TV Surveillance’s Best of 2011: Top Networks of the Year

It is that time again folks! The end of the year is upon us and that means it is time to look back on the highs, lows and WTFs in television from the past 12 months. There is a lot to reflect on in regard to television 2011. Charlie Sheen went crazy. Well, crazier. Comedy supposedly made a big comeback. We found out what The Event was, I think. Steve Carell and Michael Scott said goodbye and we were sad. The guys from Entourage also said goodbye, and we were less sad. AMC tried to break a Guinness Book World Record for number of stupid PR disasters by a cable network.

This year brought us a number of great new series such as HomelandHappy Endings and Game of Thronesand a slew of horribly awful ones such as The Paul Reiser ShowHow to Be a Gentleman and Charlie’s Angels.True Blood and Glee kept getting worse while Community and Justified kept getting better. 2011 was the year of Louis C.K., the year of sexposition and the year of The Killing. Over the next few weeks, I will be posting all sorts of lists, podcasts and pieces reflecting back on the year that was. So join me in saying farewell to what was a very compelling year in television. There will be so many lists.

Discussing which networks had strong years is somewhat tough. First of all, success and “strong year” is all relative. All of the CW’s new scripted series are doing fine this fall, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the CW had a better 2011 than CBS, a network that didn’t cultivate too many new hits, but continues to be the stoic powerhouse that it always is. This kind of relativity applies just the same to basic cable networks, where the ratings expectations are much lower. Second of all, I am mostly interested in discussing prominent networks that air programming that critics and television fans on the internet like to discuss. Maybe Versus had a big year and maybe Spike TV had a porous one, but you won’t see any mention of either. Let’s just discuss some recognizable networks had that pretty impressive 2011s, shall we?

ABC: The Alphabet network barely made it through its first season without out Lost  in 2010-2011 – things were so middling, ABC almost considered bringing back V – but Modern Family grew into an even bigger hit in 2011 and Dancing With the Stars picked up some much-needed tabloid and social media buzz (though it didn’t entirely translate to ratings triumphs). Paul Lee came in, picked up a slew of new programs and now suddenly, ABC has a little bit of an embarrassment of riches. Modern Family is a powerhouse and the Wednesday comedy block is very popular and quite good. Suburgatory is a solid newbie and the network was smart to keep Happy Endings around. Pan Am didn’t quite work (although it is supposedly a big hit overseas), but Once Upon a Time and Revenge have given ABC two of the most popular new hour-longs of the season. With buzzworthy new series like The River, GCB, Scandal and Apartment 23 (or whatever it is called now) still to come, ABC is in much better shape than I thought it would be.

Standout series: Happy Endings; Big move: Launching Once Upon a Time on Sundays

MTV: Listen, there is no question that MTV airs a substantial amount of pretty awful television. Anything that involves teenagers and babies likely falls under this category for most of us. However, the non-music version of MTV had a really tremendous 2011. Jersey Shore, somewhat shockingly, continued to grow in the ratings and didn’t seem to lose much cultural cache either. The Challenge had another great season that was relatively well-rated. Beavis and Butthead made a mostly triumphant return. But most importantly, MTV’s new scripted programming took a turn for the better. The network cancelled the tepid The Hard Times of RJ Berger and replaced it with the charming and funny Awkward. And somehow, MTV’s Teen Wolf series, though not remotely related to the glorious Michael J. Fox film, ended up being rock-solid for what it was aiming for. I am very certain that MTV will continue to air a bunch of stuff I hate, but for once, it feels like they know what they’re doing in the scripted department.

Standout series: Awkward.; Big move: Building quality scripted programming

HBO: Trumpeting the “HBO is back!” card is old news and very tired, but it is also hard to disagree with in a lot of regards. The “not TV” network made big strides in 2010 and only expanded upon those this year. Their pristine jewel Boardwalk Empire turned in a dramatically better second season and what I’ve seen from Treme’s sophomore run tells me it was also improved (although by not as much). Curb Your Enthusiasm had a well-received new season and both Big Love and Entourage got to say goodbye on their own terms (well, sort of). Most importantly, HBO launched two really great new programs with Game of Thrones and Enlightened, the former of which surely brought in a sizable bump in the subscriber base. HBO also successfully launched HBOGO across multiple platforms, something that cannot be forgotten in today’s media climate.

Standout series: Game of Thrones; Big move: Putting all their might behind Thrones

FX: One of basic cable’s most popular networks had a weird year. Terriers didn’t make it to a second season at the tail-end of 2010 and Lights Out, a similarly well-constructed series, failed to as well. Cancellations aren’t good, but FX and President John Landgraf handled both situations with the right mix of honesty and respect. Although FX had some issues keeping a few really good programs on the air, many of its returning favorites grew in viewership in 2011, which is always a good sign. Justified and Louie are two of those growers and both turned in glorious second seasons that have them at or near the top of almost every end-of-the-year list. Sons of Anarchy’s fourth season had its issues, but the series returned closer to its season two form and garnered record breaking ratings. Archer, Wilfred, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The League join Louie in one of television’s best comedy stables. And although it’s oftentimes very awful, we cannot forget to mention the success of American Horror Story. Like HBO and True Blood, I’m fine with a bad series like this still existing because it gives the network money to do other, better things.

Standout series: Justified; Big move: Keeping Louie on the air, giving it a quality timeslot/partner

FOX and CBS: I struggled with which of the two broadcast network powers to put here, and ultimately folded and just went with both. FOX and CBS faced some major challenges in 2011. The former had to deal with Simon leaving American Idol and launching his new series The X Factor while the latter got caught in the middle of Charlie Sheen’s hash-tag-friendly meltdown. I think both networks would probably be happier if X Factor and the Ashton-starring version of Two and a Half Men were bigger hits, but on most nights, FOX and CBS still make all the networks weep. Both networks successfully launched new comedies in New Girl and 2 Broke Girls and didn’t get totally murdered by some of the scheduling choices they made for the fall like moving House to 9 p.m. behind Terra Nova on Mondays or putting Person of Interest Thursdays at 9 p.m. There’s still adversity and big questions for both FOX and CBS to answer in 2012 (Can Glee recover? Is Person of Interest worth keeping around?), but come May, they’ll still be at the top of the ratings heap.

Standout series: New Girl, How I Met Your Mother; Big move(s): Keeping the Idol train moving successfully, Keeping Monday’s comedy block in-tact

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