With network television gearing up for 2013 — as in tonight's return of Nashville — it's worth pausing for a moment to look back at the past year's mixed blessings and potholes, many of which will be ongoing concerns. The DVR has become such a force that Nielsens now show the figures for both live presentation and delayed showings. Networks are also making peace with mobile devices and other new technologies — an exception being their lawsuit against Dish Network over the Hopper that allows viewers to skip commercials in playback mode.
Not only were there fewer cancellations than usual, but the networks lowered audience expectations in many instances. They've also begun offering producers and actors unusual concessions. Fox wanted Kevin Bacon in its new drama The Following so badly it dispensed with the usual 22-episode format to land him for a smaller number of programs (10-14). Likewise, NBC so much wants Revolution to be a hit the network opted to air only a handful of episodes from late September to early December, then bring it back in March paired with The Voice to secure a larger audience. Whether a sizable chunk of the show's viewers will forget about it in the interim remains to be seen.
At any rate, here are a few notable developments from last year on the network front:
1. NBC shows signs of life
The Peacock still lags far behind CBS and ABC in overall viewers, but NBC can thank three things for its gradual revival. The first is pro football, which continues to swamp everything on Sunday night. The NFL has shown The Good Wife such unnecessary roughness that its producers let CBS know they wouldn't be averse to putting the show back in the weeknight lineup. The second is The Voice, which has separated itself from Fox's The X Factor. It now looms as the possible replacement to that same network's American Idol as the show of choice for those who take their singing competitions seriously. The third is Revolution, the top new network program among the 18-49 demographic.
2. The Walking Dead devours all
No other cable program in history — not The Sopranos, Dexter, Mad Men or Breaking Bad — has ever been the No. 1 rated show in the hallowed 18-49 demographic. But that's precisely the case with AMC's zombie apocalypse. Some 10.5 million watched the fall/winter finale episode, capping the show's grimmest stretch to date. The overall ratings aren't nearly that good, but advertisers could care less what those outside the front or back end of that viewing group prefer.
3. The critics/viewer comedy gap
Those who write about TV for a living love such shows as Go On, The New Normal, The Mindy Project and Ben and Kate. Viewers, on the other hand, flock to 2 Broke Girls, Mike and Molly, even the husk of Two and a Half Men. There's some consensus on Modern Family and perhaps The Middle, but as usual critical celebration doesn't always equal commercial acceptance.
4. The CW gets some mild hits
The CW has always depended on online buzz and tabloid fervor rather than raw numbers, and both Arrow and Beauty and the Beast languish at the bottom of the Nielsen pack. But they're doing better than the programs they replaced, and Arrow's gotten enough resonance among the comic pack/geek crew to get a good boost. It's unclear if Beauty and the Beast will make it beyond the first season, but it gets a full year to sink or swim.
5. Tough sledding for high concepts
No matter how great its leads are, a program that bets its survival on a gimmicky premise stands a good chance of folding. Andre Braugher gave it everything he had, but Last Resort was heavy on conspiracy theory and light on memorable characters or scenarios. Other than ticking off a bunch of people with a promo during the Olympics that many considered racist, Animal Practice came and went without generating much attention. Likewise, 666 Park Avenue scared only ABC executives who saw their Sunday night audience running like hell. As for Fox's Mob Doctor, perhaps it made sense in the planning stages, but on screen it was a total rubout.
6. Holmes and Vegas
CBS has scored the biggest impact among new programs with its Sherlock Holmes update Elementary and period drama Vegas. The former turns history's greatest detective into a halfway House in 21st century New York, complete with a drug problem and a gorgeous assistant to help overcome it; the latter references a real-life 20th century struggle between a Las Vegas sheriff and a transplanted Chicago gangster, with the backdrop of Sin City evolving into today's entertainment capital. ABC's Nashville has struggled to find an audience against CSI, but it's performing like gangbusters on iTunes and proving a pleasant diversion for those who prefer their soap opera with a spritz of the Cumberland. NBC's Chicago Fire has survived despite being critically savaged, as has ABC's The Neighbors.
7. Old favorites showing signs of age
Is SVU finally SOL? The end seems near for NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and CBS' CSI: NY. The CW's Gossip Girl, Fox's Fringe, and ABC's Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice are in their final days. But CBS's Criminal Minds and CSI just keep going. The Mentalist is also showing signs of creative fatigue.
8. Cable shows keep surging
The audiences for USA's dramas keep growing, even if it's hard to know when programs like White Collar, Necessary Roughness, Psych, Covert Affairs and Burn Notice are on or off the air. Likewise for TNT's array of shows such as Rizzoli and Isles, Leverage and Major Crimes. HBO's Boardwalk Empire enjoyed a big jump this season, but unfortunately Treme will be ending soon; the same is true for AMC's Breaking Bad. But these shows' ability to juggle dramatic and comedic elements, free from the archaic FCC restrictions that shackle the networks, is a reminder that very little of what's good these days on television is on the broadcast side.
9. The absence of mini-series and TV films
CBS canned Tom Selleck's excellent Jesse Stone film series due to low ratings, and he's been unable to find another home. The numerous specialty film channels and pay-cable entities have taken the networks out of the televised film and mini-series business, except for the occasional Hallmark special (and those are much better done by the Lifetime Movie Channel).
10. The demise of family drama
NBC's Parenthood is the closest thing left on a network to classic family drama, and its minimal ratings keep it on the fence. But it's enjoying perhaps its greatest year this season. If this should be the show's last hurrah, it's going out in fine fashion.