With no breakout hit, and returning shows losing ratings, the 2016 Fall season finds the US networks facing a difficult and unpredictable market for home-grown comedy and drama.
September is the pivotal month in the US network calendar, as the major networks launch the new dramas and comedies they hope will endure for years to come, while the production companies involved fix their gaze on the distant syndication threshold and hope to survive the whims of executives and audiences alike.
On the basis of the first few weeks on air, Fall 2016 looks to be a solid season if not a spectacular one. There are no unmistakable smash hits to compare with Empire’s explosive start in 2014, with most new shows rating around an acceptable 2.0 level in the vital 18-49 demographic.
The flipside to this cautious good news is that returning shows have, in general, underperformed. Long-running series such as Chicago PD and New Girl both showed small drops in their viewing when they debuted their new seasons but more recent launches suffered greater losses.
ABC’s How To Get Away With Murder, such a strong performer when it launched in 2014, returned to a soft 1.4 rating – though this rose to a more confident 2.5 once +3 delayed viewing was taken into account. Also on ABC, Marvel spin-off Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D went fractional with the launch of its fourth season, which shakes up the status quo of the series. Despite heavy promotion for the introduction of the Ghost Rider character, the show could only manage a 0.9 rating. Fox’s kitsch slasher horror Scream Queens fared worst of all, opening its second season with a limp 0.8, which dropped a tenth to 0.7 after adjustment.
Indeed, both ABC and Fox suffered fairly dramatic year-on-year declines across the crucial week of 19 – 23 September, during which most new shows were launched. ABC is down 20 per cent compared to the same period in 2015, while Fox posted figures 28 per cent lower than last year. ABC can at least take solace in the strong showing for Kiefer Sutherland thriller Designated Survivor, the title of which seems prophetic given its 2.2 debut.
Fox’s new baseball drama Pitch struggled, scraping a 1.1 rating, but most worrying of all for the network, runaway hit Empire returned to a 4.2 rating – still healthy by any standards, but a sizable 37 per cent drop from the 6.7 rating that greeted its first episode of 2015. Movie spin-off Lethal Weapon brought some good news, posting a healthy 2.2 rating, and The Exorcist pulled a 1.0 for its debut, a reasonable performance in a difficult late night Friday slot, but one that failed to carry over to the following week, when the second of ten episodes drew a troubling 0.6.
As far as good news is concerned, NBC will likely be happiest with the performance of its new shows. Ensemble drama This Is Us performed particularly well, attracting critical praise and its 2.8 rating in the 18-49 demo makes it the most successful of the season’s new launches so far. Inevitably, a full series order has now been placed, the first such order of the season. Single camera comedy The Good Place also delivered for the peacock, reaching 1.85 in the ratings.
Ensemble drama This Is Us performed particularly well, attracting critical praise
CBS performed well, with trusty warhorses such as Big Bang Theory and multiple NCIS shows providing dependable ratings. New shows on the network also made a strong showing, however, with 80s action reboot MacGyver delivering a surprisingly high 1.7 rating on the traditionally quiet Friday night, while new drama Bull and new multi-camera sitcom Kevin Can Wait hitting 2.2 and 2.6 respectively. Both will have been elevated by their pedigree – Bull is based on the life of celebrity Dr. Phil, while Kevin Can Wait sees Kevin James returning to TV comedy for the first time since King of Queens.
Bets as to which will be the first cancellation of the season seem to be favouring Fox’s female-led baseball show Pitch or ABC’s glossy legal/media drama Notorious, which drew a 1.1 even when scheduled in the middle of the network’s strongest performing Shondaland shows. With little positive buzz from critics or viewers, and the fact that ABC has no stake in the external production, it seems the least likely to survive.
What is perhaps most notable is how many heavy hitters have been held back for mid-season debuts, with spin-offs from some major shows still to be launched. Fox’s rebooted Prison Break and 24: Legacy are still to come, as is NBC’s The Blacklist: Redemption. We will need to wait for spring 2017 to see how these heavyweights change the situation.