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MBPT Spotlight: As Holiday Season Ends, Broadcast Networks Look To Revitalized Their Primetime Schedules

With December and its heavy dose of holiday specials and repeat programming soon to be seen only in the rearview mirror, the broadcast networks are gearing up for January with a bunch of new shows, and regular series returning with new episodes, all aimed at boosting ratings and ad revenue.

Much like the days prior to the start of the new fall season, the approaching midseason start is filled with anticipation by the networks, and with hope from media agencies—and their advertiser clients—that the revamped schedules, which begins in earnest on Sunday, Jan. 4, pulls viewers back into viewing mode following a month of shopping.

Fourth quarter—or the first three-and-a-half months of the new broadcast TV season—has not been all-bad for all networks. For regularly scheduled programming, ABC, among the Big Four broadcast networks, has been basically flat in the 18-49 demo, averaging a 1.8. And in this environment of heavily fragmented live TV viewing, flat is good.

CBS is also about flat, averaging a 2.1, although some of the declines the network showed in its entertainment programming were offset by strong 18-49 ratings for seven weeks of Thursday Night Football.

The broadcast networks showing the largest declines in the 18-49 demo in fourth quarter have been NBC and Fox. NBC is down about 9%, but still averaging a solid 2.6 in the demo, in good part due to Sunday Night Football, but Fox is down a whopping 17% to a 1.5, with virtually all of its programming bleeding viewers.

NBC was down in the fourth quarter primarily due to its continued problems with Thursday night entertainment programming, but Sunday Night Football also recorded a 4% drop in the 18-49 demo.

The jury is yet to see arguments on whether moving The Blacklist to Thursday nights at 9 from Mondays at 10 in February, after airing a special episode leading out of the Super Bowl, will hurt or help viewership. On Thursday nights it will go head-to-head with ABC’s hit drama Scandal, which has averaged a 3.2 in the 18-49 demo so far this season, highest among all broadcast network dramas. The Blacklist was averaging a 2.7 in fourth-quarter before it went on hiatus.

NBC, of course, also loses Sunday Night Football until next fall, and is replacing it in part with the return of two-hour weekly episodes of The Celebrity Apprentice beginning Sunday, Jan. 4. Once a hit for the network, Celebrity Apprentice did not even air on the network last season. NBC is bringing it back for season 7 after its last run from March to May 2013, when it averaged just 5.6 million viewers—a far cry from the 11 million it drew in its first installment in 2008.

The 16 celebrity contestants in this installment, as usual, feature an eclectic group. Among them: Geraldo Rivera, Kate Gosselin, Vivica A. Fox, Johnny Damon, Ian Ziering, Gilbert Gottfried, Leeza Gibbons, Keshia Knight Pulliam and Terrell Owens.

NBC will also bring back for a final 13-episode season, beginning Tuesday, Jan. 13, sitcom Parks and Recreation. The network will air two episodes per week Tuesday nights between 8-9 p.m. Even in this final season, the network shouldn’t expect a groundswell of viewership. Last season the series on Thursday nights averaged only 2.9 million viewers and a 1.1 18-49 demo rating, and this time around will be going up against two successful ABC sitcoms—The Middle (7.5 million viewers, 2.0 demo rating) and The Goldbergs (7.1 million viewers, 2.2 demo rating).

The long-running NBC drama Parenthood airs its series finale on Thursday, Jan. 29 at 10 p.m. While the series has a small core of diehard fans, it has averaged only 4.1 million viewers and a 1.2 in the demo this season, so it is not going to leave a huge hole in the network’s viewership.

Replacing Parenthood at 10 beginning Thursday, Feb. 5 will be new drama Allegiance, which will lead out of relocated The Blacklist. In Allegiance, which has a similar theme to the FX cable series The Americans, a young CIA analyst specializing in Russian affairs learns that his parents are covert Russian spies who have been re-enlisted into service to plan a terrorist operation inside the U.S.

NBC in January will televise the Golden Globe Awards on Sunday, Jan. 11 from 9-11. The show will be hosted for the third consecutive year by Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, both of whom have strong ties to the network. Last season the awards show was a winner for the network, pulling in 21 million viewers and a 6.5 18-49 demo rating, its highest total in seven years.

Fox is counting on January to turn its ratings fortunes around significantly. And it will look to veteran, but declining American Idol to lead the way as it begins its 14th season. Idol will premiere Wednesday, Jan. 7 at 8 p.m. and lead into new Fox drama series Empire. Idol will then air again on Thursday night at 8.

Not the viewer magnet it once was, it’s hard to tell how much Idol will help Empire and the Fox schedule overall. Hopefully for the network’s sake, it did not over-guarantee the ratings. Last season Idol averaged 10.2 million viewers and a 2.6 18-49 demo rating, not bad numbers still, but a far cry from the 30.3 million and 12.4 demo rating it peaked at after season 5. Last year for the first time, its Thursday night viewership averaged below 10 million.

Fox is counting on Empire to succeed big-time, and is premiering it on Jan. 7 with limited commercial interruption. The drama is about a family dynasty within the music business and the glamour and power struggles everybody faces. It stars Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson and was cocreated by Lee Daniels (The Butler and Precious).

On Thursday, Jan. 22 at 9 p.m., Fox will premiere new drama Backstrom, starring Rainn Wilson as a brilliant but crude detective, who returns to active duty after a five-year banishment for offensive behavior. On paper, it sounds interesting, but it also bears a similar sensibility to another Fox drama from last midseason, Rake, which failed miserably.

Also during January, the third season of Masterchef Junior premieres on Tuesday, Jan. 6 at 8 p.m., and the final 13-episode season of Glee premieres Jan 9 at 8. Neither is expected to draw any type of mass audience Fox would need to turn its viewer or 18-49 demo fortunes around. Masterchef Junior in its second season in the just-ended fourth quarter averaged 4.7 million viewers and a 1.7 in the demo, while Glee, last season, averaged 3.1 million viewers and a 1.1 demo rating.

ABC is debuting the offbeat musical comedy Galavant on Jan. 4 at 8 p.m. The show will air for only four weeks and tells the story of the hero who lost the love of his life, Madalena, to the evil King Richard, and how he gets revenge on the king and tries to win her back…and it’s all punctuated by song.

The network will also premiere new drama Marvel’s Agent Carter on Jan. 6 at 9, where it will replace Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which is on hiatus. It revolves around Peggy Carter, who works for the Strategic Scientific Reserve in the mid-1940s, but who is marginalized when the men return home from fighting in World War II and she is moved back to doing administrative work. However, she is then recruited to work some secret missions.

Agent Carter should draw some of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. audience. That series draws a lot of male viewers so it’s not certain how much of that audience will watch. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. this season is averaging just 4.8 million viewers and a 1.7 in the demo, so there’s no reason to believe Agent Carter will become a major hit for the network. One positive for ABC is that it does have a large female audience watching across all of its shows.

Since its Thursday night serialized dramas—Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How To Get Away with Murder—do not do well in repeat, ABC is waiting until Jan. 29 to bring the trio back together when it will be able to run first-run episodes through the remainder of the season.

CBS is not making many moves in January. It will return from a short hiatus its Sunday dramas, the freshman Madam Secretary and veteran The Good Wife, on Jan. 4 and run original episodes of them through the end of the season.

CBS will also again televise The People’s Choice Awards, Jan. 7 at 9 p.m. It will be hosted by Anna Faris and Allison Janney who star in the CBS sitcom Mom, giving that series some additional exposure. Last year, The People’s Choice Awards drew 10.2 million viewers and a 2.3 18-49 demo rating, but the demo number was the telecast’s lowest in six years, down 15% from the previous year.