With a dozen weeks to go before the 2011-12 broadcast season wheezes to a halt, ABC is suspended in a nearly airless equipoise between triumph and futility. For every new series that has landed on the network’s prime-time schedule like a stunned carp, there’s been an equal number of easy, breezy hits. The dynamic tension between boom and bust has left ABC in a familiar position—flat on its back, looking up at the stars.
Through Feb. 26, ABC is averaging a 2.5 rating in the crucial 18-49 demo, precisely where the network stood at the conclusion of the previous season. If ABC hasn’t moved the needle, it has stopped the bleeding; when the lights went out last May, ABC had lost 8 percent of its GRPs. Wholly static, ABC now trails NBC by two-tenths of a ratings point, having been edged out of third place after the Super Bowl (there is no defense against a 40.5 rating).
With four new series in the hopper—following the March 4 launch of the sudsy GCB, ABC will premiere two additional dramas in Missing (March 15) and Scandal (April 5), as well as the comedy Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 (April 11)—ABC has a good shot at reclaiming its place in the demographic pecking order. Clients seem particularly taken with Missing, a mystery/thriller with a continental flair, and Apartment 23 will enjoy the considerable advantage of occupying one of the most plum time slots on TV: Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m., leading out of Modern Family.
Despite its spotty record with new series, ABC is not facing great difficulties in the marketplace. Advertising revenue in the fall quarter was flat versus the year-ago period, and increased scatter pricing and greater demand for ABC’s comedies and newcomers like Revenge and Once Upon a Time could fuel a surge in the lead-up to the 2012-13 upfront.
While heavily promoted new efforts have fallen down on the job—after premiering to 7.59 million viewers and a 2.4 rating, Oren Peli’s paranormal adventure The River is dead in the water, averaging a mere 4.04 million viewers and a 1.5 rating on Feb. 28—makegoods are not an issue. “There aren’t any dire scenarios that I know of,” said one national TV buyer. “ABC has not been overwhelmed by makegoods. Of course, we’re realistic as an agency; we have our own estimates of what we buy versus what’s guaranteed, and we continuously update our estimates throughout the season.”
Most media buyers seem to be of the opinion that this season isn’t radically different than any other. Most shows fail. There are no must-buys. So it goes.
“TV’s tough. Every year you have a few shows that look promising, but they don’t live up to their premiere ratings,” said Gary Carr, svp, executive director, national broadcast, TargetCast tcm. “ABC has done a lot of promotion behind its new shows, and there’s always the chance that maybe one of them will hit.”
But for the rare instance in which a client goes all in on a show that badly misses its guarantees, exposure is limited by a diversified buying strategy. “In the last few years we’ve ratcheted down some of our broadcast investments for more cable, so we don’t really get hurt [by underdeliveries],” Carr said.