Fall TV “Preview”: Are there any broadcast hits in this group?

The fall television season is just about to begin! To celebrate, I’ll be doing a series of fun features and previews for both returning and brand-new series. I have not seen any of the new pilots or premieres from veteran series, and thus the quotes around preview. No matter, that won’t stop me from doing these bad boys, so let’s get a-previewin’!

We all probably need a break from lists and list-looking features, so this is going to be more of an opinion piece for your glorious consumption.

Seriously though, are there?

Obviously, these days it is hard for any network television series to be a hit in the traditional sense (i.e. overnight viewers, both in totality and 18-49 demographic) thanks to DVRs, Hulu, illegal streams, etc. We have been over this a million times in the past five years, so there’s no reason to think that some series is going to debut and pick up 20 million viewers and a 10 rating in the 18-49 demo. It’s just not going to happen. That’s not how television works.

But even taking all of that into consideration, I’m still unclear if there is a series in this lot that will be a “hit” in the newer sense. Last year was a fairly successful year when you think about it. NCIS: Los Angeles (16 million viewers for an average new episode), The Good Wife (13 million viewers), Glee (almost 10 million viewers) and Modern Family (about 9.5 million viewers) were considered break-out wins for CBS, FOX and ABC, while Cougar Town, Parenthood and The Vampire Diaries (relatively, using the “The CW is a joke and shouldn’t be considered the fifth major network” principle) were all fairly successful by today’s standards. Heck, if we include the unscripted Undercover Boss (almost 18 million!), that paints a fairly successful picture for the development slate of 09-10 in terms of traditional ratings success.

So now looking forward to this season, is there any series that could touch those figures, even the nine million Modern Family figure?  If we try to apply last year’s successes in some sort of logical progression, the results don’t look good. The three series that look to be the “best” and are thus the most buzzed about online and by critics, say the Glee‘s and Modern Family‘s of this year (Walking Dead, Boardwalk Empire, Terriers) are all on cable and the most-discussed broadcast drama (Lone Star) is not the type of product that would lend itself to major ratings, although the House lead-in sure as hell doesn’t hurt.

The two biggest scripted hits were CBS procedurals, and though not a major surprise, the development was a nice shot in the arm for a network full of aging, boring series that no one my age cares to watch unless it is ironically so. NCIS: LA is certainly still in that vein, though not as much so, but The Good Wife could signal a change of pace for the Eyeball where procedurals can have real and solid character development to go along with the cases. Again circling back to this year’s crop, Hawaii Five-0 looks to be the best bet. It’s a known quantity, features a fan-friendly cast and seems legitimately good. Plus, it’s on CBS, and that sure as heck cannot hurt. If Blue Bloods weren’t on Fridays it might have a case and I’m intrigued by the possibility that the new Law & Order has something to offer to America that the other, just-canceled one did not.

Moreover, there are two series out there that don’t really fit into any mold that could, possibly, maybe do some damage: No Ordinary Family and Undercovers. No Ordinary Family has an appealing premise, fairly known cast and seems like the kind of safe, populist family fare that helped make Modern Family such a hit last year. It’s not going to offend anyone nor light the world on fire with dramatic arcs, but I can’t imagine too many people saying they active hate the Chiklis vehicle. Undercovers is going to be similarly inoffensive and also features a fun, yet familiar premise that could bring in the viewers. The problem with the JJ Abrams-produced series is that it doesn’t look more appealing than Chuck, which has barely floated along for three years. Why would people who didn’t care for Chuck really care for Undercovers?

On the comedy side, I think we can expect Mike and Molly and S**t My Dad Says to be big up-front thanks to nice lead-ins, but I don’t see the latter lasting the whole season after people realize it’s awful. Mike and Molly has charmed a few critics, so it’s possible that it sticks around instead of going the way of Accidentally on Purpose. The FOX comedies could be good, but even in the off-chance that happens, they won’t be big hits.

Thus, I’m not sure where that leaves us. There are a number of procedurals that could be big with the older folks and thus make sizable splashes in the total viewership numbers. In that train of thought, expect Hawaii Five-0 to be the highest rated new series, but not come close to NCIS: LA levels. But unlike last year where series like Glee, Modern Family and even Community and Vampire Diaries had popular culture relevance, 2010-11 might be devoid of any buzzy, new media landscape-y hits. This feels like a more balanced crop of programming, which could mean less cancellations and perhaps a higher overall average rating, but next to nothing from the networks screams “cult fave,” “Internet phenomenon” or anything of that ilk. Some say those things don’t matter, but we’ll see after this season, where I think we might realize that being a major force online like both Glee and Modern Family were (and are) sure as heck didn’t hurt its traditional ratings.

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