During the next month, the broadcast networks are rolling out at least 10 new midseason series. NBC unveiled its epic drama "Kings" on Sunday night. Two new ABC sitcoms are coming, "Better Off Ted" this week and "In the Motherhood" next. And Fox has a variety show with the Ozzy Osbourne clan, which, given its erratic history could result in either spontaneous brilliance or spontaneous combustion.
Is there a hit somewhere in this bunch? The networks could sure use one.
The good news for broadcasters is that, with the exception of Fox, they're faring a lot better than they did during the first three months of last year, when they were all bogged down by the effects of the writers strike that ended in February. Ratings have rebounded from the depressing lows of winter 2008. Fox -- the only network down compared with last year -- is leading among young adults, with CBS tops among all viewers.
CBS, which saw its numbers crater after the strike, was up 30% in average viewers, to 12.1 million, from Jan. 5 to March 8, compared with the year-ago period, according to Nielsen Media Research. Executives should savor those kinds of comparisons, because they won't see their like again any time soon.
Rivals also seem to have figured out ways to mitigate damage from Fox's "American Idol." Among adults ages 18 to 49, ABC, CBS and NBC are doing the same numbers during this first quarter that they are averaging for the entire season since September (although it should be noted that NBC's results are being propped up by February's Super Bowl telecast, just as Fox's were last year). So "Idol" isn't clobbering competitors' lineups, especially since the singing competition itself is down this season.
Beyond those highlights, though, the networks have problems galore.
Already, several midseason entries have flopped. The winter burn-off of flawed shows is a cherished TV rite and would matter less this time around if the traditional fall unveiling had brought several big hits. But CBS' "The Mentalist" was the only premiere that secured a large fan base. ABC has already whacked "Life on Mars," its sole new scripted series last fall. Christian Slater in NBC's "My Own Worst Enemy" proved that a star can't even guarantee tune-in for a series premiere these days, bad news indeed for underemployed marquee actors and their agents.
Speaking of stars, Tim Roth seems to be finding an audience for "Lie to Me," Fox's midseason crime procedural, even after last week's move to 8 p.m. Wednesdays. Otherwise, the midseason shows are struggling. Last week, ABC's new crime drama "Castle" opened softly, retaining little of its huge "Dancing with the Stars" lead-in and losing viewers as the hour wore on. Arguing that it had nowhere else to put it, Fox stuck Joss Whedon's much-anticipated sci-fi drama "Dollhouse" in the dead zone of Fridays, where it looks bound for the mortuary alongside an older show, "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles," which was already on life support on Mondays.
Reality premieres aren't faring much better. ABC's "True Beauty" performed modestly at best, while NBC's restaurant contest "Chopping Block" appears destined for one.
Programmers have lately achieved their best results, in fact, not with series premieres but rather scheduling maneuvers for existing series. For example, Fox found some success in moving "Bones," its wry forensics show, to Thursday, a night that has given headaches to a procession of that network's programmers.
But then, the tactical stuff can carry you only so far. Executives can talk all they want about time-shifting and competition and retention levels, but what the networks really need are hits.
So that's why the midseason efforts are so important. The next few weeks will also bring CBS' drama "Harper's Island" and the comedies "Surviving Suburbia" (ABC) and "Parks and Recreation" (NBC).