ABC is riding a roller coaster into upfronts.
With three weeks left in the broadcast season, the Alphabet has seen more highs and lows in 2017-18 than the rest of the Big Four broadcasters combined. On one hand, the network boasts the most watched new comedy (“Roseanne”), the most watched new drama (“The Good Doctor”), and the most watched new unscripted show (“American Idol”) — one of which is poised to finish as the season’s highest rated series. On the other, ABC lost its franchise drama producer to Netflix (Shonda Rhimes), did possible damage to its relationship with its top comedy creator (Kenya Barris), and saw two of its biggest new primetime stars embroiled in scandal (Roseanne Barr and Ryan Seacrest).
On top of all that, its parent company just made a play to buy a suite of entertainment companies that includes Hollywood’s most successful television-studio operation and announced it would launch a streaming service that will be home to several high-profile shows that might otherwise have landed on broadcast. And then there’s the matter of the creatively challenged “Inhumans.”
The sailing hasn’t been smooth for ABC, but the voyage was fruitful. After years mired in fourth place in the 18-49 demo, ABC is tied with third-place Fox with an average 1.5 Nielsen live-plus-same day demo rating in primetime and is within seven hundredths of a point of tying CBS for second — despite being the only one of the three nets without an NFL package. (NBC, aided by the Super Bowl and Winter Olympics, far outpaces the competition at 2.2.)
With a 1.8 demo rating and 9.8 million viewers, “The Good Doctor” has been a surprise hit for ABC, which for years has struggled to add successful episodic dramas to a roster dominated by serialized soaps. Hailing from Sony Pictures Television, it will wrap the season as the highest rated new broadcast drama in the demo, and ABC’s second most watched hour-long series behind “Grey’s Anatomy.”
“American Idol” has also been a win for ABC, albeit a qualified one. The FremantleMedia competition show was the centerpiece of ABC’s upfront last year and the most talked about programming move made by any broadcaster heading into the season. A tortuous casting process began with big checks being given to anchor judge Katy Perry ($25 million per season) and host Ryan Seacrest ($12 million). Months then passed before the judges panel was filled out with the more reasonably priced Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie. The show premiered March 11 to a respectable 2.3 in the demo and 10.5 million total viewers, then saw numbers decline.
But a shift to a live format with a Disney-themed episode Sunday yielded the show’s best ratings since the premiere, giving ABC a positive narrative to push. Sources tell Variety that a renewal for the show is effectively a lock, with all three judges likely to be on hand at ABC’s upfront May 15, their options picked up for a second season.
The solid new numbers also reinforced Seacrest’s viability. In February, Variety reported on accusations made by the host’s former stylist Suzie Hardy, who claimed that Seacrest subjected her to years of unwanted sexual harassment and aggression. But the reporting of the allegations’ details appears not to have dampened “Idol” viewers’ enthusiasm for the show.
Controversy around the star of “Roseanne,” meanwhile, appears to have been a boon to the comedy series’ return. When the new season of “Roseanne” debuted in March it shattered expectations, premiering back-to-back episodes to a 5.2 demo rating and 18.4 million viewers — better numbers than the original series finale netted more than 20 years ago. The show’s ratings became a national news story, and a renewal order soon followed.
Much of the interest in “Roseanne” appears to have been generated by its star’s vocal support for Donald Trump — an unpopular position in Hollywood, but one that played well in Midwestern states, where the show performed best. But Barr has courted outrage, taking to Twitter to espouse debunked far-right conspiracy theories and falsely accusing a teenage mass-shooting survivor of delivering a Nazi salute in public. And with three weeks left in the show’s run, a cooling effect appears to have kicked in. Tuesday’s episode was down 26% from the week prior in the demo and was second in its timeslot in total viewers behind CBS’ “NCIS.”
But the strong performance of ABC’s 2017-18 freshmen was nonetheless a welcome tonic for the broadcaster, which has confronted some high-level talent relations issues. In August, a month before the season began, power producer Shonda Rhimes left her longtime home at ABC Studios for a Netflix deal worth a reported $100 million. Then in March, Variety reported that ABC had indefinitely shelved a politically charged episode of “Black-ish” due to “creative differences” with series creator Kenya Barris. The Hollywood Reporter wrote the following month that Barris was looking to leave his ABC Studios deal less than a year after signing a three-year extension in the hopes of moving to Netflix. Sources tell Variety that relations between Barris and the studio have since calmed, but were extremely tense after the decision not to broadcast the episode.
And not all ABC’s big moves delivered upside. “Inhumans,” the network’s most recent collaboration with Marvel Television, was a low-rated disaster, mocked by critics and genre fans, and caused friction between Disney siblings ABC and Marvel. Then in February, Disney announced that the first-ever live-action “Star Wars” TV series — something ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey had expressed hope publicly would some day be part of ABC’s lineup — would premiere on the parent company’s in-the-works direct-to-consumer platform .
Disney’s looming acquisition of the bulk of 21st Century Fox’s media properties, meanwhile, has introduced an element of uncertainty to both companies. Disney has been tight-lipped about how Fox’s television operations, including cable channel FX and the massive 20th Century Fox Television studio unit will be integrated with Disney-ABC, and which executives will hold the most power once the dust settles.
But “The Good Doctor,” “American Idol,” and “Roseanne” will give Dungey the opportunity to take a victory lap at ABC’s upfront presentation — something her predecessor Paul Lee rarely had the chance to do. When Dungey took over for Lee in 2016, she set about trying to broaden female-skewing ABC’s programming slate. With her big three soon-to-be sophomore wins hand, she can make a compelling argument that she’s done just that.