Can ABC’s ‘Black Box’ Hold on to ‘Scandal’s’ Audience in Series Debut?

Thursday nights are still very competitive for any TV network, but when you begin to take certain shows out of the equation, there is a noticeable shift in power. ABC (a subsidiary of Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) ) has got to be bracing for that now that its hit Scandal has wrapped its third season. In its place the network will debut Black Box, a new drama that while interesting, likely won't make the same waves as the show it's replacing.

(Credit: ABC)

Shoes to fill

Before talking about Black Box, you have to remember what an impact player Scandal is for ABC. This was a show that (also) debuted late in the season, back in 2012 with a minimal episode order that very well could have been all it got. The series didn't light the ratings on fire and didn't have any real buzz to it ... at first. Yet it was also only seven episodes, very serialized, and fast paced, so when audiences finally got around to watching it they were hooked.

Season two brought a half-season order that was quickly extended when the show took on a new life via social media. Since then the series has blossomed into one of TV's most social programs, to the point where it's making people watch live again. That's no small feat in our time-shifting culture. People know if they miss Scandal, they run a huge risk of being spoiled the next day -- with this show's wild twists, that's simply not an option.

'Boxed' in

(Credit: ABC)

Scandal has a lot in common with Black Box, even if it's not entirely fair to compare them. Both got a late-season debut, both revolve around strong female characters, and both entered their runs with low expectations. It'll be hard for Box to overcome those doubts in the way Scandal did, but the show does have a few things working in its favor.

Box stars Kelly Reilly as Dr. Catherine Black, a brilliant neuroscientist who practices at the world-class New York medical facility known as "The Cube." Black is able to understand mental illness so well because she herself struggles with it, a fact that would ruin her if it were made public. Reilly is talented but largely unknown to American audiences. She had big roles in the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies, and is currently sharing the screen with Greg Kinnear in the well-received Heaven Is for Real.

Reilly's co-stars are more well-known. Screen legend Vanessa Redgrave plays Black's psychiatrist/mentor, and Terry Kinney (OzNYC-22) plays Black's boss at "The Cube." Redgrave should be a draw, but how much?

Last week Scandal wrapped with a season-ending high of 10.5 million viewers in the 10 p.m. slot -- if Box hits anywhere near 10 million viewers, ABC would be elated. Realistically somewhere in the 5 million to 7 million range is more likely, especially with CBS airing a new episode of Elementary, which traditionally wins the time slot.

Network impact

So what does Box mean to ABC in the long run? Honestly ... not much. While Box is a nice companion show to medical drama Grey's Anatomy, it's only getting this day and date release now because Scandal's leading lady Kerry Washington is pregnant and the show had to wrap early. ABC would have loved four more weeks of Scandal, but Washington is the show and completing the order without her wasn't an option.

Ideally Box would have been a better summer fit to go along with ABC's established series Rookie Blue and Motive, but this is how the cards fell. Should Box surprise and do well (a la Resurrection), ABC will champion it as a breakout hit and of course bring it back. If the show tanks it won't impact ABC's fall plans at all. Scandal will still likely return to its Thursday night perch later in the year and the network will still order a ton of new series for the new fall season.

ABC may not be banking on Box, but it's not ignoring it either. The show has received a nice marketing and promotional push and audiences should be sufficiently aware it's on. It's also a concept that can lend itself to some fascinating stories, but only if it gets past its first few weeks.

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