Among the prized 18-49 demographic, ABC was the No. 1 network on television last week, according to Nielsen ratings. The network is quietly enjoying a great season, and it’s doing so without the benefit of the NFL, without a singing competition, and in spite of the dwindling ratings of Dancing with the Stars. Typically, a strong season in the ratings means a network has more freedom when it comes to programming; they can ditch the low-rated fare and rely on their anchor series to carry them another season while they continue to rotate in new series.
When a network is riding high, they often shed their lowest performers and rely on their anchor series to allow them time to develop new shows. Look at NBC: They’ve basically built their lineup around NFL Sunday Night Football, The Blacklist and The Voice, and instead of being patient with new shows, they throw them against the wall to see what sticks (and since Bob Greenblatt took over as president, they’ve greenlit more than 20 sitcoms, and none of them have yet been picked up for a third season, although Undateable might break that streak).
Fox is the trigger happiest of all networks, one that’s been canceling series too soon for over a decade (Enlisted, Surviving Jack, Ben and Kate, to name a few recent examples), and it’s gotten to the point with Fox that no one wants to get invested with a series because they can’t trust that it will come back. It’s practically the “Canceled Too Soon” network. Meanwhile, CBS is consistent, but all they really have are a gaggle of procedurals, laugh track sitcoms and Survivor (its best “procedural,” Person of Interest, made the mistake of serializing, i.e., becoming an interesting show, and now it’s on the brink of cancellation, as well).
In its upfront announcements last night, ABC did something exceptional for a network in its situation. Instead of relying on its hit shows to carry next year while they develop a lot of new series that might or might not work, ABC decided to do something novel: It renewed all their quality series, regardless of ratings. Yes, they dropped Forever and Resurrection (because they weren’t good), and Cristela (which has a small but passionate following, but not real critical support), but they surprised a lot of people by sticking with all of their “good” shows, despite tepid ratings.
That meant the beloved Galavant, the well-liked Fresh off the Boat, the critically well-received, but dismally-rated American Crime, and their bubble show, Agent Carter, will all get second seasons. Even Secrets and Lies got renewed, and I’ve barely even heard of that series, although it now has my attention (Revenge was canceled last week, but I think everyone — including the cast on that show — knew the series had run its course). Unlike Fox, which renewed New Girl, despite miserable ratings because it has little else, ABC wasn’t in a position where they had to pick up these low-rated series, either. They had the Chevy Chase/Beverly D’Angelo series and another Marvel spin-off they could have run with, but they declined in both cases in favor of giving these other series time to find an audience.
ABC is suddenly a network we can rely upon not to cancel promising series. That means more than you might think. It’s difficult to get too invested in a series if we aren’t confident it will stick around. ABC, in fact, has a remarkable run of consistency: Besides freshman series Blackish and How to Get Away from Murder getting picked up for another season, Grey’s Anatomy is going into its 12th season, Castle is going into its eighth, Modern Family and The Middle are going into their seventh, Scandal and Once Upon a Time are going into their fifth seasons, The Goldbergs and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are getting third seasons (despite being on the bubble their first years). As important, they don’t move shows around on the schedule too much. Once Upon a Time anchors Sunday, Castle and Dancing with the Stars are Monday mainstays, Marvel gets Tuesday, the family sitcoms dominate Wednesday, and Shonda Rhimes gets Thursday all to herself. Those are nights you can count on.
Network television may be losing its relevance and its ratings, but ABC has made a nice little niche for itself with Marvel series the geeks will talk about, Shonda Rhimes shows that dominate Twitter on Thursdays, and comfortable family sitcoms that get consistent ratings on Wednesday. The network has an identity, it has consistency, and we can rely upon it, which is not only why it’s getting the best 18-49 ratings, it’s why it’s the best broadcast network on television in 2015.