Here’s how it works in the U.S. TV racket: As the regular season ends, the new fall season schedules are announced. But, while this gee-whiz process is under way, the mundane task of crunching numbers for the 2012-13 season is also being done.
The numbers game is either mighty interesting or dull, depending on your point of view. Really, who cares about audience share in adults 18 to 49 years old if your favourite program, or the one strikes you as great storytelling art, simply aired and pleased you?
There are the top shows by number and the top shows based on quality and substance.
First, the numbers. Among the networks, CBS won among total viewers and the two major demographics, adults 18 to 49 and the 25-to-54 group. This marks the first time in 21 years that CBS has won in the fight for viewers 18 to 49 years old.
The Top 10 network prime-time series rankings among adults 18 to 49 are: 1. NBC’s Sunday Night Football; 2. CBS’s The Big Bang Theory; 3. NBC’s The Voice; 4. ABC’s Modern Family; 5. NBC’s The Voice (Tuesday); 6. Fox’s American Idol (Wednesday show); 7. Fox’s American Idol (Thursday show); 8. Fox’s The Following; 9. CBS’s Two and a Half Men; 10. ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy.
Not many CBS shows in there, but CBS is dotted all over the Top 30, with such shows as Elementary (30), Mike & Molly (25), Criminal Minds (22) and Two Broke Girls (22). Even Survivor is still going strong, with Survivor: Philippines at No. 18.
The overlap between quality and success in numbers is small, The Following turned out to be terrific, energetically made entertainment, at times formidably grisly, but airing all the episodes consecutively from January to May help to make it stick as an addictive thriller.
At the same time, the shows that have satisfied, shocked, thrilled and made people think are absent from the Top 10 or Top 30. They are, for the most part, cable series – shows that have substantially diminished the ratings and impact of network TV.
Here’s my list of the shows that truly mattered in the 2012-13 season. Not the most-watched. The best.
Rectify (Sundance Channel). In Canada, it’s available on Netflix and I urge everyone to watch the six episodes. A masterpiece of Southern Gothic drama, it has Toronto-born and Australia-raised Aden Young playing Daniel Holden, released from jail when his conviction for rape and murder is undermined by new evidence. Young has described his exquisitely drawn character as “very much a child being born” and said, “It’s an extraordinary tale.” Which it is. No praise is too lavish for Rectify.
The Walking Dead (AMC). It did serious damage to network shows on Sunday nights this past season, and little wonder. A model of tightly written, tension-filled drama, it flaunted its anti-network style by killing off major characters and managed to be, simultaneously, both surface entertainment and meaningful drama about a world without order or stability.
The Americans (FX). Spies, lies and the 1980s. That list of ingredients for the show’s recipe doesn’t begin to explain its strength and allure. It’s a classic celebration of the anti-hero – the central characters (well played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) are dangerous, murderous spies for the Soviet Union. That, and viewers worry about the family unit at the heart of this Soviet threat.
Bates Motel (A&E). Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates has done the finest acting work on any TV series of this past season. Fragile, furious, scorned and seductive, all those characteristics are rolled into one single mom trying to do the best for her boy. Meanwhile viewers know the boy, Norman, will become a vicious, crazy serial killer.
Mad Men (AMC). Maddening, as ever. Frustrating in its wayward storytelling. And then episodes of genius, such as the recent hour in which most of the characters were high. What works, with a morbid intensity, is creeping sense that Don Draper is about to become the most repulsive man on TV.
The gulf between most-watched and most-powerful is vast. And no number crunching is necessary to define the best. It’s the way it is now in the TV racket.
Frontline: Outlawed in Pakistan (PBS, 10 p.m.) is a powerful, harrowing doc that follows what happened when a 13-year-old girl, Kainat Soomro, accused four men of gang rape and pursued the case through Pakistan’s tangled legal system. As the program makes clear, in this circumstance, she risked everything – her reputation, her education and even her life. At the same time, the program examines the efforts of the accused to argue their innocence and to clear their names.
All times ET. Check local listings.