Wednesday, September 25, 2013

FALL TV: The New Season's Four Biggest Timeslot Smackdowns

Agents Shield

Modified from this week's issue of TV GUIDE MAGAZINE, and written prior to Monday's season launch.

The networks already have reason for optimism heading into the new fall season, if a handful of early premieres are any indication. Freshman series Sleepy Hollow gave Fox its highest-rated fall drama debut in seven years, while the network's new comedies Dads and Brooklyn Nine-Nine also showed promise in week one. At ABC, the launch of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. opened to strong ratings, giving execs there a sigh of relief, while the return of Dancing with the Stars attracted an audience 15% larger than last year for its debut (although slid back down in week two). NBC's The Voice opened to stunning numbers, helping give a boost to the debut of The Blacklist.

"We're feeling fortunate we had scripted shows people wanted to sample," says Dan Harrison, Fox's executive vice president of strategic program planning. But the competition promised to turn fierce as the official TV season got underway Sept. 23. Even in this age of DVR, a large percentage of viewers still watch TV live – which means lead-ins still matter, and rivals can still steal your thunder. Here are four of this year's key primetime battlegrounds.

Mondays at 10/9c. ABC's Castle is the incumbent, and will benefit from Dancing's renewed vigor. But CBS (Hostages) and NBC (The Blacklist) are premiering key new dramas here, and have sunk a fair amount of marketing dollars in both. CBS is taking a chance with Hostages, a serialized thriller that will run for a cable-like 15 episodes, while NBC's Blacklist hinges on an anti-hero played by a menacing James Spader. "That's a big swing for us, and it's a big swing for NBC," says Kelly Kahl, senior executive vice president of CBS Primetime. "And no one's going to sleep on Castle. It's a battle royale."

Tuesdays at 8/7c. The good news: There appears to be something for everyone in this hour. "It's almost a microcosm of the whole schedule," Kahl says. "These are pretty different shows with different potential audiences." Perhaps the most dissected launch of the year will be ABC's Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Will the power of the Marvel brand attract a balanced audience of men and women, young and old, to the network? Will Joss Whedon fans come out in force? Will viewers be disappointed when Marvel characters like the Incredible Hulk or Iron-Man don't show up? S.H.I.E.L.D. is expected to premiere big, but after that, it's anyone's guess. CBS' NCIS, heading into season 11, is expected to dominate, as always with total viewers (in particular, the older ones), while Fox's young-skewing comedy duo Dads and Brooklyn Nine-Nine might continue to perform respectably but won't win the hour. The CW has the female teen demo locked with The Vampire Diaries spinoff The Originals. NBC could play spoiler in premiere week with a two-hour edition of The Voice, but eventually The Biggest Loser will air here and not make much of a dent.

Thursdays at 9/8c. ABC will continue to do just fine here with returning hit Grey's Anatomy. But the real battle here is the comedy smackdown between CBS (The Crazy Ones and Two and a Half Men) and NBC (Sean Saves the World and The Michael J. Fox Show). Adding to the pressure, both networks are stepping out of their comfort zone at 9 p.m. CBS' new Robin Williams show Crazy Ones is a single-camera comedy – a form the Eye network hasn't yet mastered – from a creator known more for drama, David E. Kelley. And NBC's Sean Saves the World is a multi-camera family comedy shot in front of a studio audience – on a network that has been better known in recent years for single-camera shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation. CBS at least will have a leg-up thanks to its 8/7c show, smash hit The Big Bang Theory. "That will be a great story, a fight to the death," says one rival executive. Also in the hour, Fox's Glee might see audience growth due to interest in how it handles the death of star Cory Monteith. Glee's young female audience may also be attracted to the CW's period drama Reign.

Sundays at 9/8c. Even viewers with DVRs that can record up to five shows at once won't be able to catch everything here. And besides NBC's Sunday Night Football, it will be cable dominating the hour. By mid-October, AMC's The Walking Dead, last year's No. 1 show with adults 18-49, will face off against Showtime's Homeland and HBO's Boardwalk Empire, while Fox's reliable animated Family Guy, CBS' critical darling The Good Wife, ABC's reworked Revenge and PBS' suddenly hot again Masterpiece will fight for the rest of the audience there. "It's the quality programming smackdown," Kahl says. Oh yeah, there's also some viewers who might be Keeping Up with the Kardashians there on E!. "The DVRs are going to be cooking," Harrison says.

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