Everyone loves a good rags-to-riches story, but unfortunately we don't have a single one to tell this season. Among the six broadcasters, the healthiest ones groomed more hits, while the struggling ones continued to flounder. Take Fox, which added a couple of dramatic winners to its American Idol-powered lineup. Another smash went to the couldn't-be-less-needy CBS; ABC grew one of its already-big series to monstrous proportions. On the other side of this unfulfilling Horatio Alger tale, The WB and UPN decided that their best hope to lure young viewers was to join forces. As for NBC, we'll let them deliver their own mea culpa. ''This has been a really difficult time for us,'' admits NBC exec VP of programming Mitch Metcalf. ''We're really looking forward to next season.'' Us, too but not before we take a night-by-night look at the ups and downs of 2005-06:
JUMPIN' JACK Fox's 24 (ranked, appropriately, 24th) returned for another midseason run and rustled up a high body count plus nearly 2 million more viewers. Part of the credit goes to its perfect partner in crime Prison Break(58th), which will return with new episodes in August. ''It showed us that we can have a night of two thriller, open-ended shows,'' says Fox exec VP of programming Preston Beckman. Another thriller: trying to guess how many times a week NBC would air its only midseason success, Deal or No Deal (13th), which filled holes all over the schedule, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire-style. ''I'd love to say I was totally clairvoyant, but this was a show we had only modest expectations for,'' Metcalf says. ''It surprised each night it was on.''
OTHER WINNERS ABC's The Bachelor (56th), up 900,000 viewers; CBS' The New Adventures of Old Christine (29th)
OTHER LOSERS NBC's Medium (37th), down 2.8 million; The Apprentice (52nd), down 1.4 million from the fall cycle
OUTLOOK FOR NEXT SEASON ABC bets The Bachelor's upswing will woo women to J.J. Abrams' What About Brian, the net's only returning series from last year's new class; NBC uses Deal to launch sci-fi drama Heroes.
BIG 'UNIT' After a false midseason start with Love Monkey (92nd), No. 1 network CBS called in The Unit (14th) to take on Fox's medical hit House (10th). With the help of unstoppable third-season wonder NCIS (16th), Dennis Haysbert's Special Forces team became the season's top new drama. ''It has something for everybody,'' says CBS senior exec VP Kelly Kahl. ''Demographically The Unit is kind of a home run, and it has a really nice male/female balance.'' Not even women showed up to The WB's Rebecca Romijn newsroom dramedy, Pepper Dennis (200th), which enticed just 2.2 million viewers. Although it didn't do any better, UPN's critical darling Veronica Mars (196th) did win a post-Gilmore Girls (153rd) spot on The CW. ''Paired with Gilmore, it will finally have its shot,'' CW entertainment president Dawn Ostroff says. ''There are more similarities between the shows than people realize, and the support for Veronica never stops.''