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2016-11-28 15:32:19
In Tougher Fall TV Landscape, New Rules Apply

Well, it could be worse.

As HBO’s “Westworld” sucks up the attention of online commentators this fall, network TV has been slogging along. With the 2016-17 television season approaching its midway point, there are some clear winners (NBC’s “This Is Us”), some bombs (ABC’s “Notorious”) and many, many shows somewhere in between.

Ratings are, once again, down across the board, dropping 8 percent among adults and 4 percent in total audience, according to the television research firm Nielsen, but each network can at least make a plausible claim that it has a new show with a strong pulse. As Preston Beckman, a former executive at NBC and Fox, said in an interview, “It hasn’t been a home run season for the networks. But it also hasn’t been a disaster. So, mission accomplished.”

Here are some highlights from the fall season for the four biggest networks.

This one is clear: NBC leads in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic important to advertisers. Buoyed by still strong, if flagging, ratings of National Football League games, as well as “This Is Us,” “The Voice” and four Dick Wolf dramas, NBC is down 7 percent in the demographic year over year, compared with double-digit losses at CBS and ABC.

The feel-good family drama “This Is Us” is the breakout star of the season. The show, which features a sprawling cast that includes Mandy Moore and Sterling K. Brown, has elbowed its way into the top three best-rated broadcast shows, just behind “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS and “Empire” on Fox. Most noteworthy: “This Is Us” opened big and has kept its audience intact.

Going into the fall season, NBC had the most stable schedule of the big four networks. Add in three more Thursday Night Football games and a holiday formula that works for December, and NBC will close out the year strong.

Here is some good news for the network: “Grey’s Anatomy” (in its 13th season) and “Modern Family” (in its eighth season) are both among the highest-rated shows on network television. The new drama “Designated Survivor” is a top 10 scripted network show, though its ratings declined after a hot start. The returning comedy “Black-ish” and two newcomers, “Speechless” and “American Housewife,” are doing fine.

As for the rest of the lineup, it is ugly. Start with Thursday, which was long a dominant force for the network thanks to a slew of Shonda Rhimes shows. With ABC moving “Scandal” to the midseason to accommodate the pregnancy of its star, Kerry Washington, the network elected to put “Notorious,” a legal drama that is essentially a Rhimes knockoff, in the vital 9 p.m. E.S.T. slot; the move has not worked out.

The show was panned by critics and rejected by viewers, garnering a tepid 0.9 rating among adults. The failure of “Notorious” may have also put a dent in “How to Get Away With Murder” (produced by Ms. Rhimes), which airs after “Notorious.” “Murder” was already losing viewers at a fast clip last year.

“ABC may have gone to the well a little too often with the faux-Shonda Rhimes shows,” said Mr. Beckman, who is behind the blog Masked Scheduler. On Sundays, the number of viewers for the sophomore drama “Quantico” has also dropped significantly, and ABC is down double digits for the night.

All told, ABC, after a rough season last year, is in danger this season of finishing in last place in total viewers and among adults.

On the face of it, Fox is having a standout season. Thanks to the Cubs-Indians World Series, which was a ratings bonanza, the network is technically in second place behind NBC. With the Super Bowl in February, Fox has a shot at finishing the season in second place.

But these sports successes are papering over some deeper problems. “Empire” has fallen to second place and losses for the series are mounting; the show has lost more than 20 percent of its same-day audience. The revival of “Lethal Weapon” has performed nicely, but the network does not have any other could-be hits.

The second season of Ryan Murphy’s “Scream Queens,” even with delayed viewing factored in, is shedding viewers. Fox executives are hoping that the network’s reboot of “24” will provide the same midseason relief that “The X-Files” revival did last year.

CBS, though, continues to be the most-watched network by a wide margin. “The Big Bang Theory,” in its 10th season, has remarkably reclaimed the No. 1 slot in broadcast TV. Among adult viewers, however, the combination of N.F.L. ratings declines and a lineup of fewer Thursday night games has not helped: The network is down 16 percent year over year, the biggest drop of any network.

Its new drama “Bull” and its freshman comedy “Kevin Can Wait” have done well, though the network is still hunting for a breakout hit.

New shows are not getting canceled anymore, not quickly anyway.

This was a trend that television executives marveled at last year: As late as mid-November, no show had been canceled. In previous years, it usually took only a couple of weeks.

This year? It is past Thanksgiving and no freshman show has been axed. This is not because television’s new offerings are so strong. Thanks to a mountain of ratings statistics — factoring in digital streams and DVR views from three to 30 days after an episode’s original broadcast — executives are being cautious about hitting the cancel button too quickly. Even if a show does not perform well live, there is hope that viewers may binge-watch it, thus salvaging it.

The other reason? Reruns do not do as well as they used to, and there are few other options for networks aside from playing out the string and hoping that shows find an audience.

That being said, which shows are in trouble? The aforementioned “Notorious” on ABC had its order for new episodes trimmed. CBS’s “Pure Genius” will finish at 13 episodes; though the network could bring it back for a second season, the chances are slim. ABC’s “Conviction” is also in hot water, along with the CW’s “No Tomorrow” and “Frequency.”

Despite all that, no executive can remember a television season that made it this far without a new show being canceled. Maybe that’s a silver lining.