Networks in Search of a ‘Smash’

Another midseason, another round of afterthoughts—and maybe a hit or two

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.

NBC

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.

ABC

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.


Fox

On the strength of new series like New Girl and The X Factor, Fox put together its strongest fourth quarter in memory. Season to date, the network is up 9 percent in the 18-49 demo and is trailing CBS by two-tenths of a ratings point (3.0).

While entertainment chief Kevin Reilly didn’t offer any definitive word on the fate of franchises like House and Glee, a handful of newcomers don’t appear to be long for this world. The animated Allen Gregory crashed in December after scoring a 1.5 rating, while the little-loved I Hate My Teenage Daughter didn’t make the midseason schedule. On the bubble is dino drama Terra Nova, a pricey genre mashup that drew a middling 7.24 million total viewers and a 2.2 rating in its Dec. 19 season finale.

Fox’s four midseason premieres are slated for January, with two of particular interest to buyers. J.J. Abrams’ Alcatraz emerges from the fog Jan. 16 at 8 p.m. The supernatural procedural stars Sam Neill, Sarah Jones and Lost’s Jorge Garcia as detectives investigating the reappearance of hundreds of jailbirds who went missing back in 1963.

Marking the return of 24’s Kiefer Sutherland, the supernatural Touch will bow in a special sneak preview Jan. 25 at 9 p.m. The show returns for its season run on March 19, assuming the Monday 9 p.m. slot. It’s a tough spot, against two popular competition series, ABC’s Dancing With the Stars and NBC’s The Voice, and CBS’ Two and a Half Men and Mike and Molly. But Touch offers the night’s only drama option outside The CW’s Hart of Dixie. Touch is selling :30s at around $190,000 per spot, making it one of the most high-value new shows.

Bones spin-off The Finder will enjoy the considerable luxury of leading out of American Idol Thursday nights at 9 p.m., while Napoleon Dynamite on Jan. 15 assumes the Allen Gregory slot between The Simpsons and Family Guy. Fox has ordered six episodes of Napoleon Dynamite, an animated take on the 2004 Jon Heder movie.

CBS

TV’s No. 1 network is the model of consistency; as such, its fall schedule is practically unchanged. Only one new series debuts midseason (the Rob Schneider-Cheech Marin comedy ¡Rob! bowed Jan. 12 at 8:30 p.m.), but CBS whiffed pretty badly here. Along with the inevitable multicamera setup and braying laugh track, ¡Rob! is aggressively unfunny, offering a muddle of racist gags and witless one-liners. Leading out of The Big Bang Theory, the program is almost certain to get sampled, but it’s difficult to imagine that viewers will show up for a return engagement.

Should ¡Rob! prove a bomb, it won’t show up on CBS’s balance sheet. Per Nielsen, the net now boasts seven of the top 10 shows on broadcast TV and outdelivers its closest competition by a 3-2 margin.

The CW

After committing to full-season orders for its three new dramas (Ringer, The Secret Circle, Hart of Dixie), The CW was left with just one hole to fill. On Jan. 17, the network will premiere the unscripted fashion strip Remodeled. The destination for young female viewers hopes Remodeled will be its first homegrown reality hit (America’s Top Model originated on the now-defunct UPN.) The CW is giving Remodeled a big push, delaying the return of Ringer so the new series can bask in Tuesday night glory. The series moves into its Wednesday 9 p.m. slot Feb. 1, leading out of One Tree Hill.