Something unusual happened at this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, an event where networks hype their upcoming slates to the media. During Fox’s presentation, journalists voiced concerns about Almost Family, a new drama that recalls several real cases of fertility fraud. The show opens with the revelation that a doctor (Timothy Hutton) has inseminated dozens of women with his own sperm, without their knowledge. Critics who had seen the show detected an incongruously breezy tone for a story of what several described as a medical rape. Seemingly caught off guard, creators Jason Katims and Annie Weisman promised to address Hutton’s character. But they also insisted his actions were beside the point; the salient theme, they said, was family.
I don’t think the show’s creators intended to make light of rape. Yet at a time when such story lines invite close scrutiny—and for good reason—Fox’s apparent failure to foresee a backlash comes off as bafflingly clueless. It all felt emblematic of a more general sense, in recent years, that broadcast networks have grown out of touch.
Network prime-time ratings have been plummeting for quite a while. In the 2000s, cable channels started pouring money into the kind of original scripted comedies and dramas that broadcast networks largely abandoned when the reality TV craze hit. More recently, juggernauts like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead have beaten out dozens of network series as two of the most-watched scripted shows among viewers ages 18 to 49; in that demographic last year, Thrones outperformed even football.
Though streaming viewership is harder to measure, there’s plenty of data to support the conclusion that streaming is younger viewers’ medium of choice. In January, Ad Age reported that ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox had seen a 27% drop since 2016 in “demographically desirable” adults 18 to 49. Lots of millennials, who now dominate that demographic, wait to binge full seasons of prime-time fare on Netflix—which, not coincidentally, has been poaching star network creators like Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes and Kenya Barris. So, as TV grows more creative and diverse in aggregate, the networks that built the medium look more like anachronisms every year.
It’s hard to imagine a crop of new scripted series less inspired than the class of 2019. Which is not to say that every show—yes, I screened all 16—is bad. I’ll be watching Nancy Drew, an extremely CW take on the girl-detective books. Unmoored in the wake of her mom’s death, this present-day Nancy (Kennedy McMann, whose messy charm reminds me of Greta Gerwig) has quit crime solving and skipped college to sling seafood in her Maine hometown. Of course, it doesn’t take long for a murder to get her back to sleuthing. Like Veronica Mars meets Riverdale, with many intriguing mini-mysteries, the show is pure fun.
Bless the Harts, Fox’s latest animated family sitcom, also has potential. Set in small-town North Carolina and centered on the white, working-class Hart clan, it’s sure to invite King of the Hill comparisons. But creator Emily Spivey (of Fox’s wonderfully odd The Last Man on Earth) and some stellar voice actors reinvigorate the concept with fresh cultural references, fantastical touches and a female-led cast of characters: Jenny (Kristen Wiig), a waitress who chats with Jesus (Kumail Nanjiani); her artsy alternateen daughter Violet (Jillian Bell); shady matriarch Betty (Maya Rudolph); and Jenny’s muscle-bound boyfriend Wayne (Ike Barinholtz), a supportive surrogate dad.
A few other new series deserve the benefit of the doubt, despite uneven pilots, based on the personnel involved: ABC’s mixed-ish is a sweet ’80s-set prequel to Barris’ black-ish that finds a young Rainbow Johnson (Arica Himmel) acclimating to the suburbs after growing up on a commune. NBC’s Sunnyside stars co-creator Kal Penn as a disgraced Queens politician whose encounter with a group of immigrants offers a chance at redemption. Thrilling action scenes and the tantalizing potential of Cobie Smulders as a PI bode well for ABC’s Stumptown. The Unicorn, a CBS sitcom in which Walton Goggins’ widower status makes him a hot commodity on dating apps, rounds out its cast with comedy standbys Michaela Watkins and Rob Corddry. (In another telling network gaffe, CBS failed to realize—or didn’t care—that unicorn was already Tinder slang for a queer person who dates couples.)
Inevitably, there are catastrophes. A Pitch Perfect rip-off down to the presence of Anna Camp, NBC’s Perfect Harmony casts Bradley Whitford as a gloomy music professor who leads a rural church choir after his wife dies and he gets canned from Princeton. Bob Hearts Abishola, on CBS, finds time between fart jokes to marvel at the apparent unlikeliness of a folksy white sock mogul (Billy Gardell) falling for his Nigerian nurse (Folake Olowofoyeku). Also from CBS, Carol’s Second Act has Patricia Heaton showing up stock coddled millennial characters as the oldest doctor in her intern cohort. As a Hannibal fan, I can’t abide Fox’s Prodigal Son—another show, this one all expository dialogue, about the bond between a bookish serial killer and a fragile profiler. This time, they’re father and son.
It’s not shocking that many of these shows center bad dads or disgraced male authority figures. Along with a heightened interest in immigrant stories, this microtrend feels like a way of commenting on current events in America—where, a character on the aggressively generic NBC legal drama Bluff City Law laments, “values like fairness and decency are vanishing before our very eyes”—without alienating anyone. After last year’s surprise standout God Friended Me, supernatural procedurals are still in (see: Evil, a goofy CBS drama about a psychologist and a priest who investigate crimes, from Good Wife creators Robert and Michelle King). Networks are casting diverse ensembles, but actors of color mostly take a back seat to white leads.
Yet what unites network schedules this fall, more than anything, is a dearth of original concepts. Every single new drama concerns either crime or medicine. A charismatic queer protagonist (Ruby Rose) fails to liberate Batwoman, which joins Super-girl on the CW, from superhero boilerplate. The CBS judge show All Rise is the bland female-empowerment narrative you get when you try to make a Shonda show without Shonda.
Meanwhile, a few apparent attempts to keep up with high-concept cable and streaming fare come across as weak mimicry. Allison Tolman is great in ABC’s mysterious sci-fi drama Emergence, but she’s playing essentially the same good-cop character she played on FX’s Fargo. Almost Family seems to be aiming for Ryan Murphy’s signature mix of glib humor and sincere warmth; in the pilot, Katims and Weisman can’t decide whether to frame accidental incest as traumatic or darkly funny. (To be fair, Murphy doesn’t always nail it, either.)
The sad state of network TV may not be surprising anymore, but it remains disappointing, like a high school student with potential who squeaks by with D’s. As cable and streaming expand the possibilities of television as art with ambitious new creators and series—like Russian Doll, Fleabag and Atlanta—it’s frustrating to see broadcasters squander their theoretical reach on the same doctor and lawyer shows. Could this truly be what networks think people want? And if not, shouldn’t they be trying harder to save themselves? Aren’t they worried to see Netflix crash premiere season with buzzy debuts like Unbelievable, Murphy’s The Politician and Rhythm + Flow, a hip-hop competition judged by Cardi B, Chance the Rapper and T.I.? Or do they feel stymied by cautious advertisers—a headache streaming services and premium cable don’t have? Is this really the best the Big 5 can do?
Their attention appears to be elsewhere. By all appearances, the conglomerates behind the networks have shifted their efforts to building a post-broadcast future. ABC parent Disney recently acquired cable maverick FX and plans to launch its Disney+ streaming service in November. CBS has been saving its best properties (Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone, The Good Fight) for CBS All Access. WarnerMedia is giving the shows it produces for the CW (which it co-owns with CBS) a new streaming home on its very own HBO Max hub, set to launch in 2020. And on Tuesday, NBCUniversal announced an inventively named subscription service of its own: Peacock.
Broadcast TV may not be in danger of disappearing overnight. It’s still the home of sports, talk shows and newsrooms that anchor multi-platform journalism operations. We still get a new breakout hit, like This Is Us or The Masked Singer, every year or two. But, as ratings keep declining, audiences keep aging and risk-averse execs keep greenlighting formulaic shows, network prime time seems caught in a long, slow death spiral. Flipping from NBC to ABC to CBS to Fox to the CW on a weeknight can feel a bit like wandering through a ghost mall. The physical structure of a once vital marketplace remains, but there’s just so little left to buy.
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