The 17 kinds of shows on network TV
Cop shows and family comedies have existed practically since the beginning of commercial television. So it comes as no surprise that in the 2016-17 season, there will be loads of both across the broadcast networks.
But a kind of show that basically didn’t exist on network TV in the late 20th century, and another one that as recently as five years ago was all but gone, will take up a sizable chunk of TV real estate this season. And a kind of show viewers could scarcely escape in the late 1990s is on a serious downswing.
TV by the Numbers has identified and classified 17 different types of shows that ABC, CBS, The CW, FOX and NBC put on the air during the regular September-to-May TV season, their average ratings and whether their footprint is growing or shrinking. Here is the taxonomy of broadcast TV in fall 2016.
In slicing the drama-comedy-unscripted pie thinner, here are the 17 kinds of shows TVBTN identified, along with the number of such shows on the air this season vs. last:
In descending order based on the number of shows on the air this season, they are crime dramas; family comedies; sci fi or fantasy shows not based on comics; non-procedural dramas; comic-book shows; concept comedies; competitions; non-competitive unscripted shows; mystery/puzzle shows; news programs; live sports; workplace comedies; medical dramas; legal dramas; hangout comedies; animated shows; and anthologies. (Go here to see the list of shows in each category.)
Crime shows and family comedies are among the things network TV does best — or at least, does in ways that have been proven to draw viewers. That’s reflected in their sheer numbers: Those two kinds of shows make up more than a quarter of all series currently scheduled for 2016-17.
Slightly more surprising is the relatively high position of sci fi or fantasy shows — a dozen this season. NBC in particular is making a push into the genre with three new series, “Timeless,” “Emerald City” and “Midnight, Texas.” For a genre that long seemed like a forgotten child, that’s a pretty big rise.
Then there are comic-book shows, which have gone from non-existent five years ago — in 2011-12, between the end of “Smallville” and the debut of “Arrow,” no network had a comic-based show on the air — to 10 shows on four of the five networks this season (including “Powerless,” NBC’s comedy set in the DC universe).
Reality TV as we know it took hold on the broadcast networks in 2000 with “Survivor” and “Big Brother.” Years of distressed hand-wringing followed on its heels, but the genre is just part of TV now — although competition-based series are at a low ebb now.
Fifteen such shows aired last season, but only nine are currently set for this one. Long-time franchises “American Idol” and “America’s Next Top Model” are gone (the latter decamping to VH1), and four other shows — “The Great Christmas Light Fight” and “My Diet Is Better Than Yours” on ABC and “The Biggest Loser” and “Strong” on NBC — are currently in limbo. Still, together with their non-competitive brethren (“Undercover Boss,” “Caught on Camera” and the like), unscripted shows are as plentiful as family comedies.
What you watch
As prevalent as cop shows are, it would seem to follow that their ratings must be pretty strong. But in fact, crime dramas as a whole finish in the middle of the pack among the 17 kinds of shows.
Family comedies fare somewhat better, finishing sixth overall. Unsurprisingly, live sports is at the front of the pack thanks to the NFL. NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” and CBS’ “Thursday Night Football” were the Top 2 shows on network TV last season in same-day ratings, and with NBC adding a Thursday NFL package this fall football will likely occupy the first three spots.
What crime shows do have going for them is relative consistency: 16 of the 21 that aired last season averaged above a 1.0 in adults 18-49. Two of the categories that rate higher, non-procedural dramas and hangout comedies, have their averages skewed by a single big hit (“Empire” and “The Big Bang Theory”).
Family comedies and competitions are similarly reliable. In each category, 11 of the 15 shows that aired in 2015-16 kept their numbers above the 1.0 mark. (A 1.0 on the Big 4 networks used to mean instant cancellation, but no more. That, however, is a conversation for another day.) Three of the four medical dramas that aired last year also managed that feat, albeit with a much smaller sample size.
A couple other categories — notably sci fi/fantasy and concept comedies — are skewed by several CW shows, along with their lower ratings, as part of their number. Even removing CW shows, however, they still rank near the bottom — which raises a question about why there are so many of each type.
What networks are doing
By and large, the networks seem to be steering into what has worked for them and others.
Character-driven, non-procedural dramas are on the rise, possibly in the wake of “Empire’s” success. ABC’s now well-established success with family shows has led to more on other networks as well.
Hangout comedies, ubiquitous 10 or 15 years ago thanks to “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and their many imitators, are waning as shows without the words “Big Bang” in the title have failed to catch on very well. Anthology shows, all the rage on cable, haven’t really caught on with network viewers.
And the types of shows in the middle of the ratings pack, the mystery shows and crime dramas and workplace comedies? Their numbers, as you might expect of middling players, remain fairly stable.
The ratings picture may be changing rapidly for broadcasters, but until it’s proven otherwise Over the next few days, TVBTN will dive deeper into the numbers for several types of shows and look at the reasons for their current prevalence (or lack thereof).