Perhaps the most visible sci-fi show on broadcast primetime television (i.e., The Big Three - CBS, ABC, and NBC - plus The CW and FOX) is Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (along with FOX's Almost Human). Therefore it should be no surprise that AoS ends up taking a lot of space on various talking points when it comes to discussing the networks. Perhaps ABC even brought it upon themselves, given the overwhelming promotion they put behind the series (as they needed to). I've talked about AoS before from an opinionated, quality standpoint (both the good and the bad), but at the same time I recognize that AoS' disappointing Nielsen numbers aren't entirely the fault of the showrunners, directors or scriptwriters. In fact, ABC as a whole is just getting hammered, and the lion's share of their shows - whether good or bad - suffers for it. The quality of the shows is only part of the story; to find the rest, we need to jump networks entirely and see where the grass grows greener.
Wednesday night is one of ABC's few (if only) programming havens, with the runaway success of Modern Family and to a (far lesser, but still profitable) extent, The Middle. Even there, ABC has great difficulty trying to catch lightning again; the most successful series other than Modern Family or The Middle is Suburgatory, which is a great series, but unfortunately likely seeing its final (half) season order right now after a two-year run according to TVByTheNumbers.com and its chief editors, Bill Gorman and Tom Shaw (the latter temporarily replacing Rob Steidman). The list of failed Wednesday night comedies is lengthy - Don't Trust the B—— in Apt 23, How To Live With Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life), Back in the Game, Super Fun Night and so on. Even so, Wednesday looks like ABC's bastion compared to where it's really getting hammered - Thursdays and especially Tuesdays.
Hey, what does ABC have scheduled Tuesday nights again?
As Shaw states in his "Bubble Watch" feature, ABC obviously had high hopes for AoS, placing it in direct competition with CBS' NCIS, which is quite possibly the most watched series on broadcast right now. Perhaps too high of hopes. It's easy to jump to knee-jerk conclusions and place the blame squarely at ABC's hubris, but there are simply few other nights where AoS could slot in to begin with. Mondays and the weekend are a complete non-starter for such a high-profile, expensive single-camera hour-length dramatic presentation (and CBS multi-camera comedies own Monday nights anyway). Wednesdays would interfere with ABC's attempts to build a comedy block around Modern Family and The Middle. That only leaves Thursdays, another night where traditionally ABC actually performs well thanks to Grey's Anatomy - and indeed, that's exactly where another genre show, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland was placed. OUaT:iW seemed like a guaranteed thing: it was spun off from a series that's fighting with Modern Family and Grey's Anatomy for the most watched scripted program on the network; it received just as much promotion as AoS did; and for once, it faced little competition from CBS (or at least that's what the thinking was).
And yet, OUaT:iW is the disappointment of the season, far outstripping AoS of that title and in accordance to Gorman and Shaw a certain cancellation at the conclusion of the season (if it hadn't already been the case behind-the-curtains).
So what happened?
As far as OuAT:iW is concerned, ABC almost certainly underestimated the CBS competition. Not only is CBS' comedy block solidly anchored by The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men, but The Millers ended up being a smash hit in its own right, delivering a one-two-three punch strong enough to put OuAT:iW away. Moreover, I think the show was simply weak to begin with (Metacritic, for example, shows rather mixed reviews).
Regarding AoS, far too few people simply decided to not tune away from NCIS, at least according to an extrapolation strictly from the ratings. Note that the single-camera comedies The Goldbergs and Trophy Wife have also suffered accordingly (AoS was supposed to practically guarantee their success with its lead-in) , meaning that AoS' problems are not strictly related to its quality. The suggestion that programming quality is actually an independent variable as far as ABC ratings are concerned (regardless of the night) isn't the most comforting one - the most cynical might say that ABC might as well throw in the towel as they're perpetually stuck in NBC-esque territory (which even NBC themselves is slowly crawling out of).
Throwing in the towel simply isn't an option, however - in fact, ABC doesn't even have to sweat the thought of it being an option in the first place. They are backed by Walt Disney, Inc. after all, one of the largest media conglomerates in the world, and increasingly shedding their "too kid-focused, too-cute" and cynical "anything to the lowest common denominator, anything for a buck" image for a reputation that's gaining recognition for quality even in their actual kid-focused, too cute properties, thanks in large parts to Pixar and much of the management from that company gaining key positions throughout Disney (in particular John Lasseter). And they do own Star Wars now. Disney does have the money to throw at ABC to make sure it stays afloat - and it's in their best interest to do so. For that reason alone, AoS is almost guaranteed a second season, something Shaw points out. To ensure a third or fourth season, however, AoS needs to stand on its own.
So what can ABC do to achieve that?
There's really only one option, an option the assured demise of OUaT:iW provides: move AoS to Thursday. The competition isn't quite as brutal there and the superior quality of AoS compared to OUaT:iW might be enough to make it thrive. One or both of the Tuesday comedies can slot into Wednesday replacing Super Fun Night, where it will be at home with other single-camera comedies anyway (though as history shows, single-camera comedies not starring Al Bundy or the Scrubs janitor tend to fail on ABC regardless). From there, perhaps it would be best if ABC simply cede the night to CBS; the two-hour period would likely become a breeding ground for bargain bin reality shows purchased because execs thought they could turn anything into Dancing With the Stars and having to learn the hard way that's not the case (this pretty much explains ABC's love affair with one-season wonder single-cam comedies, by the way).
In fact I'd be willing to bet that that's what ABC will do in the 2014-2015 fall season. Except for one problem: the NFL wants to shop around Thursday Night Football games on broadcast, and ABC is one of the potential buyers. This would be a good plan for ABC as a network, but might not be the best plan for AoS' continued heath. It would mean AoS is stuck on Tuesdays regardless and will have to thrive or fall on that night and that night alone. On the other hand, if the NFL bid goes to another network, or ultimately proves to be a bust (which is actually quite likely, given the faltering ratings the NFL Network has with Thursday Night Football as it stands - which is the whole reason why they're shopping it to broadcast networks in the first place), the disappointing ratings of AoS might look like a Godsend at that point.
What about the flip side? What can CBS do to ensure their foot stays on ABC's throat?
It might look like that they're already striking the hammer down on a white-hot anvil just by standing there, but there are a few things CBS can still do to shore themselves up. As a matter of fact, it would help them shore up and maybe even save one of their own genre shows in the process - Intelligence, which as Shaw points out utterly collapsed on its "regular" Monday night airings to the point where cancellation is a certainty now. This despite the fact that Intelligence actually pulled in some pretty impressive numbers upon its premiere. If they were to, say, move Intelligence back to Tuesdays instead, with an NCIS lead-in, it might be just the thing to completely sink AoS and its associated comedy block once and for all. It might also work as a better ratings bridge between NCIS and Person of Interest, which has somewhat faltered in ratings from year to year. As for Wednesdays and Thursdays, there's little CBS can realistically do - a very good sign of their own success. There's no need to mess with the success of TBBT, The Millers or TaaHM and The Crazy Ones will float or sink on its own. Likewise, no need to mess with Criminal Minds.
Then again, I'm not exactly a network executive and I'll readily admit they're far higher in pay grade than me. And at the end of the day, network ratings are often a mysterious thing even to those who get paid to analyze it. Ensuring a success or predicting a failure months in advance of a Fall premiere date is extremely difficult, and whoever can perfectly predict that information with zero Nielsen ratings available will likely make bank. In the meantime, networks will just have to go with their gut instinct and schedule shows as best they can. Just as AoS, OUaT:iW and Intelligence goes to show, sometimes there's nothing you can do to stop a disappointing ratings slide.