Now that the 2012-13 season has mercifully come to a close (NBC's Revolution finale was delayed a week), here are some reflections on another tough year at the networks. With viewership continuing to decline, and more threats appearing on the horizon from everyone like Netflix to other streaming services like Roku, the TV universe keeps evolving in unexpected ways. Whether that results in better programming remains to be seen.
Here are 10 things that surprised (or in some cases, stunned) us from September through early June.
1. NBC's horrendous performance
No one expected Robert Greenblatt, in his second season at the helm, to totally turn things around at the Peacock network. But few thought the situation might get worse. From such horrific programs as Do No Harm and Animal Practice to fiascos in both daytime (The Today Show) and late night (the PR debacle with Jay Leno), NBC often looked more adrift than usual.
NBC's few good developments — Sunday Night Football, Revolution nearly topping all new shows in the 18-49 demographic, The Voice overtaking American Idol among the target audience — were overwhelmed by their consistently abysmal primetime performance (e.g., multiple weeks in fifth place). Given his record at Showtime, it's anticipated Greenblatt will eventually restore NBC's luster. But the time it's taking has plenty of Comcast executives nervous.
2. The Walking Dead rules
You can make your own assessment regarding what it means that TV's top program among the 18-49 crowd is about zombies. But by any yardstick, AMC's The Walking Dead has far surpassed expectations. It finished tied for ninth among total viewers with The Voice as both had an average audience of 14.3 million. Considering only two other cable shows (A&E's Duck Dynasty and ESPN's Monday Night Football) were even in the Top 24, The Walking Dead certainly has a very lively audience.
3. CBS soars
It doesn't make innovative or ambitious shows, and it has ridden the procedural crime horse well into the ground. Yet CBS had perhaps its biggest year in recent memory. The Eye not only won its usual total audience crown, but also had the largest audience among 18-49 year-olds. It had both the No. 1 drama (NCIS) and comedy (The Big Bang Theory), while Elementary topped all new shows in total viewers.
4. Fox dips
For years Fox used American Idol to cover shortcomings throughout the schedule. Its popularity enabled the network to continually garner huge ratings among young audiences. But the bottom fell out this season, even though finishing eighth with nearly 15 million viewers would be a great year for most shows. However, that's a huge drop from the 30-33 million of past seasons. That dip has resulted in a total housecleaning that will see a new panel of judges next round.
5. Gore galore
Despite the onslaught of columns and commentaries about excessive violence on television and its impact/influence on societal events, shows depicting graphic gore still get huge audiences. I've never read a positive review of Criminal Minds, which holds steady on CBS with a weekly audience of more than 12 million. Yet it looked like The Wizard of Oz compared to Fox's The Following, the Kevin Bacon-starring eye-gouger that became an instant hit with the 18-49 crew.
One of NBC's few successful new shows was Hannibal, another program long on baroque blood-and-guts. The latter two are far superior to the first, but all three (as well as HBO's Game of Thrones) thrive on brutality and gruesome action. Of course, that isn't all they're about, and their supporters would argue the violence isn't necessarily central to their appeal. But the Westerns, private eye and war dramas of the '50s and '60s (which ultimately disappeared due to anti-violence concerns) don't come close to equaling the body count of these contemporary sagas.
6. Network reality shows take downturn
Don't write any obits for these programs, but several longtime reality favorites showed their age. Dancing With The Stars, like American Idol, still had overall good numbers, but took a big enough audience hit to eliminate one showing next season.
Survivor doesn't dominate as it used to for CBS, and Fox never got remotely close to the numbers Simon Cowell promised for X Factor. It seems much of the audience has fired NBC's Celebrity Apprentice. But A&E got a breakout hit with Duck Dynasty, and both TNT and USA are getting into the reality game, so the genre isn't going anywhere.
7. Football's on fire
NBC was actually in first place much of the early season thanks to Sunday Night Football, which finished second overall. Monday Night Football helps ESPN charge cable systems and satellite companies more money for carriage than any other basic cable service.
Football (college and pro) will eventually be the only team sport regularly shown on the networks (with the possible exception of the World Series). Both the NBA and NHL are already largely on cable, and MLB will no doubt go that way soon.
8. Cable changes the game
When Kevin Bacon insisted on doing only a 15-show season for The Following, there was some grumbling. But that move was one of the few that worked for Fox. Look for more networks to adopt the cable model of original programming with limited runs, no repeat showings, or seasons cut in half with new episodes parceled out (which worked for The Walking Dead). You'll see fewer programs getting 22-episode commitments, and even the return of the miniseries. TNT, USA, TBS, AMC, and many others have been doing it this way for decades.
9. Scandal turns heads
ABC's Scandal became a full-blown event this season. Its unexpected success helped elevate Jimmy Kimmel's rankings on Thursday nights, and even brought a few new faces to old favorite Gray's Anatomy.
But the show's rise also generated heated online discussions and controversial columns — see the clip above — that exposed plenty of folks on either side of the color line who weren't thrilled about the triangle involving the President, First Lady and the show's central character Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington). Evidently America's not as tolerant when it comes to interracial relationships as some think. Still, there's also a big (and growing) viewership that loves the show's tricky blend of political machinations and romantic intrigue.
10. Arrow scores
As someone who hasn't been within hailing range of the CW's target demo for decades, I seldom see anything on that network that gets my attention. But Arrow is the rare comic-book derivative that successfully navigates the fine line between memorable drama and outrageous fantasy. It helps the show has some real actors among a diversified cast, and that it bothered to resolve a lot of things during the season. Yet enough unresolved thematic questions remain to make Year Number Two quite interesting.