Will Revolution, The Mindy Project, Nashville and Others Survive the Sophomore Slump?
by Michael Schneider
When NBC renewed Revolution for a second season, creator Eric Kripke knew he had to make some changes. “I’m relentless about figuring out what doesn’t work and making it better,” he says. “We reset the chessboard.” That meant returning to the show’s original conceit — a world without power — and cutting back on war-themed episodes. He also moved production from Wilmington, N.C., to Austin, giving the show a fresh look.
“With the change of Austin came a new team coming to us with a fresh eye,” Kripke says. “I hope the audience sees were working hard to improve it and create a very credible world.”
For shows like Revolution, surviving the freshman year is only half the battle. Networks tolerate tinkering on freshman shows as they find their way; but if a series hasn’t found its voice or audience by year two, that patience is gone.
Adding to the pressure to succeed, sophomore series rarely receive much network marketing support and are sometimes moved to tougher, unprotected timeslots. Revolution went from the plum post-The Voice berth to a competitive Wednesdays at 8/7c slot, without any lead-in support; as a result, the drama reached an all-time low in viewers 18-to-49 on Oct. 9. The show at least benefits from DVR lift, and as of mid-October had improved the timeslot for NBC by 30 percent in total viewers (5.9 million vs. 4.6 million).
Among other second-year series, NBC’s Chicago Fire has found a groove, winning its time slot among adults 18-49 and going up double-digit percentage points from last year (helped by its lead-in, The Voice.) Fire has even now spawned a spinoff, Chicago P.D., which premieres Jan. 8 at 10/9c.
This fall, Fox’s comedy The Mindy Project continues to struggle, as the viewership for this season’s first four episodes is down 18 percent compared to last year’s first four (3.1 million, vs. 3.8 million) and its adults 18-49 rating is down 20 percent (1.6, down from 2.0).
As for ABC’s Nashville, the drama is doing just OK, but DVR usage is helping. After Nashville narrowly made it to a second season, Lionsgate TV chairman Kevin Beggs says the studio and producers decided to “elevate the stakes and create more intensity in a more compressed time frame.”
Channing Dungey, executive vice president of drama, movies and miniseries at ABC, compares a show’s second season to the kind of growing pains everyone suffers during their teenage years. “If the first season is childhood, then the second season is adolescence, and it’s about figuring out what the show is going to be as it reaches adulthood,” she says. “You have to believe in something to bring it back for a second season. I always think about it like we’re all sitting around the campfire and we’re putting a little more kindling on it, with the hope that flame gets bigger.”
Some series will bring in new characters, or even more dramatically, hire new showrunners, in a bid to avoid the sophomore slump. Dungey says Once Upon a Time benefitted after Captain Hook was added as a character in Season 2.
“You are hoping the promise of the show you saw in Season 1 will really blossom in Season 2,” she says. “It’s trial and error. Sometimes it takes several weeks for a character to grow into who they’re going to become. You can’t get too caught up in those immediate actions.”
As for showrunner switcheroos, “sometimes there’s a parting of the ways because the person feels like they’re not telling the story they want to be telling anymore,” Dungey says. “When that happens, it’s best to move on. Sometimes it’s a situation where the show they’re passionate about making isn’t heading in the right direction for what we’re hoping to accomplish as a network and studio. Those conversations are complicated too.”
Dungey points to Scandal as a success story: Much of that show’s first season focused on stand-alone procedural stories. But at the end of that year, the network and producers regrouped and capitalized on the serialized stories that had emerged.
“The first season didn’t set the world on fire, but if you look at [the final two episodes], it showed potential,” Dungey says. “It became part of the conversation as we started arguing for a second season. As the show developed it became more serialized. That was a direction where they were cooking.”
But in rebooting a show in its sophomore frame, you don’t want to scare away existing fans while chasing a new audience. “You have to be cautious,” Dungey says. “What you’re trying to do is broaden that tent and hopefully bring more people than were there in the first season. That’s becoming harder to do. You hear stories about the Season 1 of Seinfeld or Friends being super soft and then they and grew. That doesn’t happen as much anymore.”
The next hump for producers: securing a third year. By that time, syndication is on the horizon, and a network and studio have invested enough time and cash that they really don’t want to cancel a show unless it’s a complete disaster. “Getting a show off the ground is no easy feat and it takes a little while to settle in,” Beggs says. “Getting to a third season generally suggests longevity to go to many more.”