It’s been an annual autumn tradition for more than two decades now: the reporting of continued broadcast network declines that seem to come once the networks have put on proud displays of their new fall shows, only to watch so many of them hit the wall and fail to stick.
This year has been no exception. The biggest programming news of recent weeks, as far as scripted series go, has been the rise of basic cable behemoths “The Walking Dead” on AMC and “Sons of Anarchy” on FX, which, in their third and fifth seasons, respectively, are earning higher ratings than ever before, especially among key demographic groups. In fact, the season premiere two weeks ago of “The Walking Dead” was the No. 1 series among adults 18-49, outpacing every scripted franchise on television. Talk about hitting broadcast where it hurts.
As usual, the collective decline can be attributed to a slate of fall shows comprised of way too many tired returnees and a largely unremarkable freshman class. There are only three distinctive new broadcast successes to speak of so far, and in the most unexpected development of the year, two of them are on NBC!
The more notable of these two is the post-apocalyptic adventure “Revolution,” which makes less sense as it meanders along. (Why are the characters always so surprised by the world around them when that world has been a terrifying hellhole for 15 years? This is especially true of Charlie, the young woman at the center of the adventure.) I think it plays more like one of those low-rent weekend syndicated adventure shows of years past than a great big prime-time broadcast network show in the tradition of “Lost,” but the young audience that flocks to NBC on Monday nights for “The Voice” and stays around to support “Revolution” apparently feels otherwise. The other big surprise on NBC is the bland Matthew Perry comedy “Go On,” which is surviving and thriving after the Tuesday edition of “The Voice.” Go figure.
The third distinctive freshman success referenced above is The CW’s “Arrow,” which benefited from having one of the better pilots of the season, not to mention the burgeoning support of the tech-savvy nerd community that loves its superhero sagas. “Arrow” is a hit by the CW’s standards, and it seems to be holding up well. It’s awfully dark, and the actors who portray the title character and his potential love interest are rather limited in their talents, so “Arrow” isn’t yet a sure bet in the long-term. But everyone involved has plenty of room to grow and an early full-season renewal that will give them time to do so. It looks like a keeper, which is more than I can say about most of the 2012-13 freshman class.
There isn’t much excitement surrounding any of the other new shows this season. ABC’s “Nashville,” widely heralded as the best new pilot and/or series of the season, has been a bit of a snore. I’d dismiss it as “Dullsville,” except that it comes excitingly alive and swells with genuine emotion whenever the characters sing, which is much of the time. If the narrative rises to the level of its soundtrack, then “Nashville” might rise to the level of its acclaim, but right now it seems as though all that early enthusiasm was a tad premature.
Meanwhile, NBC’s “The New Normal,” which I would argue has proven itself the best new series of the season, seems to be losing ground in the ratings. (That’s a shame: A sequence in this week’s episode in which Bryan, one half of the gay couple at the center of the story, gave his first confession after a gap of twenty years to a very cool priest was one of the most delightful scenes on any sitcom this fall.) Over at CBS, “Elementary” has proven to be a sturdy edition to the network’s formidable Thursday night, but it isn’t generating as much buzz as its dazzling lead-in, “Person of Interest.”
So why are “The Walking Dead” and “Sons of Anarchy” currently the hottest scripted shows on advertiser-supported television? I’d say it’s because AMC and FX aren’t afraid to put programming for grown-ups on in prime time, and aren’t all of us over the age of 18 eager to enjoy such unapologetically adult fare? One might assert that the broadcast networks are restrained by antiquated FCC content regulations, but that doesn’t seem to be much of a problem as far as violence in crime shows and adult language in comedies is concerned. Indeed, certain broadcast shows -- CBS’ “The Good Wife” and “2 Broke Girls,” NBC’s “The New Normal” and Fox’s “Family Guy,” to name a few -- seem to do just fine despite the outdated obstruction known as the FCC.
So why aren’t more broadcast shows more successful, and why aren’t more of them (especially the 10 o’clock dramas) pushing more envelopes? That’s a complicated issue for the networks, but they had better think of something, because given what’s happening with “The Walking Dead” and “Sons of Anarchy,” not to mention FX’s “American Horror Story: Asylum,” which doesn’t so much push the envelope as shred it, it won’t be long before USA Network, TNT and Lifetime join AMC and FX in raising their stakes, sharpening their edges and further hitting broadcast where it hurts.