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Despite Anticipation,Midseason Lacks Breakout Hits

Leading up to premiere week last fall, the overwhelming sentiment from TV critics was that this year, having smartened up to the idea of year-round scheduling, the networks had saved their best potential breakout shows for midseason. But you wouldn’t know it from a look at the ratings.

Midseason series such as Awake, Alcatraz and The River were highly anticipated by critics, but just three weeks out from the upfront, the prospects of renewal for those series, as well as the majority of the networks’ midseason shows, are dim.

“A lot of these midseason shows are kind of coming and going without even nicking the culture,” one broadcast network president said recently.

Notably, critical praise does not equal ratings, but series like NBC’s Smash and ABC’s GCB were held back to benefit from the promotional muscle of the Super Bowl and the Oscars, respectively. While Smash’s 2.5 rating in the key adults 18-49 demo was enough to win a renewal, and GCB’s 2.0 average rating makes it a moderate performer, especially given its 10 p.m. time period, neither is the bona fide breakout hit its respective networks thought it could be.

Of the other top midseason contenders, Touch seems a likely candidate for renewal with its 2.6 rating and Kiefer Sutherland pedigree, but even it has fallen off substantially after a very strong preview in January. And though Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 had a solid first two weeks out of Modern Family, it must hold up over the next few weeks to prove itself worthy of returning.

In fact, midseason’s top performer, the CBS comedy Rob, was a surprise success and is not even assured a second season by the mostwatched network, which did not include the Rob Schneider vehicle in its large-scale renewal of 15 series last month.

A look at midseason’s rookie performances shows the importance of lead-ins, especially at a time of year when viewing habits have largely been established and marketing budgets have run thin in some cases. Each of the top four midseason entries benefitted from the best launching pad its network could offer—Rob (The Big Bang Theory), Apartment 23 (Modern Family), Touch (American Idol) and Smash (The Voice)—while solidly reviewed shows like Missing and Bent, without a highly rated leadin, didn’t prove self-starters.

“It’s very hard to launch them kind of in the middle of the schedule with nothing to launch them off,” another network executive said.

The best way to use midseason will be top of mind when networks set their schedules for the upfront. After years of talking about it, most seem to be truly committing to the idea of a year-round schedule as cable continues to tighten the competition. This season has seen a trend toward later debuts, with multiple series from ABC, NBC and CBS bowing in April, stretching midseason premieres toward nearly the end of the 2011-12 run.

“We’re seeing more and more shows that are debuting relatively late in the year,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media. “When you’re trying to sit there and say, ‘OK, what shows are coming back?’ some of these shows haven’t even aired yet.”

It’s a strategy that worked last year for ABC’s Happy Endings, whose renewal after middling ratings late in the season led to the comedy finding both its audience and creative footing in its sophomore campaign. A later premiere means, of course, fewer weeks of potential drop-off before scheduling decisions are made, which could spell good news for series like Apartment 23 and Scandal if they hold up. But for other slow-starting midseason entries like Best Friends Forever and NYC 22, the ending, like that for much of the midseason fare, is unlikely to be happy.

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