” and “Two and a Half Men.” CBS has faced tough season-to-season comps this time around because “Men” was so strong in fall 2011 with Ashton Kutcher’s debut.

Midseason cop drama “Golden Boy” sounds good on paper, but its Friday timeslot suggests the net doesn’t have big expectations. “The Job,” a new reality contest from Mark Burnett and Michael Davies, should do fine on Friday, keeping the “Undercover Boss” timeslot warm.

Overall, CBS has gotten older this year (median age: 56.3), and that’s evident in the fact that while it’s down 5% in overall viewership, the declines are by a greater 12% in 18-49 and 25-54 but just 3% among viewers 50 and older. A show like Tuesday rookie drama “Vegas” has been a good draw among 50-plus auds, but it’s soft among younger adults.

Despite its older skew, though, the Eye’s core sked is so strong in 18-49 — it has 12 of the top 25 series among young adults and ranks first or second in the demo on all five weeknights — that the combination of its hit series and the final two NFL games of the season (the AFC Championship and Super Bowl in primetime) should give CBS a sweep for the season in 18-49, 25-54 and total viewers.

“Big Bang Theory” is a monster, up 18% from last year and TV’s top-rated non-sports series in 18-49 and 25-54. “NCIS” is No. 1 (even ahead of football) in total viewers; “How I Met Your Mother” and “Mike & Molly” remain potent Monday comedy bookends; and “Criminal Minds” and “CSI” are a strong combo on Wednesday.

Most of CBS’ year-to-year declines are coming on Monday, where a weaker comedy lineup combined with tougher NBC competition from “The Voice” has resulted in losses of more than 30%.

Bottom line: Despite a lack of production from most of its first-year shows, a deep lineup of hits, a healthy dose of postseason NFL action and declines at Fox will help CBS finish on top in adults 18-49 for the first time.

ABC

Depending on how you look at it, the glass is either half-full or half-empty: The Alphabet net throws a lot of stuff against the wall that doesn’t stick, but it also has its share of hits.

“Modern Family” is one of TV’s top scripted series and “Grey’s Anatomy” is still one of the top dramas in 18-49. Sunday’s combo of second-year dramas “Once Upon a Time” and “Revenge” is doing about as well as could be expected.

ABC is the only Big Four net that doesn’t get a boost from NFL action, hurting its overall averag
es. But as an indicator of how its 18-49 standing is a bit misleading, the Alphabet was No. 1 in C3 ratings (the advertising metric for commercial viewed live and within three days of premiere) for non-sports programs through November, slightly ahead of CBS.

The Alphabet was also a bit ahead of CBS among non-sports adults 18-49 ratings for viewers living in households earning $100,000 or more, a list topped by “Modern Family.”

ABC has two of the season’s quieter successes in sophomore Thursday drama “Scandal” and reality show “Shark Tank,” a great fit for Friday night. Over the final few fall episodes, “Scandal” retained more than 75% of “Grey’s,” which will look to rebound after a so-so fall.

Two other newcomers, Wednesday’s “The Neighbors” and “Nashville,” are doing well enough to stay on the sked but are clearly below what the network had hoped. “Neighbors” is the sore thumb on the night’s lineup (airing between “The Middle” and “Modern Family”), and “Nashville” is down from last fall’s “Revenge” but is competitive in 18-49 with CBS’ “CSI” once all DVR playback is counted.

Friday newcomer “Malibu Country” and sophomore “Last Man Standing” are doing OK, improving the net’s opening-hour perf vs. last fall. It might be interesting to see ABC try “Neighbors” on Friday at some point.

One comedy tryout (or burnoff) already skedded will take place in January, when original segs of Tuesday’s low-rated “Happy Endings” and “Don’t Trust the B in Apt. 23″ replace the yanked “666 Park Avenue.”

Thursday at 8 remains a problem spot for ABC, and it’s doubtful that intense new drama “Zero Hour” will click where others like “Flash Forward,” “Missing” and this season’s “Last Resort” have failed.

ABC smartly abandoned its plan to try out two new comedies in Tuesday’s opening hour, opting instead for reality show “The Taste” and then “Celebrity Diving”; it’s a decent place for these shows and they should improve upon ABC’s low-bar season average in the timeslot.

Bottom line: ABC hasn’t done anything to take advantage of “Modern Family” on Wednesday or to improve a few black-hole timeslots, but there are some bright spots across the lineup.

Fox

By programming fewer hours than its rivals, Fox’s fortunes can rise or fall quickly — and the net is definitely experiencing some challenging times this season as “The X Factor” dropped about 20% in its second year and new shows on Monday and Tuesday failed to connect with viewers.

And at a time when the broadcasters in general are having a tough time recruiting men to watch anything other than sports, the most guy-geared network seems to be searching for an identity.

The net’s Sunday animated comedies still bring in men, but its midweek nights are fairly female while Monday. after losing “House,” could use anybody of either gender to tune in. There could be some help coming via promising serial killer drama “The Following”; the Kevin Bacon-fronted show replaces rookie dud “The Mob Doctor,” which contributed to Fox’s Monday tumbling more than 40% from last year.

The all-comedy Tuesday strategy sounded like a good one when Fox planned it, but “New Girl” is down about 30% in its second season, “Raising Hope” isn’t strong enough to lead off, and newbies “Ben & Kate” and “The Mindy Project” are struggling. It’s unlikely the net will reverse course this season, but given the low numbers on the night, it has to be considering trimming its Tuesday reliance on comedies when it looks ahead to next fall.

“American Idol” will give Fox a much-needed lift in mid-January. While the show was TV’s top entertainment series in demos last year, it’s unlikely to rally that much even with new judges in its 12th season. And by airing two-hour episodes on Wednesday and leading into an established show on Thursday (“Glee”), the music contest (like “X Factor” in the fall) won’t be able to help launch a much-needed new hit.

In fact, there simply aren’t many growth openings or opportunities on the Fox sked, and therein lies one of its biggest problems.

It’s unlikely, for example, that “Bones,” “Glee” or the Sunday animated comedies will suddenly start gaining viewers; yet, their loyal audiences and solid-enough ratings make it tough to remove them; there’s no guarantee that a new show could fare a lot better in their tough timeslots.

Fox has entered January further behind the ratings leader in the past (it lagged CBS and ABC by about a point 1.1 in the 2005-06 season), but that was with “Idol” in its prime and with the net stronger on its other nights.

Bottom line: Things will improve in the second half of the season, but it won’t be enough to put Fox in its customary first-place standing come May.

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