There's some TV conventional wisdom that a successful network doesn't make many changes to its schedule, season-to-season. So how do you explain ABC, at or near the top in most attractive demographic categories, unveiling a schedule with nine new fall shows and four veteran series -- including the network's most popular property -- changing nights? I'll give it a shot after the jump, starting with a run-down of the schedule (the press release on Futon Critic has descriptions of all the new shows):
8:00 p.m. "Wife Swap"
9:00 p.m. "The Bachelor"/"Supernanny"
10:00 p.m. "What About Brian"
8:00 p.m. "Dancing with the Stars" (new night)/"Set for the Rest of Your Life" (new alternative series)
9:00 p.m. "Let's Rob..." (new comedy series)
9:30 p.m. "Help Me Help You" (new comedy series)
10:00 p.m. "Boston Legal"
WEDNESDAY: 8:00 p.m.
"Dancing with the Stars" (new night)/"George Lopez"/"According to Jim" (new night)
9:00 p.m. "Lost"
10:00 p.m. "The Nine" (new drama series)
8:00 p.m. "Big Day" (new comedy series)
8:30 p.m. "Notes from the Underbelly" (new comedy series)
9:00 p.m. "Grey's Anatomy" (new night and time)
10:00 p.m. "Six Degrees" (new drama series)
8:00 p.m. "Betty the Ugly" (new comedy series)
9:00 p.m. "Men in Trees" (new drama series)
10:00 p.m. "20/20"
8:00 p.m. "ABC Saturday Night College Football"
7:00 p.m. "America's Funniest Home Videos"
8:00 p.m. "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition"
9:00 p.m. "Desperate Housewives"
10:00 p.m. "Brothers & Sisters" (new drama series)
What we've got here is an illustration of exactly how fragile ABC's success the last two years has been. Basically, the network was carried to the top entirely on the backs of four shows: "Grey's," "Housewives," "Lost" and "Home Edition." Everything else is a total crapshoot. "Dancing" has a big audience but skews really old, and the network can't air it twice a season like CBS can with "Survivor." There are a few singles hitters ("Boston Legal," "20/20," the Monday reality shows), but to stick with the baseball metaphor, the rest of the lineup for the last few years hasn't even been at replacement level.
There's room for a lot of growth here, but there's no realistic way a network -- even one with the great promotional platforms of the Big Four -- can launch this many new shows or let people know about this many scheduling moves. Better to keep suffering with the likes of "Hope & Faith" and "Invasion" for at least a few months into the fall, then do staggered launches of most of the new stuff.
I do like the "Grey's" move. Whatever creative issues I may have had with the latter third of this season (and, again, Cone of Silence on the finale until I see it), it's the strongest thing ABC has, and it's the thematic opposite of "CSI" in virtually every way: young, female, soapy, focused on relationships over procedure, etc., etc. Two shows can co-exist in that timeslot. "CSI" and "The Apprentice" both did great back when "The Apprentice" was still good (i.e., the first season), as did "CSI" and "Will & Grace" back in the day. If both shows have audiences and are different enough stylistically, the "if you build it, they will come" theory works. (Though ABC sure could have helped matters by giving "Grey's" an actual lead-in, like maybe moving the "Dancing" results show to Thursday.)
Until I watch the new shows, I don't want to comment too much, but I like the idea and creative pedigree of "Let's Rob Mick Jagger," or whatever they wind up calling it. On the other hand, was anybody screaming for the return of Calista Flockhart to the public eye?
One of the more curious moves is the return of "What About Brian." I have the last three episodes sitting on my TiVo and had been preparing to delete them, since I don't really have the time to keep up with a doomed relationship show. But I like it enough that I'll find the time to watch those three at some point soon. One of my friends who's the head of scheduling at another network has this theory that a show with a small audience can grow, but that once you start to lose a sizable part of your audience, they're never coming back. Something like "In Justice" opened well, then went off the table. "Brian" never really opened, not even with the Sunday preview, so there's still room for growth. (On the other hand, if you're being cynical, this is just a Suck Up to J.J. move.)
In general, I wouldn't get too attached to most of these new shows. "Brian" and "Dancing" are the only new shows ABC introduced this season that survived ("Commander in Chief" may get a two-hour wrap-up movie), and that was a more stable schedule than this one.