Early on in his executive session at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, ABC Entertainment Group President Paul Lee made the big announcement all TV fans have been waiting for for ages, the biggest news to come out of any network in any session at this press tour. Are you ready for it? Because you might not be. You’re going to need a paragraph break before you are.
This September, ABC will be airing Shark Tank Week, which will consist of Shark Tank airing at least once per night every night of the week. All of the episodes will be reruns, of course, since ABC can’t very well burn off five episodes of a show that’s working relatively well over one week. But Shark Tank Week is a reality, and you’ll get some sort of opportunity to pick your fan favorite episodes before it happens.
Honestly, this article could end there, and you’d have all the breaking news from Lee’s session. ABC’s current status is a problematic one. Though it possesses a fair number of hits and solid performers—with Modern Family, Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, and Once Upon A Time leading the charge—the network also has a lot of shows that garner media buzz and attention that aren’t really commensurate with their ratings status, making it sometimes seem like ABC is in far better shape than it is. Revenge, for instance, had a creatively disastrous second season, but it still gets a fair amount of media buzz, and its ratings fell but not that much, considering the more competitive timeslot it moved into. But it’s still the sort of show that would be a marginal pickup on a CBS or a Fox. Add in C3 and Live-plus-7 numbers, however, and Revenge starts looking a little more respectable. Much of that first season audience has kept up with the show, just on a time-shifted basis. That’s the case for many of ABC’s shows, like why we’re getting a second season of Nashville for some reason.
So if any network head was going to talk a lot about DVR and streaming numbers and how important they are to the future of television, it was going to be Lee. Instead, however, his presentation was almost completely substance free. Now, to be sure, there are plenty of opportunities to be substance free at events like this, plenty of opportunities for journalists to ask variations on, “What did you see in this new show?” and the network head to talk about how excited everybody is to see future episodes of a show that will be canceled by the end of October. But even when Lee was pressed on things that really could have prompted substantive answers—the cancellation of Happy Endings, say, or when Grey’s Anatomy is going to start wrapping up—he went in largely for boilerplate and soft answers.
On the former, for instance, the answer is officially that Happy Endings needed to stand on its own, without the Modern Family lead-in, and when it proved unable to on Tuesdays, it was done for. On the surface, this is a completely reasonable—and accurate—answer. But it largely ignores the way that ABC had what seemed like a perfect comedy lineup in the fall of 2011, with The Middle, Suburgatory, Modern Family, and Happy Endings all flowing into each other beautifully, then tore it down for seemingly no particular reason, killing the lattermost show in that lineup and nearly killing Suburgatory, which has been demoted to a midseason fill-in (something that worked so well for Cougar Town in that show’s third season). ABC has been so desperate to capitalize on the success of Modern Family that it’s seemed almost frantic to try new shows after it. The show is entering its fifth season, and ABC has tried Cougar Town, Mr. Sunshine, Happy Endings, Don’t Trust The B—— In Apt. 23, The Neighbors (for one week), Suburgatory, and How To Live With Your Parents (For The Rest Of Your Life) after it. Most of those shows are gone. Only two are still airing on ABC.
In short, Happy Endings definitely needed to eventually prove its own worth, just as Cougar Town eventually did, but it probably should have gotten more than a few months behind Modern Family before heading off into the wilderness on its own. And it certainly wasn’t helped by having to air opposite New Girl and Go On, two other comedies that attracted similar audiences, nor with a move to Fridays that plopped down with very little promotion. Lee’s point-of-view made sense, but the network’s weird Wednesday comedy switcheroos made very little sense.
Or take that other question—the one about Grey’s Anatomy. On just about any other network, the arrival of a hit like Scandal would presage the beginning of the end for a workhorse like Grey’s, which has kept propping up its corner of the schedule for nine seasons and is heading into its 10th. Shows that old cost lots of money, especially hospital dramas with large ensemble casts, and while Grey’s is surprisingly good for just how old it is, it’s hard to say the show is fresh, by any stretch of the imagination. Scandal, meanwhile, is one of the TV flavors of the moment. Hailing from Shonda Rhimes, who also created Grey’s, it became the rare drama that needed to be watched first-run, thanks to the huge Twitter engagement over it. There was much speculation that ABC would swap the two, so Scandal aired first and Grey’s last, but ABC is standing firm for now. It’s a cautious move that’s the complete opposite of the network’s endless Wednesday tinkering.
On the one hand, this is to be commended. Scandal might have a third season that proves the show a flash in the pan or a flavor of the month. On the other hand, this seems to be because ABC needs Grey’s to run for ages and ages, because it’s so weak elsewhere that the thought of replacing it—even with a proven hit—is something it simply can’t look at right now. After all, ABC spent something like six years looking for a show to put after Grey’s, and it still hasn’t cracked the question of what to put before the show, not since it moved Ugly Betty away. ABC increasingly seems like a network of islands, shows that work well in isolation but can’t seem to translate that success to the shows that air in their immediate vicinity. And that means that every time something that works even halfway well comes along, ABC seizes upon it feverishly, hoping it will prop up a weak spot elsewhere on the network, only to find that the show was a timeslot hit all along. CBS built itself into the dominant network it is today by being very patient and maximizing the few hits it had. ABC seems characterized by impatience, and that has come back to bite it time and again.
All of which leads to Paul Lee sitting in front of the TCA press tour audience and just talking about nothing in particular. Did Nashville take its turn into outright melodrama (complete with a season-ending car crash cliffhanger that Lee called “really sweet”) because ABC kept asking it to be more like Scandal? Of course not! The producers wanted to do all of that, and they wanted Connie Britton’s character to be more proactive, despite the fact that this would seem to go almost entirely against the early direction of the show, before it started veering all over the place. Is reducing Dancing With The Stars to one night a sign of no confidence in the show, despite its big total audience numbers? Of course not! It’s going to be “an event”! Why was Once Upon A Time In Wonderland leading off Thursdays, instead of bridging the gap between new episodes of Once Upon A Time, as originally planned? Because ABC believes in it so much and not possibly because it needs to shore up a problem time slot by hoping for a little extra magic from one of its island hits. Will ABC be doing more shows with Marvel after Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. launches this fall and/or shows with LucasFilm? Sure! Why not! But nothing Lee could tell reporters about right now. These sorts of answers went on and on as the conference went by, until by the end, indeed, the only bit of definite “news” was the announcement of Shark Tank Week.
This press tour has been characterized by a fair amount of chest thumping, as these sorts of events always are. But there’s also been an occasional refrain of reflection and consideration, of the idea that maybe not everything is so great in the broadcast TV model and maybe this is a transitional time for the business. But Lee didn’t really go in for that, even as he brought up some of the other buzz words of the event, like “limited series” and some discussion of the Netflix model (though he refused to lay into the streaming service for not releasing ratings information). ABC can’t really go in for reflection, because to do that would reveal just how many bleeding wounds the network still has—and how many might have been self-inflicted.