Rearranging the Alphabet: Why ABC Made a Big Change, and Which of Your Favorite Shows Are in Danger
The broadcast networks' cable envy may be over.
At the start of the decade, a new wave of network presidents stormed the executive ranks with plans to save primetime via bold, buzzy cable-like programming.
NBC tried it with shows like Smash and Hannibal; CBS added limited-run summer series Under the Dome and Extant; and ABC launched edgy, serialized dramas, like Scandal, American Crime and Quantico.
Most of NBC's big swings didn't pan out (it was able to rely on NFL Sunday Night Football to mask some of those disappointments), and starting in 2012, the network began shifting to more mainstream fare with procedural drama Chicago Fire (which begat Chicago P.D. and Chicago Med) and The Blacklist, an action-adventure with weekly self-contained stories.
The success of those shows helped convince NBC to stop chasing cable and start appealing to the traditional (and yes, slightly older) primetime crowd. NBC now looks a bit more like CBS, which never forgot that a broadcast network must rely on populist shows like NCIS to keep the ratings strong.
It's not that easy at ABC. The Alphabet network is the only major broadcaster without NFL games to help boost ratings.
In good times, ABC could tout the fact that its viewership is pure, without the added support of pro football, and that its success extends far beyond ratings, reaching the pop-culture audience. (Hey, it works for cable and streaming TV: Orange Is the New Black is considered a hit based on buzz alone, since no one’s seen actual ratings on Netflix shows.)
And ABC had the most success reinventing itself as the home of shows that took giant leaps. That’s due particularly to uber-producer Shonda Rhimes, whose “TGIT” triumvirate (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder) helped define ABC as the home to serialized dramas that attracted the same cult-like devotion as some shows on cable and streaming media receive. Critics also applauded ABC’s Rhimes-inspired move to develop even heavier dramatic fare like John Ridley’s American Crime, which would have been considered a hit on cable.
On the comedy side, ABC has the most-defined brand of any network, succeeding by duplicating the success of unconventional family comedy Modern Family with shows like The Middle, The Goldbergs and black-ish, which just earned raves for an episode that touched on police brutality.
But in down times, the collapse stings. And this year was down. Way down. ABC has lost the most audience of any broadcast network this season, averaging 6.6 million viewers—down from 7.9 million last year. The network has also dropped to fourth place (behind CBS, NBC and Fox) in the advertiser-coveted key adults 18-49 and 25-54 demos.
“Who doesn’t have failures?” asks one ABC insider. But by January, ABC’s ratings further dipped as its hit shows went on hiatus, and critically-acclaimed but low-rated replacement series like American Crime and Agent Carter failed to deliver. “The narrative got away,” that insider says.
Behind the scenes, ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee–the architect of the network’s strategy to program upscale, prestige shows that generate heavy word of mouth–was waging a battle with his new boss, Disney-ABC Television Group president Ben Sherwood, about the direction of the network.
Sherwood, who is a novelist in his spare time, wanted more plot-driven (rather than serialized or character-driven) mass-appeal shows, while Lee believed in his vision of carving out unique intellectual properties for ABC in a world where ratings matter less.
That difference of opinion, ABC’s ratings drops, and a personality clash between the two (Lee bristled at Sherwood’s meddling) eventually led to Lee’s exit in February. Lee was replaced by the network's drama chief, Channing Dungey, who is now the first African American executive to lead a major broadcast network as entertainment president.
“She has an excellent story sense,” says Betsy Beers, who runs Rhimes’ Shondaland production company. “She speaks her mind, she’s honest and she’s straightforward. She wants the best work with the least drama.”
Dungey will now be in a position to speak her mind quite a bit in the coming months, as she and Sherwood map out ABC’s programming direction. ABC’s future will become more clear this May, when the networks announce their fall lineups. But if some of the speculation is true, that schedule might look a bit more mainstream than in recent years. Says one studio exec: “Broadcast networks will have to act more like broadcast networks to survive.”
In the meantime, here’s what to look out for at ABC:
Thank God for TGIT
Dungey is one of Rhimes’ biggest champions, and Shondaland has a deal with ABC Studios through 2018—so the "Thank God It's Thursday" triumvirate of Grey's Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder is a sure bet (and have all been renewed for next year), despite some ratings declines this year. The Catch, a new Rhimes-produced drama, premieres March 24, but ABC can only count on so many of her products. “They haven’t been able to clone her," jokes a rival network executive.
Shondaland pilots on tap for next season at ABC include Still Star-Crossed (a sequel of sorts to Romeo & Juliet) and Toast, a comedy from Greg Grunberg and Scott Foley.
Serialized Shows Like Nashville and American Crime Are in Trouble
Buzz and prestige are great–as long as the viewers show up. Nashville stuck around because of ABC’s interest in country music (it airs the CMA Awards) and the fact that the network had other timeslots to worry about. But this year, Nashville was likely on the chopping block, regardless of the executive shuffle. Meanwhile, shows like Agent Carter and American Crime are experiencing great reviews but terrible ratings in their sophomore seasons (leading many to criticize ABC for renewing one too many shows), and it’s unlikely Sherwood will have patience for either. As for Castle, it’s ABC’s one procedural—but ratings are down, and neither star has yet to sign on for another season.
Besides the TGIT shows, ABC has also already renewed dramas Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Once Upon a Time and Quantico.
ABC was stuck with a damned-if-they-do/damned-if-they-don’t choice this past fall, when it decided to schedule The Muppets without much prep time for the show’s producers. To be fair, ABC didn’t want to sit on a show that could potentially help its fall ratings; but by rushing it on the air too soon, The Muppets wound up feeling uneven to viewers, who sampled the show and then disappeared. ABC retooled The Muppets with a new showrunner, who gave it a lighter tone.
But audiences so far haven’t checked out the version. The Muppets, like ABC, are owned by Disney and remain an important franchise for the company. But The Muppets don’t quite fit into ABC’s family comedy milieu of Modern Family, Fresh Off the Boat, The Goldbergs, black-ish and The Middle (all of which have been renewed), making a return questionable. (Galavant is also on the bubble.)
Good News for News
Sherwood ran ABC News before taking on oversight of the entire network, and insiders say he’s keen on giving the division–which continues to narrowly win the morning news race in total viewers with Good Morning America–more exposure in primetime. That could mean more hours for longtime newsmagazine 20/20, as well as reality series produced by ABC News, including What Would You Do?
Reality Is Back
Staples Shark Tank, The Bachelor and Dancing with the Stars should remain an important part of the schedule, and Steve Harvey’s Celebrity Family Feud has given ABC a strong summer show to further expand its unscripted plate. Up next: $100,000 Pyramid, hosted by Michael Strahan, and To Tell the Truth, with Anthony Anderson. Sherwood’s ideal well-rounded ABC schedule would likely include more unscripted series. Game on!