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Networks Still Searching For Hits at 10

As the broadcast network drama has struggled in recent years, ceding ratings and hardware to its cable brethren, so too has the signature hour of drama, 10 p.m., flagged.

The time period claimed a shocking eight series last season—ABC’s Detroit 1-8-7, The Whole Truth and Off the Map; CBS’ The Defenders and Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior; and NBC’s Chase, Law & Order: Los Angeles and Outlaw.

And while ratings are up a healthy amount this fall over last season for two of the three networks in the 10 p.m. business, the hour still lacks a breakout hit, leaving opportunity for one of the many midseason dramas waiting in the wings to become a success.

The highest-rated show at the hour (excluding football) is the CBS sophomore Hawaii Five-0, which has averaged a 3.1 rating among adults 18-49 through the first seven weeks of this season. And while the network’s freshman crime-solver drama, Unforgettable, has performed respectably in the hour, averaging a 2.5 in 18-49, it is no NCISlevel hit.

ABC is the only network ahead of where it was at this point last season, up 8 percent in the first seven weeks, due largely to its paltry former crop. The ABC affiliates board made improvement at 10 p.m. one of its main issues with the network at their meetings the last two years, and this season they have finally been rewarded with Revenge, the fall’s top new 10 p.m. occupant.

Led by that soapy, Hamptons-set drama, ratings for adults 25-54, the target demo for late local news, are up at 10-11 p.m. for ABC affiliates in 12 of the top 20 markets, according to Bill Hoffman, chairman of the network’s affiliates board, who says stations have a “so far, so good,” attitude about the slate this season.

“It’s something we’ve told [the affiliates] we were going to be working on, and it’s just nice to finally be having some growth,” says Jeff Bader, executive VP, planning, scheduling and distribution at ABC.

NBC, with its own problems throughout primetime, is not faring well at 10 p.m. The Peacock is still showing the effects of its disastrous Leno-in-primetime experiment and is the only network down at the hour this fall compared to last season, having lost 13 percent of both its total viewers and those 18-49.

“I’ve been in the business for two decades, and this is one of the tougher 10-11 p.m. stretches I’ve had to endure,” says Marla Drutz, VP/GM of WDIV Detroit, an NBC affiliate. “It shows us the importance of creating tune-in for our local news so we’re not entirely reliant on prime. We recognize that people are watching other shows in prime.”

The time period this season has already claimed NBC’s The Playboy Club, and its replacement, the newsmagazine RockCenter with Brian Williams, is faring even worse in the ratings (though NBC News executives assure that they expected a slow start). Thursday’s Prime Suspect, after clinging to life in the Nielsens for much of the fall, saw production shut down last week.

The fourth-place network has a chance to improve its 10 p.m. (and overall) fortunes in February with Smash, the most critically anticipated new network series. NBC held back the Stephen Spielberg-produced musical drama despite early buzz in order to launch it out of season two of The Voice on Mondays, which bodes well for its chances of success.

And while NBC experimented with comedies on Thursdays at 10 p.m. last season, it seems committed to a drama on the night in 2012, choosing to sub in The Firm for the pulled Prime Suspect. Come March, the network will also have two reality shows in the time period with the latest season of Celebrity Apprentice and the new Elle Macpherson-hosted Fashion Star, in an effort to counter-program against the competition.

As of presstime, other midseason dramas likely to see airtime at 10 p.m. are ABC’s soapy, Southern-set Good Christian Belles, expected to launch out of Desperate Housewives on Sundays; and crisis PR drama Scandal, which would sub in well after Grey’s Anatomy given their shared Shonda Rhimes pedigree. CBS’ cop drama The 2-2, from Robert De Niro, also remains unscheduled.

And though trying to launch a whole new crop of shows at the hour means a renewed competition for eyeballs, execs remain bullish that they can find a new 10 p.m. hit.

“I think there’s absolutely an opportunity for something to break out,” Bader says. —Additional reporting by Michael Malone

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