On the surface, ABC has done just fine over the first part of the season. Its Wednesday comedies and TGIT dramas are still strong players, “Fresh Off the Boat” has mostly avoided a sophomore slump and “Dr. Ken” has proved a steady addition to a healthy Friday lineup.
Yet ABC’s adults 18-49 ratings are down 12 percent year-to-year (2.1 vs. 2.4, through Dec. 13), more than any other broadcast network. So wha’happen?
(ABC notes that if you strip out sports, its 2.2 rating in adults 18-49 ties NBC for the lead among the broadcast nets. As will be the case with the other nets, however, these reports are looking at the whole of primetime.)
The network has a number of veteran shows that still perform reasonably well, but not as well as they used to, and a couple that are clearly limping into old age. Several of its newer series put up decent ratings, but none of them could be considered a breakout hit. It’s a combination that has dragged the network’s numbers down.
“Modern Family,” for instance, is averaging a 2.76 same-day rating in adults 18-49 for originals this season (all individual show ratings are through Dec. 20). Through nine episodes a year ago, that average was 3.44. That’s drop of almost 25 percent. “Scandal,” similarly, is down about 20 percent (2.52 vs. 3.16) vs. its fall run in 2015.
Several of the network’s younger shows are performing decently, but “The Goldbergs” (2.15), “How to Get Away with Murder” (2.12) and “Black-ish” (1.86) aren’t exactly drawing network-carrying numbers. They’re more the kinds of shows networks are happy to have than the kind that actually turn networks around.
And then there’s the 10 p.m. problem, which might be ABC’s biggest concern so far. Aside from “HTGAWM,” the network is struggling badly in the final hour of primetime. “Castle” (1.13) is off more than 35 percent from last season; “Nashville” (1.03) is down 27 percent. The tire fire that was “Wicked City” and its subsequent replacements have averaged a 0.73.
“Quantico” (1.45) has faded some after a solid start, but compared to most of the rest of ABC’s 10 o’clock shows, it looks positively rock star-ish. It’s running a good bit ahead of “Revenge’s” performance last fall (1.24) and is a DVR beast, so it has a good chance of returning. But again, it’s more “decent asset to have” than “network cornerstone.”
And, to be realistic, the days of network-changing hits are probably mostly in the past. “Empire”-level successes were always rare, and now they’re basically unicorns. That leaves a network like ABC in a bit of a bind.
If a “Lost” or “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Desperate Housewives” or “Modern Family” — ABC’s last real game-changers — isn’t likely to come along, what it absolutely can’t afford is a disastrous crop of new shows like it had two seasons ago. What it needs more of are development years like last season, which produced the likes of “HTGAWM,” “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” to help restock the shelves as aging shows fade out.
That might not lift ABC back to the top, but keeping steady in the new Nielsen reality is no mean feat either.