January is reset time on network TV, when falls castaways give way to a new batch of replacement series aiming to find a wider audience.
And this midseason offers hope for a particularly welcome change after an unusually ugly fall: Viewers seem unenthused by most new shows and, with few exceptions, are watching returning series in smaller numbers. That has sent ratings for three of the four major networks tumbling, and not just because of increased DVR usage.
Some viewers turned to cable, where AMCs The Walking Dead set records and FXs Sons of Anarchy, Showtimes Homeland and HBOs Boardwalk Empire joined A&Es Duck Dynasty and Discoverys Gold Rush in chipping away viewers.
The lack of big-network heat makes next month more critical than most Januarys, and not just because of a diminished American Idol return with yet another set of judges.
Theres an opportunity for the networks to turn their performance around a little bit, says analyst Brad Adgate of ad firm Horizon Media. For the newcomers, its kind of like being the sixth man on a basketball team. Theyre sitting on the bench after all the other shows have been sampled and are not being watched by viewers.
The problem, he says, is there might not be enough of them to make a difference for any one network. But cable offerings figure to be less of a factor in winter months than usual: Though Walking Dead will return in February with eight new episodes, there are fewer popular returning series and only a small handful of newcomers, including FXs spy drama The Americans and TNT medical drama Monday Mornings.
A rebounding NBC was the only big network to show growth this fall. It rose from fourth to first among young-adult viewers, thanks to the first fall season of The Voice and the singing competitions Monday companion Revolution.
But with those two shows shelved until late March (theyll run into summer), and Sunday Night Football signing off this month, the network has the opposite problem of its rivals: preventing its ratings from cratering without three top performers.
Its certainly not lost on us that a lot of our success has been based on the fact that we had a lot of momentum (with) The Voice, says NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke. Were been realistic that midseason is going to be a different story.
Among the new crop, Fox has high hopes for The Following, a grisly thriller starring Kevin Bacon as a troubled FBI agent hunting a cult of serial killers.
The show has some of the best advance buzz of the season. And its hugely important to the network, says chief operating officer Joe Earley. Obviously, weve had a challenged fall, but weve also scheduled it (like) 24, which occupied the same Monday time slot for most of its eight-year run. It stays on in an uninterrupted pattern, 15 episodes in a row.
NBC plans two new dramas in January along with 1600 Penn, a family comedy set in the White House and the return of the musical Smash, with guest star Jennifer Hudson.
ABC, often the most prolific network at churning out midyear shows, has two new dramas, a pair of sitcoms, two new reality series and the return of Dana Delanys Body of Proof, along with The Bachelor and another round of Dancing with the Stars.
CBS has the fewest changes: Look for Rules of Engagement and police drama Golden Boy, tracking the rise of a young detective to chief.
And CW is prepping a Sex and the City prequel featuring a teenage Carrie Bradshaw.
Whats exiting (or is already gone) to make room?
NBC dropped Animal Practice, will bid farewell to 30 Rock on Jan. 31, and is wrapping up seasons early for Parenthood and Guys With Kids, which is unlikely to return. Up All Night also rests for a last-gasp retooling.
ABC has opted against future episodes of dramas 666 Park Avenue and Last Resort, opening up key slots in the Sunday and Thursday lineups, and will say goodbye to Private Practice on Tuesdays.
Fox is closing shop on freshman drama The Mob Doctor, and will air Fringes sci-fi finale Jan. 18.
CBS dumped fall comedy Partners and the legal drama Made in Jersey and will end CSI: NYs season early, on Feb. 22.
CW will say so long to Emily Owens, M.D. and on Dec. 17 will wrap up the once-hot Gossip Girl with a two-hour finale.
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