Rookie shows revive ABC

Freshman foursome offset fading 'Dancing'

What NBC expects to take years has been achieved in a matter of weeks at ABC: the launch of a next generation of viable new primetime series.

While the Peacock has seen its longstanding ratings woes only deepen this fall, the Alphabet has bowed two strong rookie dramas in “Once Upon a Time” and “Revenge,” while also looking good on the comedy side with “Last Man Standing” and “Suburgatory.”

All four series and returning sophomore laffer “Happy Endings” have already received back-nine orders, as well a a hat tip from CEO Bob Iger on Disney’s call with analysts Thursday in which he described them as “promising signs” for the network.

The bumper crop couldn’t have come soon enough, given that ABC is seeing double-digit declines in a trio of returning stalwarts. Seven weeks into the new season, ABC is flat in total viewers and 18-49 compared with the same period a year ago due to steep declines for “Dancing With the Stars” (down 24% among viewers 18-49 on Mondays), “Desperate Housewives (-22%) and a sizable falloff for the still-potent “Grey’s Anatomy” (-11%).

Luckily, another ABC vet entry is stronger than ever: “Modern Family” has risen 26% in part thanks to record-setting DVR playback. The Emmy-winning comedy has taken the network from third to first on Wednesdays despite stiff competition from Fox’s “The X Factor.”

But what may bode best of all for ABC is programming chief Paul Lee’s decision to hold back what some say were the most promising projects in development for midseason, where they could help offset the drag of sinking vets.

Lee isn’t ready to crow this early in the season, though.

“We’re really encouraged, it’s been a really strong start,” he said. “But this is a marathon, not a sprint.”

The quickness with which ABC is rebuilding is all the more remarkable when you consider the net finished the 2010-11 season separated from fourth-place NBC by just two-tenths of a ratings point in 18-49, 2.5 vs. 2.3. Though NBC went into the fall with fewer assets than ABC on which to rebuild, some speculated that the ratings spike the Peacock will get from the Super Bowl in January was going to be enough to pull NBC past ABC into third place.

Nevertheless, NBC’s new parent company, Comcast Corp., has sought to set modest expectations for the network’s turnaround with repeated assurances from CEO Brian Roberts on down that a comeback was going to take years. As recently as Tuesday, Comcast CFO Michael Angelakis said of NBC, “I encourage everyone to be pretty patient.”

There’s no one reason for the emergence of ABC’s new foursome, though three of the shows fill gaps in the creative landscape of primetime. “Time” offers some of the mythos-heavy magic no network has been able to bottle since “Lost” left the air. “Standing” delivers on the deeply conventional multi-camera family sitcom that’s been missing since CBS’ “Everybody Loves Raymond” ended. “Revenge” may be the freshest take on the primetime soap in more than a decade.

An added coup for Lee is that the two new dramas successes are produced by ABC Studios, which he also oversees. “Suburgatory” is from Warner Bros. TV and “Standing” is from Twentieth.

Lee credits the success of the shows to a number of factors, from their distinctive creative voices to the strength of their respective showrunners. But the biggest factor may have been his strategy to stagger series launches amid the crush of new fall offerings, particularly “Time,” which soaked up considerable marketing support ahead of a late October bow.

“He’s a very good programmer with some fresh ideas,” said longtime TV-industry analyst Shari Anne Brill. “He’s deploying assets very strategically.”

Of course, not all of ABC’s new series clicked. “Charlie’s Angels” was savaged by critics and ignored by viewers in a tough Thursday time period. “Pan Am” has wobbled a bit, but Lee has ordered more scripts given that the series is skewing strong to ABC’s sweet spot among upscale viewers.

A more pressing concern is the decline of ABC’s warhorses, though Lee hasn’t given up on any of them. “Dancing,” he believes, was battered by a combination of the distraction in the Monday 9 p.m. timeslot provided by “Two and a Half Men” and a cast of dancers that couldn’t match the buzz Ashton Kutcher was bringing to CBS.

“If you look at ‘Dancing’ over the last few seasons, it goes up and down depending on the cast and the zeitgeist,” Lee said. “Certainly we think its going to come back over time.”

Lee also thinks “Housewives,” which ABC signaled before the season began would be entering its last, will draw strength as the end comes near.

Alternatively, he sees no finish line in sight for “Anatomy,” which still leads the competition in its tough Thursday 9 p.m. timeslot and does well in DVR viewing.

“Dancing” comes off the air later this month to make way for a new gameshow, “You Deserve It,” and in January, another veteran reality series, “The Bachelor.” ABC has yet to commit to what will come in Tuesday at 9 p.m. to replace the “Dancing” results show or Thursday at 8 p.m. in place of “Angels,” whose last scheduled airing was Thursday night.

“Clearly the job is to launch franchises over the next few years to replace the ones that defined the last few years,” Lee said.

What could determine whether ABC’s primetime sked experiences an overall ratings resurgence is how Lee plays a well-stocked hand of midseason offerings. The net has used the Academy Awards as a promotional launching pad to generate strong sampling for shows in recent years including “Grey’s Anatomy” in 2005 and “Secret Millionaire” earlier this year, and would seem to have several options this season.

In addition to tart-tongued “GCB” and Shonda Rhimes’ “Scandal,” the network is sitting on thriller “The River” and Ashley Judd vehicle “Missing.” There are also some comedies waiting in the wings including “Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23.” Look for at least three of these series to get berths in the first quarter of next year. And don’t forget returning staples like “Wipeout” and “Cougar Town.”

ABC is far from resting on its laurels looking ahead at 2012-13. The network spent very aggressively in a development season in which by all accounts NBC went on a virtual shopping spree.

Lee is keeping a close eye on making sure the new frosh maintain their creative vitality. ABC has seen series start strong only to wilt in the second half of the season, going back to White House drama “Commander in Chief,” which had all the makings of a hit in 2005 before suddenly capsizing mid-run.

Despite ABC’s renewed strength, Fox and CBS probably aren’t sweating too much. Both are averaging a 3.5 in the demo, far ahead of ABC’s 2.8.

It hasn’t been all misery for NBC either, given its modest success with two rookie entries, comedy “Up All Night” and drama “Grimm.” The Peacock has high hopes for the Super Bowl keying the return of unscripted hit “The Voice” and the launch of drama “Smash.”

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