Television Changes, but the Fall Season Endures

September 24th, 2012

For years, Alan Wurtzel, the head of research for NBC, has questioned the enduring validity of a television season — the ritual competition of network series, which begins again Monday night.

Gene Page/AMC

AMC will probably draw more than five million viewers for next month’s season premiere of “The Walking Dead,” television’s top-rated drama among younger viewers.

Bob Mahoney/NBC

NBC introduced the dystopian drama “Revolution” before the seasonal flood of new programming.

“I’ve been saying the idea of a television season is an anachronistic artifact,” Mr. Wurtzel said. “It’s a 52-week-a-year business. We never take a night off.”

The tradition of the fall season, originally tied to the start of the model year for new cars, is now more than 60 years old. It is defined arbitrarily and rather arcanely by the Nielsen Company as 34.5 weeks between mid-September and mid-May. The season doesn’t account for the increasing number of viewers who watch shows on their own schedules and it hasn’t stopped cable networks from introducing hit shows all through the year.

And yet, the idea persists, in large part because it still works. In defiance of diminishing ratings, attention on the new network shows seems only to have increased, as more blogs and social media sites offer breakdowns of the lineups and predictions of successes and failures.

“When Labor Day comes around and folks go back to school, people still turn to the broadcast networks and say: What have you got?” Mr. Wurtzel acknowledged.

The networks will have to fight even harder this fall to win the attention of viewers because of the sheer amount of clutter on air. Mr. Wurtzel said NBC counted 633 premieres of new and returning broadcast and cable shows in 2011, and he estimated that in 2012 the figure would reach 1,122.

Network shows have to fight for viewers not only against prestige series like AMC’s “Mad Men,” but also every form of niche reality and tabloid show, from “Duck Dynasty” on A&E to “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” on TLC.

John Landgraf, the president of the FX cable network, has studied tracking data about awareness of coming shows. He said, “No new show on broadcast television has reached 10 percent awareness” in what he identified as the category indicating, “I am surely going to try this new series.”

Advertising plans are still at the center of the season rollout. In May, shows are offered to ad clients, who buy up chunks of time in advance of the season. Advertisers, still looking to reach masses, have continued to pour billions into broadcasters. For this season, they committed an estimated $ 9 billion, about the same total as in 2011.

But each network was able to command significant price increases for commercials, even with many shows recording declining ratings. (The total remained about the same because somewhat less commercial time was bought in advance.)

CBS’s pricing grew about 9 percent, after a huge bump of 13 percent in 2011. Fox was up about 8 percent, after a 10 percent jump in 2012. ABC was able to charge 7 percent more after a bump of about 11 percent in 2011. And even the deeply slumping NBC got a price boost of 5.5 percent after gaining 9 percent in 2011.

The handicapping this season leans toward a big year for CBS, which owns rights to Super Bowl XLVII, as well as a stable lineup of hits. Those ought to ease the introduction of two more crime dramas: “Elementary,” a contemporary take on Sherlock Holmes, and “Vegas,” about a lawman and gangster in the founding days of Las Vegas.

ABC must replace one bulwark, “Desperate Housewives,” while hoping to stem the slide of others like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Dancing With the Stars.”

ABC does have two early critical favorites, an intense political thriller, “Last Resort,” and a country music soap, “Nashville.”

The Fox network lost a drama pillar in “House,” and its decade-long blockbuster, “American Idol,” dropped 30 percent last year. The network’s hopes ride on a pair of new comedies considered more sweet than hilarious, “Ben and Kate” and “The Mindy Project.” But the drama it hoped would replace “House,” a medical-crime hybrid called “The Mob Doctor,” is already pegged as a likely candidate for first cancellation.

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