The great Tuesday comedy pile-up

The ugly ratings for broadcast TV this season – you can tell they’re ugly because broadcast networks are making loud noises about trying to convince advertisers to pay for 7 days of DVR viewing, an acknowledgement that nobody’s watching live – are particularly ugly on Tuesday, except for The Voice and the NCIS franchise. There’s a specific problem on Tuesday that a lot of people predicted when the network schedules were announced: Fox, NBC and ABC all had very similar comedies going up against each other at 9 p.m., and they were almost certain to cannibalize each other’s ratings.

The counter-argument to this was that there’s always room for two hit shows, or even three: they may take some viewers from one another, but there are enough viewers to go around if the shows are popular. (Particularly since the “Live plus same day” ratings system counts the people who watch one show and then watch the other show on DVR playback the same night.) But as it turns out, none of the eight comedies on this night are huge hits, though two of them are popular enough that they will probably be back next season. So there does seem to be some reason to believe that the pile-up of comedies is preventing any of them from standing out.

NBC is probably faring the best on this night, because it has the best lead-in, The Voice, and that lead-in is guiding a lot of people to Go On. It’s hard to know just yet how Go On would fare without the Voice lead-in, but for now it’s the highest-rated comedy of the night (both in 18-49 and total viewers), and has gotten good reviews. It’s one of two new NBC shows for this season that essentially demonstrated the network’s desire to remake Community as a more mainstream show. Both Go On and Animal Practice had the same basic premise, a cynical leading man who finds his heart, and maybe even love, when he’s forced to interact with a bunch of weirdos. The latter show bombed because it had to lead off a night; Go On isn’t a major hit, but should be a lock for another season at least. The show that follows it, Ryan Murphy’s The New Normal, is a lot less popular, but still manages to out-rate the two comedies it’s up against, so it’s not a liability for NBC in the way that its Wednesday and Thursday lineups currently are.

The other two networks placed big bets on Tuesday that don’t seem to be paying off. The success of New Girl last season inspired Fox to create a two-hour comedy night with New Girl and one of their (deserved) favourites, Raising Hope, as the building blocks. The first hour always seemed a bit of a sacrificial lamb, since no one expected Raising Hope to do terribly well against the most popular shows of the night. But Fox had a lot riding on the second hour, with New Girl followed by its big comedy project for the year, The Mindy Project. New Girl remains popular, in ways that aren’t fairly reflected in the raw ratings: its audience is very young, affluent and attractive to advertisers. But it hasn’t become the big breakout hit it promised to be early last season, and while it should be safe for a while, it’s not the best possible lead-in for a vulnerable new show. The announcement that Fox will be dropping two regulars from The Mindy Project and looking around for a new female regular for mid-season suggests that it will have to undergo a lot of tinkering – and add a few ratings points – before it can be considered for a second season.

Meanwhile, Ben & Kate, a very charming show with an atmosphere all its own (partly due to its warm, sweet visual look; partly due to the unusual cast, with people like Nat Faxon who would never be considered as leads on a typical show), seems to be doomed, but there’s nothing much that can be done about that. Probably Fox should have just saved it for mid-season and not given it such a difficult time slot; maybe the logical thing would have been to do a two-hour comedy block at mid-season and just start the fall season with only New Girl and Raising Hope, the two returning shows. I wonder, idly, if there was a sense of irrational exuberance after New Girl started so well last season: the idea that it could anchor an entire night of comedy seemed to make more sense back in September and October of 2011 than it did by the time the schedule was announced.

(The big loser in this Fox schedule is Goodwin Games, a show from the creators of How I Met Your Mother, and the only comedy they ordered for midseason. After the show went through multiple re-castings and lots of network notes, the network announced it was cutting the order from 13 episodes to 6. Not a vote of confidence for a show that hasn’t aired yet – and something a network can only get away with when they own a show; outside studios usually fight against sudden reductions in the number of episodes.)

Finally there’s ABC, the only one of these three networks whose comedy block just seemed like a really bad idea from the beginning. Not that the shows are bad: Happy Endings is excellent, and Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23 is a show I greatly enjoy watching, because Krysten Ritter is a genuinely delightful presence and because the creator, Nahnatchka Khan, has brought some of the sociopathic surrealism of American Dad to live-action. (An episode where Ritter walks into People magazine and takes over the “Sexiest Man Alive” issue reminded me of the crazy stunts pulled on a regular basis by Roger the Alien. A sexy Roger the alien; not a bad idea for a character.) But they were the nichiest of niche shows, shows that need a cushion – like a Modern Family – to get respectable overall ratings. And to lead into its proposed hour of edgy young-people comedy, ABC used Dancing With the Stars, a show that has very few young viewers left. (The result of this lead-in is that Happy Endings has slightly more overall viewers than New Girl, because some Dancing viewers are sticking around, but they’re nearly all over 50. Which would make Happy Endings’ current audience a strange combination of the old and the very young.) Of course both these comedies have collapsed in the ratings with a spot like that. They need to be moved back to Wednesday if possible; it may be too late to save Apartment 23 unless another network picks it up, but Happy Endings might have a chance, since it’s a Sony-owned show and Sony will do anything to get enough episodes for syndication.

The Tuesday crash, plus some failures on other nights (ABC’s attempt to bring back TGIF with Tim Allen and Reba McIntyre started out promisingly, but sank under the obvious weaknesses of the episodes those shows were turning out), may have created what a friend called a “decided comedy backlash” at some of the networks. Last season, the success of Modern Family and to a lesser extent Big Bang Theory – they’re about equally big by some metrics, but it’s Modern Family that’s been more influential on what networks look for – had U.S. networks picking up scads of comedies and proclaiming a comedy boom; only a few months into this season, they’re noticing that most comedies fail and that even when one does okay, it’s murder to come up with another show that doesn’t drag down the hour.

Still, all of this doesn’t really say a lot about the future of comedy at the networks, or even the future of comedy on Tuesday night. But I do think it suggests that there was a glut of comedies of a particular type. Nearly all of these shows (Raising Hope is an exception) are in the same mold: movie-like comedies about youngish people having wacky adventures and learning lessons. They all demonstrate the influence of indie movies and improvisation-heavy Apatow comedies, and focus on people hanging out together, relying on each other for support, showing that they have a heart, and . All tried-and-true elements of proven comedy success, but there were just too many of them at the same time, just as the late ’90s had too many identical three-camera comedies about young people in New York.

And finally, all of this stuff about time slot competition could in theory become irrelevant within a few years as more and more people shift to watching shows whenever they want, wherever they want. I’m not certain this will actually happen, but it’s certainly a distinct possibility. However, for now, given the advertising system in place, time slots still matter and a lot of people still watch the show that comes after their favourite show (or change the channel if they really hate the show that’s coming on). Because an unavoidable fact of television, for now, is that when a show we like is over, we often continue watching not for a specific show, but just to watch TV.