In Depth

Fox Breaks Fall Curse

Only Network to Post Gains in Demo is Tied for Second Place

While the industry watched the unfolding writers strike drama in recent weeks, a precedent-setting event quietly occurred in the Nielsen ratings horserace: Fox seemingly broke its fall-season curse.

Since 2003, Fox has typically ranked fourth by mid-November and remained there through the end of the quarter (with an exception noted for 2005, when Fox was in third place at this point). The network’s season, goes the entertainment reporting boilerplate, doesn’t really start until January when “American Idol” returns.

But eight weeks into the fall, Fox is tied with CBS for second place among adults 18 to 49, according to Nielsen Media Research’s most current data. Fox is also the only network to grow year-to-year, up 17%.

Overall, ABC continues to lead the season in the demo with a 3.8 rating, while CBS is first in total viewers. ABC is down 10% in the demo compared with last year, although it launched five of the top seven rookie series this fall. CBS has averaged a 3.5 and is down 13%. In third place, NBC has a 3.4 and also is down 13%. The CW has averaged a 1.3 and is down 13%.

In addition to Fox’s move, the numbers also show an overall tight race compared with last year.

“The ratings race has tightened from first to fourth, with Fox the only network improving,” noted Brad Adgate, senior VP at Horizon Media. “That really bodes well for Fox—they’re not in as big of a hole as in previous years.”

The biggest factor aiding Fox: Airing fewer low-rated baseball playoff games, which allowed shows to settle into their time periods before the schedule was disrupted. Also, when the World Series kicked in, the games outperformed the previous year’s contest.

Even without factoring in sports, the network is up year over year. Fox made gains every night of the week except Fridays (which dropped) and Mondays (which are roughly on par).

“We’re looking great,” said Preston Beckman, executive VP for strategic program planning at Fox. “Baseball didn’t disrupt our schedule as much as it could have [and] we’re a lot more stable with our returning shows.”

With the strike putting a premium on reality programming, which is Fox’s forte, the network is well positioned to once again rule the season. However, instead of the fall being a deficit for “Idol” to overcome, the first few months of this season could give the network a steady platform upon which to build.

Other factors aiding the network: For the first time, Fox consistently has four animated comedies pulling solid ratings on Sunday night, instead of mixing in weaker-performing live-action shows. Also, the network’s summer schedule shakeup—moving “Bones” to Tuesday nights, slotting freshman reality effort “Kitchen Nightmares” on Wednesdays and keeping “Don’t Forget the Lyrics” and “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader” around for Thursdays—helped the network remain competitive in time periods that used to suffer heavy casualties.

The downside for Fox was a lackluster performance by some of its new shows.

Friday nights continue to be a killing field, with reality efforts such as “The Next Great American Band” tanking. Monday night drama “K-Ville” is running on strike fumes, its ratings dropping with nearly every airing.

As for November sweeps, two weeks in and the network rankings are pretty much unchanged from the season-to-date race, only with CBS in second and Fox coming in third by a tenth of a rating point. With most DVR data still out, the year-to-year comparisons are not yet available.

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Comments 12

Troy S. Woody

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What a shocker! Looks like FOX has quietly pulled itself up by it's bootstraps when no one was looking, although apparently people were watching. With the effects of the WGA strike about to start taking effect on the networks, it will be very interesting to see how the ratings shape up after the next sweeps numbers come in. Fox may be in better shape than anyone with all of it's reality-based programming options in play.

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