Why does prime-time network television exist? We ask this every fall.
One obvious answer has been quite plain for almost two decades now: ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox are the places to win singing and talent competitions; stage big musicals (ABC's "The Little Mermaid Live!" will air Nov. 5); overcome obstacle courses; hand roses to Bachelorettes; survive social betrayal in remote jungles or a group house under hyper surveillance; dance the rumba with quasi-celebrities; reinvent old game shows; try not to get a sexually transmitted disease on a so-called love island; and, in our latest favorite, "The Masked Singer" (returning Sept. 25 to Fox), try to guess the famous person singing songs in an elaborate costume.
The premium cable networks and streaming services long ago cornered the market on the top-notch dramas, comedies and miniseries - the Emmy bait. Snootier viewers (including critics) started to treat prime-time shows like clay pigeons at target practice, but the condescension came with inaccurate insults, the biggest of which is that "nobody" watches network TV. And that just isn't true.
Nielsen, which continues to deliver the most precise and reliable viewership data in an era when buzz often trumps factual research, estimates that there are 120.6 million homes ready to watch the 2019-20 TV season, which translates to 307.3 million potential viewers ages 2 and older. And 96.1 percent of U.S. households are getting TV over the air, by cable, digital, streaming internet - you name it. That number isn't going down; it went up last year by a fraction of a percentage.
Now, with the networks' parent companies (Disney, Comcast, CBS) getting more aggressive (and possessive) about where and how their branded shows will stream online, it's interesting to sense a newfound confidence in the way they pick and promote new shows.
For several seasons I've wondered why the networks didn't simply fight off their competitors with better, edgier television shows. But they were right to stick to some proven formulas, such as the franchise crime and drama procedurals, those easy-to-watch stalwarts like CBS' "NCIS" shows or Dick Wolf's "Chicago" titles for NBC. On their worst weeks, those shows get ratings that the buzzier dramas, such as HBO's extravagantly praised and parsed "Succession," can only dream of. The difference is millions of viewers.
Perhaps that's why Karey Burke, ABC's president of entertainment, came out with some actual swagger during a Q&A session with the Television Critics Association in August. Why apologize for being the person in charge of another fall season? Have you seen the size of ABC's actual and potential audiences? Have you seen how low the ratings are for some of these streaming-only shows?
Getting reliable data about streaming viewership (Netflix, et al.) is still next to impossible, but Burke cited one Nielsen statistic: "Of the thousands of original episodes on streaming services each month, 5 percent perform below a 0.1 (Nielsen) rating - which is to say, they don't really perform at all," she said. They might get a billboard for a few weeks on Sunset Boulevard, she added, but then they disappear into the sunset.
Burke also asked critics to consider a list of the 50 most-watched shows across all platforms last season: "Look at how many were on broadcast - all but six. This surprised even me."
There is a sense, these days, that network programming may yet pull through TV's platform renaissance, especially if younger audiences keep finding and consuming the content on a streaming platform - even if it's not called Netflix. Network execs always spin positive, but lately I like their chances.
Maybe it's because, as far as this fall is concerned, the shows finally seem a little better. Because the networks' schedules are mostly already filled with returning hits (or semi-hits), I haven't had to watch any reboots this fall, which seems like a miracle. Except for ABC's "Mixed-ish," I haven't had to watch more franchise spinoffs.
Pilots this season are surprisingly strong and often topical: Robert and Michelle King's "Evil" on CBS is a scary rumination on demonology and technology. "All Rise," also on CBS, is a taut legal procedural with an eye on racial injustice. Chuck Lorre's latest comedy for the network, "Bob Hearts Abishola," verges on intercultural enlightenment while being tolerably cute; "The Unicorn" stars Walton Goggins as a widowed father who, as one character says, "is like catnip" to women in the neighborhood - and the show is not as off-putting or mediocre as it might sound.
I liked two ABC dramas - "Stumptown" and "Emergence" - enough to include them on my list of fall's most promising shows. Fox has a couple of stinkers (the animated "Bless the Harts" and the DNA drama "Almost Family"), but also a potential standout: "Prodigal Son," which stars the excellent Michael Sheen as an imprisoned serial killer who lends his criminal-psychologist son (Tom Payne) some expertise in investigating cases.
NBC can keep its shoddy new Southern legal drama, "Bluff City Law," but I'm glad the network has stayed focused on its comedy chops, especially with "The Good Place" soon headed for the hereafter. I was charmed by "Sunnyside," starring Kal Penn as a disgraced politician who agrees to help a group of immigrants pursue U.S. citizenship, and "Perfect Harmony," in which Bradley Whitford plays an Ivy League music professor helping a Kentucky church choir up its game.
Will any of these shows turn television on its head or single-handedly save the prime-time commercial network business model? Certainly not, but they are notably solid representatives of their respective brands. At this stage of TV's metamorphosis, "pretty good" can look pretty great.