As the broadcast networks begin trotting out their midseason replacements, it’s worth noting that series that bow in January are the children of necessity and diminished expectations. They exist to fill the hole left by a show that didn’t even make it out of the fall, thereby lowering a bar that’s already more or less at worm’s-eye level.
And yet, despite the dross that arrives every January (we’re talking about you, Mr. Sunshine), there are a few promising specimens tucked in with this winter’s crop, series that seem to offer a fresh start for viewers and the network execs who serve them. Hope springs eternal for network programmers, even in the dead of winter.
Bob Greenblatt dispensed with any prefatory throat clearing when he addressed the throng at the Television Critics Association Press Tour in Pasadena, Calif. “We had a really bad fall,” the NBC Entertainment chairman said Jan. 6. “Worse than I had hoped for, but about what I expected.”
How bad has the season been thus far for once-mighty NBC? Three new series have already met the reaper (The Playboy Club, Free Agents and Prime Suspect), and the network is down 9 percent in the 18-49 demo, leaving it tied with ABC for third place. What’s more, series that received full-season orders (Whitney, Up All Night) haven’t delivered a 2.0 since November.
While the Peacock is suffering from a nasty case of bird flu, help is on the way. Super Bowl XLVI will serve as the lead-in to the sophomore premiere of The Voice, one of the few crowd pleasers on the schedule. The following night (Feb. 6), Greenblatt goes all in, pulling back the curtain on the highly anticipated musical drama Smash.
While Greenblatt downplayed the Broadway baby’s potential at TCA (“Smash could be [a success], but if it isn’t, it’s not like we’re going to go into receivership”), the show has all the makings of a monster hit. Media buyers are calling it the best pilot of the season, and in the upfront, Smash fetched around $155,000 per 30-second spot, one of the highest rates for a new drama.
Unfortunately, the rest of NBC’s midseason slate is nowhere near as promising. On Jan. 8, The Firm premiered to 6.32 million viewers and a 1.4 in the demo, making it the lowest-rated drama debut in NBC history. (A discount licensing deal and a 22-episode commitment from Sony Pictures Television could keep The Firm on-air no matter how poorly it performs.) Are You There, Chelsea? (Jan. 11), a multicamera sitcom based on Comcast/NBCUniversal franchise player Chelsea Handler’s bibulous memoirs, mines the same vein of potty-mouthed humor espoused by lead-in Whitney and CBS’s 2 Broke Girls. On March 13, NBC trots out the Project Runway clone Fashion Star, a competition series hosted by Elle Macpherson. That show will fill the Tuesday 10 p.m. slot currently occupied by Parenthood.
In his first semester as programming chief, ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee put together a mixed bag, balancing four modest hits (Revenge, Suburgatory, Once Upon a Time and Last Man Standing) against an equal number of duds (Charlie’s Angels, Man Up!, Pan Am and Work It). The latter may be the biggest bomb of the season, premiering Jan. 3 to 6.16 million viewers and a 2.0 rating in the demo. Savaged by critics and ignored by viewers (ratings for the second episode fell 25 percent to a 1.5), this cross-dressing “comedy” won’t live to see February.
Thankfully, most other new series ABC has in the hopper are far more worthwhile than the bewildering Work It. The network bleached the same vulgar word from two titles (Good Christian Bitches was rendered GCB while Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23 is now the more PTC-friendly Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23), tweaks that make each series an easier sell. Premiering March 4 in the time slot now occupied by Pan Am, GCB is a soapy romp designed to appeal to the distaff half of the 18-49 demo. The sassy, ribald DTTB (halfway through the pilot, Krysten Ritter’s character engages in some spirited sexual activity atop her roommate’s birthday cake) bows April 11, unseating Happy Endings.
Buyers like The River, a thriller from Paranormal Activity’s Oren Peli that arrives just as viewers’ appetite for horror is at its sharpest with the success of AMC’s The Walking Dead and FX’s American Horror Story. Pricing out at around $150,000 per :30, The River premieres Feb. 7 at 9 p.m. Also in the wings: Missing (March 15, 8 p.m.), a globetrotting spy drama starring Ashley Judd.