Can ‘The Catch’ Save Struggling Shondaland?

“Scandal” needs to get its act together — and its numbers up — if #TGIT wants to return to its heyday for ABC

Last Updated: March 24, 2016 @ 9:04 AM

“The Catch” had better nab some eyeballs when it debuts on Thursday, because ABC’s Shondaland lineup is hemorrhaging them.

Primetime kickoff series “Grey’s Anatomy” seems to be holding up the best of the bunch for #TGIT — down just 3 percent year over year in the key 18-49 demographic and only 1 percent among total viewers — it’s the two shows after it that aren’t exactly having banner years.

“Scandal” is experiencing one of the heavier season-to-season declines on TV, both in terms of Nielsen ratings and creativity. The once-mighty 9 o’clock crown jewel has lost 20 percent of Season 5’s demo audience and 16 percent of its overall viewers. This time last year, “Scandal” averaged more than 13 million total viewers in seven-day delayed data — now it’s bringing in a hair under 11 million.

In its second season, “How to Get Away With Murder” is down 13 percent in the demo and 14 percent among total viewers. That’s not exactly slaying it either.

Earlier in the season, many noted Shondaland’s low-rated “live” premiere numbers, but there were enough asterisks to hold off on beating up the 8-11 p.m. Thursday lineup. That was also before the network fired Entertainment President Paul Lee.

So what’s the big problem? Let’s first talk about why “Grey’s” — incredibly in its 13th season — appears to still work so well. It’s actually a bit of a calendar-based illusion. “Grey’s” took its big double-digit percentage drop in the demo last season, when the show killed off Dr. McDreamy (Patrick Dempsey). In other words, it kind of just beat the other shows to the punch — or really, getting punched.

“Grey’s Anatomy” is the lowest-rated of the three dramas in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demo. That said, it ended up going from last to first this season among total viewers when counting a week’s worth of delayed viewing. It’s not that “Grey’s” is a smash hit and the others aren’t, it’s that the medical show got its ratings drop out of the way and has since maintained consistency.

The positive, predictable virtue can be attributed to a few things, but it’s mostly about longevity, time slot and setting. “Grey’s” has the most loyal built-in audience of the bunch, it doesn’t rely on a lead-in, and it takes place mostly within the confines of an actual hospital. Self-contained shows tend to hold on to what they have; such is the brilliance of the procedural genre.

That last trait also helps explain the problem for “Scandal.” Many fans feel it’s suddenly all-over-the-map creatively, and the plot has become too spread out logistically. Even ABC employees know “Scandal” went too wild during the middle of last season — almost off the rails, even — and you better believe the savvy Shonda Rhimes is paying attention to both her fans’ gripes and the show’s dwindling audience numbers.

Simply put, “How to Get Away With Murder’s” problem is the same as “Scandal’s” — it’s “Scandal” itself. Formerly with one of the best lead-ins on TV, “Murder” is somewhat appropriately getting killed by the Kerry Washington thriller. With less of its own creative drop-off, “Murder” has been relying on heavy delayed viewing to tread water, a key component for any 10 o’clock show.

It’s important to point out that all three veteran shows, “Scandal” included, still pull in quite good numbers when compared to the competition. ABC has been No. 1 each Thursday night for the past six weeks — marking when the Shondaland shows returned from a winter hiatus — when counting either three- or seven-day delayed viewing. For all its declines, “Scandal” is ABC’s top drama, which one can take as a good or bad sign.

And it’s not like there are better alternatives ready to take over the coveted night: ABC tried premiering “The Family” in the “Scandal” time slot — that sure didn’t work.

This week, out goes the Viola Davis series and in comes “The Catch,” pinch-hitting, if you will. And if you think that call to the bullpen is going to save ABC Thursdays, think again. There aren’t super-high ratings hopes for the cat-and-mouse game series led by “The Killing” alum Mireille Enos, either externally or internally. ABC simply hopes that its new 10 p.m. show performs somewhere around “HTGAWM,” but folks there would be wise not to bet Cinderella’s Mansion.

The detective/con-man crime drama, also under the Shondaland banner, actually has quite favorable reviews — an 86 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a 73 on MetaCritic. However, a spring start behind a flailing show doesn’t often translate to instant success.

The bottom line is that “Scandal” must be fixed before the night loses more footing. It’s the anchor, or the engine, or whatever metaphor you want to use.

That’s why within the Disney-owned broadcast network, a big priority under the regime change is to reel in the suddenly polarizing hour. That will be a Channing Dungey challenge — so much as any executive can tell Rhimes what to do.

Unfortunately, this just seems like it’s not ABC’s year, though perhaps it hasn’t been for a while.

Due to a lack of NFL coverage, the broadcaster is sitting one-tenth of a key demo ratings point behind Fox — in fourth place of the so-called Big 4 networks. While leap-frogging Fox among total viewers, ABC is down 14 percent versus last year in that all-important 18-49 age range. That, among other things, explains why Lee’s job opened up in the first place.

Maybe soon the network will “Catch” a much-needed break, but this series won’t be able to do it alone.

“The Catch” debuts tonight at 10/9c on ABC.