Fall TV Season Delivers a Mixed Bag in Prime Time by Bill Carter

Three weeks into the new television season, network executives have drawn some initial conclusions.

While every network has at least a glimmer of a new hit, in an era of increased delayed viewing, patience is more crucial than ever. Decisions on the fates of shows must factor in quality as well as quantity. And the oldest scheduling technique in the world — putting a new show behind an established hit — is still the most effective tool at a network’s disposal.

Finally, if you want a new show to do well, it is probably best to avoid Mondays, Thursdays and Sundays, because nothing is going to pry viewers away from the National Football League.

Last fall, there was almost universal derision for the assemblage of new entries on network television, with viewership suffering accordingly. The numbers this fall show slight improvement, though, with overall network prime-time viewing averaging 8.21 million viewers, up from 8.16 million in the period a year earlier.

“It definitely seems that broadcast TV has come back strong and given people a lot of reasons to watch,” said Andy Kubitz, the executive vice president of program planning for ABC, citing the rosy side of the early returns.

Brad Adgate, the top research executive for the media-buying firm Horizon Media, has seen enough new television seasons to be cautious about reading too much into early success. This fall’s start is “a little better than last season,” he said, “though that’s not saying much at all.”

The new dramas “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” on ABC, “The Blacklist” on NBC and “Sleepy Hollow” on Fox all opened to hit-level ratings, and they have not shown signs that viewers will drift away as the weeks go on. CBS has two new comedies on Thursday showing some staying power, “The Millers” and “The Crazy Ones.”

Dan Harrison, who has the top scheduling job at Fox, said, “It feels like there is more sampling going on than last fall. Everybody has some embers to blow on and everybody has some work to do.”

Actually, there is plenty of work to do: in terms of ratings, the lows have never been lower. Several new shows have set records for their network’s worst performance ever. One, the drama “Lucky 7” on ABC, was canceled after two airings. CBS dumped the comedy “We Are Men” last week.

But numerous other shows also have quickly fallen, especially on NBC, which is still performing well above its competitors in the area that drives much network commerce: viewers between the ages of 18 and 49. A new NBC drama, “Ironside,” collapsed in its second week; so did the new comedies “Welcome to the Family” and “Sean Saves the World” last Thursday.

Not coincidentally, that was a night when the NFL Network offered a game with strong appeal in two big cities, the New York Giants against the Chicago Bears. The top 13 shows this season are all N.F.L. games.

The upside for NBC is centered on “The Blacklist,” which has not only posted hit ratings for its initial telecasts, but set a record in its second week by adding five million additional viewers after just three days. None of NBC’s comedies last Thursday attracted even four million viewers.

As much as network executives now say they must show more patience, because initial ratings often soar when delayed viewing is counted, shows that fare extremely poorly the night they are first on have little hope of survival.

“We are in the urgency business,” Mr. Harrison of Fox said. “If we put on a show that nobody watches until two years later, that show isn’t going to exist anymore.”

As Mr. Kubitz of ABC put it, “The real difficulty comes in your middling shows. So you have to judge how strong the creative elements are, how strong the producers are, whether or not the show is engaging socially. You have to look at all these different pieces.”

ABC had only middling success with a drama it introduced at midseason in 2012. It did see signs of a passionate following on social media, however, and last spring those signs turned into a fever. Now “Scandal” is one of the hottest shows on television.

Fox is hanging on to some struggling shows, like the new comedy “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” because it believes it is a fundamentally funny show that has a chance to catch on. Comedies have a long history of taking time to take hold, with examples ranging from “Seinfeld” to “Cheers.”

Similarly, CBS has reason to have faith in the new comedy “Mom,” which has been one of those middling performers so far.

Mr. Adgate of Horizon Media notes that “Mom” has two appealing stars in Anna Farris and Allison Janney, and one of the most reliable hit makers in television history, Chuck Lorre, as its producer. “That’s the kind of show you stick with,” Mr. Adgate said.

CBS might have already guaranteed hit status for “Mom” had it chosen to slot it on Thursdays at 8:30 instead of Mondays at 9:30, where it has had to face “Monday Night Football” on ESPN — as well as “Sleepy Hollow” on Fox and “The Voice” on NBC.

Any comedy would prefer Thursday at 8:30, because it would then come behind the powerhouse comedy “The Big Bang Theory” (also produced by Mr. Lorre). “The Millers” won that position, and the show has been rewarded with healthy numbers, while “Mom” on Mondays landed behind “Two Broke Girls.”

That comedy has seen its previous hit status slide — to the point that CBS moved it up to 8:30 this past week.

Kelly Kahl, CBS’s top scheduler, knows the business has changed vastly, but he emphasized how important it was for a new show to be able to draft off the audience provided by its lead-in show.

“The single oldest scheduling strategy seems to be the most effective,” Mr. Kahl said of the lead-in factor. “It speaks to how difficult it can be to get viewers to come to a show cold.”

That makes one show, “The Voice,” television’s M.V.P. (most valuable program). It has aired for two hours on Monday leading in to “The Blacklist” and set that series up to be a hit.

Its second two-hour play on Tuesday has lifted a second-year drama, “Chicago Fire,” to new ratings highs.

“What an incredible vehicle ‘The Voice’ has become for NBC,” Mr. Adgate said.

As for an overall assessment of how the early season is shaping up, Mr. Kahl said, “The take-away is: if you have anything that draws a loyal audience, hold that dearly, be a little selective and you better use lead-ins.”

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