Primetime prognostication is not for the faint of heart. Picking which of the dozens of new TV shows will succeed, let alone how returning series will fare, is about as easy as filling out March Madness brackets. But someone's got to do it, so here I am with a mix of number-crunching, creative assessment and my trusty gut.
There's no possible way to get everything right, as I discovered last year when for every pick that worked (here's looking at you, "Once Upon A Time" and "Revenge") there were some that didn't (forget "Unforgettable"). There's so much to say about the coming season that this blog post is broken up into three parts, the next two coming Thursday and Friday.
With Nostradamus-like powers, I see into a future where one network will hit its highest highs yet. Another will fall, though not as far as two others, which will put some points on the board, yet not enough to win.
But first let's talk about the beginning of the end for an entire sub-genre.
The 2012-13 season will be remembered as the Reality-TV Recession, specifically the competition series that have long ruled primetime. That shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who saw how poorly the broadcasters fared during the unscripted-heavy summer, when the broadcast networks failed to launch any viable new entries to the genre. Viewers are feeling serious fatigue given too many of these series are too long in the tooth or too similar to each other.
The focus right out of the gate will be on the rival singing contests, Fox's "The X Factor" and NBC's "The Voice" given the latter's move to fall will put a spotlight on their competition. "Factor" will actually probably launch strong given the curiosity over new judge Britney Spears, but this has the makings of a casting stunt that will fade fast. In all her years in the public eye, Spears has never demonstrated much of a personality beyond that of two-dimensional pop icon, which means she doesn't have the goods to be compelling week in and week out.
For "Voice," it's hard to see how there's more growth in such a cluttered unscripted climate, and double-pumping cycles of the series will only exhaust it earlier than need be. Neither series is going to outright tank, but both will finish slightly below previous seasons. That may hurt NBC harder in the ratings department, but Fox will feel a fiscal crunch given the expense of shelling out for boldface-named judges and Simon Cowell, neither of which will be worth the investment.
The reality rout really started to take on momentum before the summer, when "American Idol" made an alarmingly precipitous decline that began back in January. There's no reason to believe "Idol" isn't going to continue to drop just as dramatically this coming midseason given new judge Mariah Carey and the other names being bandied about aren't going to spark a revival after 10 years. Fox might like us to think that the revolving door at the judges' table is now part of the fun for these shows given the parlor game that comes with guessing who is or isn't in negotiations. But when the dust clears, shows like "Idol" have to stand on their own two wobbly feet.
A big decline may also be in store for ABC's "Dancing With the Stars," which is relying on its upcoming all-stars edition to stave off a decline that's been coming a mile away. The Alphabet could be forced to cut back the franchise to one cycle per year. CBS' "Survivor" could do well to do same, to minimize its own wear and tear.
All in all, we're going to see a lot of "reality is dead" articles and the kind of soul-searching in unscripted development that is way overdue. And the hand-wringing isn't without just case: the biggest unscripted shows take up big chunks of the schedule: 2-3 hours per week, too much of which is bloated pomp that is part of the problem as well. What's worse is that performing weakly doesn't just hurt those shows themselves, but as lead-ins to other content, they have a destabilizing force that can be felt across the entire schedule.
These shows aren't going to leave the air this season. Even in decline they still have some value. But their airtime will be cut back and they'll lose their place as the cornerstone of their respective schedules. Competition shows will take a well-deserved nap for a season or two before one smart network remembers all programming is cyclical, and the genre gets revived all over again. See you in 2015.
The "Idol" decline is going to be particularly bad news for Fox. Read Part 2 for how the network will fare this coming season.