The broadcast networks unveil their 2016-17 lineups the week of May 16. Before that happens, TV by the Numbers will look at each of the Big 4 networks and assess a few things they really need to happen next season. (The CW has renewed virtually all of its series, so it just has to deal with making a schedule to fit them all.)
ABC has not had a very good season. There’s no way around that. Flagship series like “Modern Family” and “Scandal” have suffered ratings declines in 2015-16. A few new shows have likely performed well enough to be renewed (although only one, “Quantico,” has a pickup already under its belt), but nothing in the rookie class was a breakout hit.
In other words, this season may not turn out to be as big a disaster as 2013-14 was for its freshman class (only three of 13 shows renewed), but it won’t be as solid a year as 2014-15 (seven of 13 new shows picked up). Here are a few keys to rebuilding next season.
A Tuesday-night teardown
Tuesday at 10 is the worst timeslot on ABC, but really, the whole night needs to be reconsidered. “Fresh Off the Boat” has been admirably resilient as part of a one-hour comedy block at 8 p.m. ET, but it needs help.
“The Goldbergs” has built on its “Middle” lead-in for two seasons running. It’s ready to lead off a night, and pairing it with “FOTB” would likely give the latter a bit of a boost. There’s even a built-in marketing tagline: “Have a blast in the past!”
“Agents of SHIELD” doesn’t have a big audience, but it’s one that shows up reliably; move it to 10 just to create some semblance of stability and either build out a comedy block with at least one new show or put a lighter drama, maybe a procedural with a humorous touch (see below) at 9. It’s essentially rearranging deck chairs, but it could at least give the network a pulse on the night.
A procedural or six
OK, maybe not six. But a couple of well-made dramas that feature at least some close-ended storytelling would be a good thing to add to the stable — and, based on the various (and variably reliable) stories claiming to know which pilots are on track for pickup, ABC is in fact looking to beef up its procedural count next season.
Heavily serialized shows are tough for anyone to pull off, but pulling them off within the traditional broadcast structure is arguably harder than it’s ever been. More people are making serial dramas, and for platforms more conducive to the experience than the network model is. The amount of story “Scandal” burns in three seasons (65 or so episodes) would fill five or more seasons on a cable- or streaming-length schedule.
What broadcast TV still does well, however, are stories that start and end within an hour, backstopped by ongoing (but not necessarily story-dominant) character arcs. ABC even has a model to emulate on its air right now: “Grey’s Anatomy.”
The show may be primarily about the doctors’ lives, but every episode also features medical cases that can sustain interest even if there’s a lull in Meredith’s or Karev’s or Hunt’s or Bailey’s story at the moment. There’s a reason the show still rolls along after 12 seasons.
A rethinking of split seasons
This is somewhat related to the point above, but one of the things that handicaps serial dramas on network TV is the fact that 22 episodes have to stretch over a 36-week season. ABC has dealt with the problem lately by giving long winter breaks to its serial shows, but it may be time to rethink that.
The split-season structure (which can work — see “Empire” this season) may serve to blunt the momentum shows build up over the fall, but more importantly, it leaves “Scandal,” “Grey’s” and other strong shows on the bench during January, which is among the heaviest TV-usage months of the year. Instead, low-rated fill-in shows (remember “My Diet Is Better Than Yours”? No, you don’t) take up that valuable real estate.
Perhaps splitting a 22-episode season into three episode blocks would work better: A fall run of eight episodes, say, followed by seven in January and February and seven more in April and May to close out the season. ABC has a deep well of holiday programming that can fill much of the schedule between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and shorter-run shows could fill the gap in March and early April, where ratings expectations are naturally a bit lower.
A (very) informal survey of showrunners suggests that kind of schedule would be doable from a production standpoint. It might be worth looking at.