Network offerings for fall have the ring of the familiar

"Reign," on The CW, is a 16th-century costume production about the life of Mary, Queen of Scots. JOSS BARRATT / The CW
"Reign," on The CW, is a 16th-century costume production about the life of Mary, Queen of Scots. JOSS BARRATT / The CW
Posted: May 19, 2013

Any way you look at it, it was a tough year for the networks. Broadcast ratings dropped by an average of 7.5 percent, the steepest decline in six years.

NBC's Do No Harm notched the smallest audience for a series debut in broadcast history and was canceled after two episodes.

Fox's old warhorse, American Idol, tumbled to new lows. Even the ragged Robertsons of Duck Dynasty have been beating the previously unassailable singing competition. And Wednesday's showdown between Kree Harrison and Candice Glover didn't even top the night among viewers 18 to 49, the first time that's ever happened to an Idol finale episode.

The networks aren't just facing mounting competition from cable. Everybody is muscling into the act, with Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Amazon, and other outfits moving aggressively into original programming.

So last week, when the networks announced their plans for next season to advertisers and the media in New York - a ritual known as the upfronts - they unveiled a bold and innovative slate of new shows.

Just kidding. They served up the same Ikea meatballs they've been peddling for years. It's a shockingly small (26 fall debuts in all) and derivative roster.

As always, there are some intriguing programs in the mix: funny lady Rebel Wilson in ABC's Super Fun Night; CBS's The Crazy Ones, which returns Robin Williams to prime time; Fox's Sleepy Hollow, which catapults colonial Ichabod Crane into an apocalyptic future; NBC's The Blacklist, a thriller with James Spader; and The CW's period series Reign. (Don't worry, Reign may be set in the 16th century, but it's stocked with outrageously attractive "teens.")

There were some surprising renewals. A number of marginal shows that weren't expected to see another season got reprieves. Among them were Neighbors and Nashville on ABC; The CW's Hart of Dixie and The Carrie Diaries; Parenthood and the oft-abused Community on NBC; and Fox's animated and anemic Bob's Burgers.

Perhaps the most surprising revelation of the week was what shows were deemed worthy of spin-offs. ABC's Once Upon a Time in Wonderland is a byproduct of Once Upon a Time, which is ending the season in 39th place among network series, according to Nielsen data.

NBC will give us Chicago PD, cloned from Chicago Fire (#51). And The Originals evolved from The CW's The Vampire Diaries (tied for #154, trailing a good portion of Univision's schedule).

On the reality-show front, Fox is supplementing MasterChef with Junior MasterChef (which one competitor suggested should be titled Kids With Knives).

Besides the series that died of natural causes this year ( Gossip Girl, The Office, Fringe, Private Practice, 30 Rock, 90210), there were a number that were terminated with extreme prejudice. Among the cancellations: Body of Proof, Happy Endings, Malibu Country, Rules of Engagement, Touch, Golden Boy, Vegas, and Go On.

The fates of Hannibal and Celebrity Apprentice, both on NBC, remain unresolved.

For the most part, the networks have chosen to go into next season trading on what they consider their strong suits.

ABC, which ended the 2012-13 season in last place among the big four, just below NBC, is taking the biggest gamble, with four dramas and four sitcoms for the fall. It's reloading after a season that produced no genuine hits.

The network's Disney roots are showing in Once Upon a Time in Wonderland (think of it as a ride on the Mad Hatter's Tea Cup) and Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (think of it as the first prime-time payoff for Disney's acquisition of the Marvel superhero universe).

The CW is sticking with the supernatural for its three dramas. They're a mix of vampires and mutants - and one wig-scratching twist, Reign, which dramatizes the early years of Mary, Queen of Scots. The shows will all feature The CW's usual complement of outrageously good-looking twentysomethings from Britain, Australia, and Canada, all playing teenagers.

CBS loves its formulaic Chuck Lorre sitcoms ( The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, Mike & Molly), so it's bought itself a new one, Mom.

Fox either doesn't notice or doesn't care that its ratings are taking a nosedive. It's adding only one drama, one reality show, and two sitcoms to its fall schedule. Its casting coup: the Lonely Island's Andy Samberg in the Barney Milleresque comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

As is its wont, NBC is bringing back some familiar names in new vehicles: Ironside, Dracula, and The Michael J. Fox Show. (Oh, and Will & Grace's Sean Hayes in Sean Saves the World.)

NBC had better hope nostalgia sells, after a dreary season that left only two of its new series ( Revolution and Chicago Fire) still showing a pulse.

The biggest changes you may see next year will be on vintage competition shows. American Idol is undergoing a staff purge and format makeover. And ABC is pulling Dancing With the Stars back to a single night.

The networks spent a lot of time during upfront week bragging about their midseason shows.

Admittedly, some of those are impressive. Intelligence is a high-tech spy thriller on ABC with Josh Holloway ( Lost) and Marg Helgenberger ( CSI).

The CW has a pair of flashy sci-fi concepts, Star-Crossed and The 100.

NBC has one of TV's best writers, Jason Katims, adapting Nick Hornby's novel About a Boy. And J.J. Abrams and Alfonso Cuaron will team up for the supernatural series Believe.

Fox's big-ticket events are Rake, a series starring Greg Kinnear ; Wayward Pines, a thriller from Malvern's M. Night Shyamalan; and the return of Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) in 24: Live Another Day.

Pretty exciting, right?

But none of these programs will air until sometime in 2014.

That's like serving us Hamburger Helper on Monday while telling us how great Sunday dinner is going to be.


Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552, dhiltbrand@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_TV.

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