For the Nets in Prime Time, It’s a Midseason Meltdown

Despite a flurry of midseason launches, scripted programming continues to falter on the networks. From sub-par comedies such as CBS’ The Stones to UPN’s more innovative Game Over, sitcoms remain the Achilles heel of broadcasting. And new dramas haven’t fared any better, whether it be ABC’s Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital or Fox’s Wonderfalls.

Gaining traction against NBC’s Law & Order at 10 p.m. on Wednesdays has proven challenging. Since its March 3 launch, viewership for Kingdom Hospital has dropped by almost 50 percent, to 7 million viewers last week. Although King’s name remains a big draw, some buyers said the show’s serialized format works against it. In an increasingly cluttered environment, “it’s hard to have viewers consistently tune in,” said John Rash, director of broadcast negotiations at Campbell Mithun.

In its premiere last Wednesday at 9:30 p.m., CBS’ long-delayed family comedy The Stones underperformed, drawing 7.2 million viewers. CBS has yet to find a companion for King of Queens, nor has it found a 10 p.m. drama to lead into the local news.

Meanwhile, at sister network UPN, Game Over also is faring poorly. In its second broadcast last Wednesday, the CGI-animated series drew fewer than 2 million viewers. Its March 10 premiere drew 2 million. Rash applauded UPN’s attempt at innovation but said the show may be a poor fit. Reaching a young male audience through its African American comedies or its female-skewing hit America’s Next Top Model isn’t easy. “Rarely do those audiences meet,” Rash said, “which makes it particularly challenging to cross-promote or to have any sort of unified viewing experience.”

Fox also has struggled with audience flow. The network has had a creatively strong midseason, with Arrested Development, Cracking Up and Wonderfalls. But none of those shows has come out of the gate with big ratings. Following two special airings the week prior, Cracking Up’s time-slot premiere last Monday at 8:30 p.m. was a disappointment, averaging fewer than 5 million viewers. Fox has promoted the series, which stars Saturday Night Live veteran Molly Shannon, during airings of American Idol. But some suggested Idol’s mainstream appeal might be better suited to promoting a broader comedy than Cracking Up. “It’s too hip for the room,” said Shari Anne Brill, vp/director of programming at Carat USA.

Brill chalked up Wonderfalls’ disappointing launch last Friday—4 million viewers—to misguided scheduling. “Friday night is not a good time to put on a dramedy,” she said. “I’d like to see it on Monday. That was the night of Ally McBeal. Viewers had tuned in to Boston Public there, and I think Fox could rebuild an audience for that type of quirky drama.”