Most new shows slated for next season’s 10 p.m. time slot (9 p.m. CT) — crucial to affiliates because they lead into their late newscasts — are characterized as “risky” and “iffy.” Returning shows are “lackluster” or, at best, “modest,” say TV programming observers. Diciest of all may be NBC’s Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris, a live variety show.
TV prognosticators and critics come up with colorful adjectives when asked to assess the third hour of primetime on the Big Three this fall.
Most new shows slated for the 10 p.m. time slot (9 p.m. CT) — crucial to affiliates because they lead into their late newscasts — are characterized as “risky” and “iffy.” Returning shows are “lackluster” or, at best, “modest,” they say.
“The three networks have a lot of weaknesses” at 10 o’clock, says programming-ratings analyst Marc Berman, editor in chief of TV Media Insights. “When you look across the board and you ask: Are there really any Top 10 shows airing at 10 o’clock? The answer is: Not really.”
They could also add “volatile” to the list. Not only will the 10 o’clock hour see the introduction of seven new shows this fall, but one network — ABC — has already made changes in the time slot on two nights, just weeks after announcing its new lineup at the May upfronts.
It yanked its Old Testament drama Of Kings and Prophets from the Sunday slot, moved its new FBI-trainee drama Quantico from Tuesday night to replace it, and announced it will replace Quantico on Tuesdays at 10 with the Shark Tank spinoff Beyond the Tank.
But wait, there’s more: Beyond the Tank will occupy the time slot for only about four weeks before it, too, gets replaced by another new drama, Wicked City, formerly slated for midseason.
Despite those moves, ABC isn’t even considered the most unstable of the three networks at 10. That distinction goes to NBC, which is launching three new shows in the time period, the most of any network: Blindspot on Monday, The Player on Thursday and Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris, the last considered daring by some, perplexing by others. “It’s a little bit of a head-scratcher, quite frankly,” says Josef Adalian, West Coast TV editor of Vulture.com.
The live, one-hour Best Time Ever is basically a variety show. It is expected to include performances of all kinds — from music to magic — plus elaborate pranks and contests.
It’s the kind of show that hasn’t been seen on a U.S. TV network in decades, which is one reason why critics are questioning NBC’s decision to pick it up in the first place. The naysayers also say the drama-heavy10 p.m. time slot is the wrong one for a light-hearted entertainment. And they question NBC’s plan to limit the show’s initial run to just 10 weeks, after which it will be replaced by more traditional 10 p.m. fare, the firefighter drama Chicago Fire, returning for its fourth season. Detractors say the strategy plays into the hands of ABC and CBS.
“NBC is saying to the other networks, here, go ahead, here’s your chance to find an audience [at 10], while we take some time off and try something totally different,” Adalian says.
NBC affiliates are also uncertain about the prospects for Best Time Ever. “It’s a unique idea,” says affiliate board chairman Ralph Oakley, president of Quincy Newspapers. “How it will serve as a lead-in I’m not quite sure, but I think it does show some creativity on [NBC’s] part.”
Oakley says NBC affiliates are upbeat about The Player, starring Wesley Snipes as the head of a discreet, high-tech security firm. “In my informal poll [of NBC affiliate execs], The Player was most intriguing and appears to be properly positioned, time-wise.”
NBC’s other new 10 p.m. show Blindspot is generating some positive buzz. With its mysterious central character – a woman who turns up in New York’s Times Square naked and covered with elaborate tattoos – analysts are drawing comparisons with The Blacklist, which is also built around an enigmatic main character played by James Spader. Blindspot is being launched in the same time period following The Voice that turned The Blackslist, now airing Thursday nights at 9, into a hit in its first season (2013-14).
“What NBC is hoping to do [with Blindspot] is have lightning strike twice, and the strongest lead-in they can provide, other than The Blacklist itself, is The Voice,” says Bill Carroll, VP and director of content strategy for Katz Television Group
Pre-season rescheduling moves aside, ABC’s third primetime hour seems plagued with aging shows that are not expected to perform strongly, analysts say — most notably Castle on Monday nights, which enters its eighth season, and Nashville on Wednesday, heading into its fourth.
Castle’s average audience last season was 10.69 million viewers per episode, down by about 2 million from the season before, but enough to trounce the short-lived State of Affairs on NBC. CBS’s NCIS: Los Angeles was the time period leader last season with 11.72 million viewers per episode.
Last season, Nashville averaged 7.44 million viewers per episode, lagging behind Chicago PD on NBC and about even with CSI: Cyber on CBS. Chicago PD is returning to the time period this fall, while CSI: Cyber is moving to Sunday nights at 10. Taking CSI: Cyber’s place: The new CBS hospital drama Code Black.
“Castle … is down, and Nashville is a weak show that keeps coming back,” Berman says of ABC’s late-prime lineup. “And you have 20/20 on Friday, which is certainly not what it once was.”
Even the highly touted How to Get Away With Murder, widely considered to be a bright spot for ABC on Thursday nights at 10, averaged only a little over 9 million viewers per episode last season. The show dominated the competition in the time period, however – Parenthood on NBC, averaging 6.72 million viewers in its final season, and Elementary on CBS, which averaged 7.42 million viewers.
That average represented a loss of nearly 3.5 million viewers from the season before for Elementary, which makes the modern-day Sherlock Holmes series a potential weak spot for CBS in the 10-11 hour, where it will face off against How To Get Away With Murder on ABC and The Player on NBC.
CBS is making changes on two nights at 10. In addition to Code Black, the network is introducing a new Tuesday drama, Limitless, adapted from the 2011 movie starring Bradley Cooper as a man who uses an experimental drug that greatly enhances and increases the abilities of his brain. Both dramas represent a departure from the customary police procedurals CBS is known for at 10 o’clock. As a result, CBS’s prospects in the hour are less certain this coming season than they have been for the last few seasons.
“Tuesday at 10 o’clock is unproven with Limitless, Wednesday at 10 o’clock is unproven with Code Black [and] Thursday at 10 o’clock is weak with Elementary,” Berman says. “CBS keeps touting [Elementary] as a big hit, but it’s not.”
Bright spots on the CBS lineup at 10 include Blue Bloods on Fridays (13.77 million viewers per episode last season) and NCIS: Los Angeles on Mondays.
With so much uncertainty in the hour leading into their late newscasts — plus mounting evidence that an increasing number of viewers are using the hour to watch shows they recorded earlier — affiliates are realizing more and more that they have to produce late newscasts whose fates do not depend on the strength — or weakness — of network lead-ins.
“We’re very lucky that we have the No. 1 newscast in pretty much all of our markets,” says Greg Conklin, VP of corporate programming for the Gray Television. “I don’t think there’s a news lead-in — a show at 10 o’clock — that’s blowing people’s socks off anymore.”