Networks Hope to Find a Following

Broadcast nets are banking on buzzy new and returning shows for a rebound in Q1

If you work for a broadcast television network and your letterhead doesn’t feature a multicolored peacock logo, it’s probably safe to say that the 2012-13 season has failed to live up to even your most modest expectations.

As of Nov. 19, five new series have been canceled, a roster that includes the ABC dramas Last Resort and 666 Park Avenue and CBS’ Partners. Also on the Do Not Resuscitate list is Fox’s medical/murder mash-up, The Mob Doctor. And while the perennial ratings champ is getting the worst of it this fall, plummeting 29 percent in the demo with a 2.5 rating among adults 18-49, buyers say Fox is likely to rebound sharply in the first quarter, thanks in part to what many are calling the most compelling midseason offering in recent memory.

Starring Kevin Bacon as a booze hound former FBI agent on the trail of an escaped serial killer/cult leader, The Following is a taut psychological thriller studded through with gory Grand Guignol excess. Relentlessly paced and bloody to the extreme, The Following wouldn’t feel out of place if it aired on Fox’s gritty cable sibling, FX.

The Following is the best broadcast pilot we’ve seen in forever,” said one national TV buyer, who added that the sanguinary exorbitance hasn’t deterred many clients. “You look at the numbers The Walking Dead does week after week, and there’s clearly an audience that’s hungry for this kind of entertainment.

In fact, the marketplace is so confident about The Following that during the spring upfront period, buyers estimated that the show commanded the highest unit cost of any new series, as Fox was able to fetch approximately $195,000 for each 30-second ad that will run in the program. By comparison, early investors in the top-rated new NBC drama Revolution ponied up a mere $90,000 per spot, according to SQAD NetCosts data.

Fox also should get a lift from its American Idol franchise, and while the show has seen better days—the going rate for Idol inventory has plummeted by as much as $150,000 year over year—it remains the second highest-rated show on the tube behind NBC’s Sunday Night Football. And even if a Nicki Minaj-Mariah Carey reboot isn’t enough to return Idol to its glory days, buyers are confident that the show should help Fox turn things around in Q1.

Meanwhile, NBC faces a sudden change in atmospheric pressure as the NFL season winds down and The Voice heads toward a three-month hiatus (Dec. 17-March 25). And while it boasts the deepest midseason bench, NBC could easily lose its momentum if the quality of the replacement programming flags.

“Last year the broadcast nets had a very good creative season. This year, not so much,” said Bernstein Research analyst Todd Juenger. “Cable networks are taking share from broadcast. This is as old school as it gets.”

ABC also has a sturdy roster of midseason offerings, with the dramas Red Widow and Zero Hour waiting in the wings alongside the comedy How to Live With Your Parents (for the Rest of Your Life). CBS, meanwhile, will depend on its established hits to see it through, as the net has just two new scripted series in the hopper.