The 2011-2012 TV season ended with a whimper, as all five broadcast networks posted year-to-year drops in viewership during May sweeps. But the season as a whole wasn't too bad: Sure, some big swings (Pan Am, Terra Nova) missed, but a solid 15 freshman shows (out of 45) were renewed. Here's a roundup of this year's winners and losers.
CBS' 2 Broke Girls was the year's highest-rated new comedy, averaging a strong 5.6 million viewers with adults 18-49. The show has already been upgraded to a plum 9pm time slot for fall. "That shows enormous confidence," says Warner Bros. TV president Peter Roth. Fox found a hit in Zooey Deschanel's New Girl (though it experienced viewer erosion by the end of the season). ABC is also high on Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23. But the real winner may be Whitney Cummings, who cocreated 2 Broke Girls and stars in NBC's Whitney, which managed to land a second season.
CBS and Warner Bros. TV's big Ashton gamble paid off. Despite replacing Two and a Half Men star Charlie Sheen, the comedy ended the season as TV's second most watched sitcom (14.6 million viewers). Kutcher also saw a bit of a resurgence behind the scenes: His production company revived Punk'd at MTV and has the new TBS hidden camera series Who Gets the Last Laugh? Plus, he'll play Steve Jobs in the movie jOBS.
Fantasy is a tough sell in prime time, but ABC's Once Upon a Time wound up the season's top-rated new drama among adults 18-49. NBC's Grimm gave the network a Friday-night boost. HBO's Game of Thrones has also been a ratings success and silenced critics questioning if the pay channel had lost its mojo. The trend continues in the fall with new shows like ABC's 666 Park Avenue and The CW's Beauty and the Beast. Of course, "execution trumps premise or genre," reminds one exec.
Live TV viewing
New technology has made it easier to watch sitcoms and dramas whenever you want (and without commercials). But NBC's Sunday Night Football, the most watched show of the season, is DVR-proof. Live viewing is also a big reason why reality competition shows — Dancing With the Stars, American Idol and The Voice — land in the Top 10. Ratings for the Super Bowl, the Grammys and the Academy Awards all increased this year. Plus, Twitter is enhancing the national communal viewing experience — and if you want to Tweet about it, you have to be there, live.
Network execs love to revisit popular franchises because they're easy to promote and come with built-in awareness. But viewers weren't so keen on the return of Charlie's Angels, which ABC canceled after four episodes. NBC's interpretation of Emmy-winning British drama Prime Suspect didn't make a splash (except for star Maria Bello's hats). Fox's animated Napoleon Dynamite wasn't on long enough for most viewers to notice, and NBC banished its take on The Firm to Saturdays. As for NBC's Fear Factor revival, the show opened big but quickly fizzled.
Several new sitcoms centered on the idea that today's men aren't so manly. ABC led the trend with buddy comedy Man Up!, the cross-dressing sitcom Work It and Tim Allen's Last Man Standing. Allen got a renewal, but his show moves to Fridays next season. The others were quickly canceled. "I don't know if it's a men-in-crisis thing. It's just a comedies-that-didn't-work thing," says one exec.
With an average of 12.6 million viewers, The X Factor should have been considered a success for Fox. But ratings were less than stellar compared to the 20 million viewers predicted by overconfident exec producer Cowell. When reality set in, he admitted he was "humbled." He also made some poor hiring decisions and replaced judges Paula Abdul, Nicole Scherzinger and host Steve Jones for Season 2.
Mad Men fans love the drama's 1960s setting. But the throwback look isn't the only thing that makes it a hit. Just ask NBC and ABC, which saw their period pieces The Playboy Club and Pan Am fail. Are the '60s just too cool for broadcast TV? "No," says one executive at a rival network. "The shows just weren't very good."
Mega series finales
Do viewers no longer care about big goodbyes? The series finale of a long-running hit used to be a national cultural event. But it looks like the days of sky-high ratings for send-offs like Friends (51 million viewers in 2004) are over. ABC's Desperate Housewives ended its eight-year run with 11.1 million viewers, while Fox's House signed off with 9 million — not even close to what they pulled in at their peaks. While massive audiences are harder to accumulate in today's ultra-fragmented landscape, it may also be a sign of long-running hits outstaying their welcomes. "When you're done with a show, you're done," one network insider notes. "People don't come back." But with new hits so hard to come by, chances are we'll be seeing more fading shows hang around.
Answering the question, "What did you watch on TV last night?" keeps getting more complicated. This season, more homes are playing back shows on their DVRs (44 percent, up from 41 percent last season), while about half have access to video-on-demand services. More viewers also have Internet-ready TVs that can stream programs online. This means the habit of settling down in front of the tube to watch a drama or sitcom at a designated time is slipping away, especially among younger viewers.