Broadcast Battle Comes Into Focus
Key Moves for New Season, Night by Night and Net by Net
Networks fight their annual battle for ratings supremacy on a night-by-night basis—and the 2008 battle will be no exception.
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While DVRs have made lead-ins and lead-outs less crucial than they used to be, programmers still plot the season by thinking of each individual night as a new front in the war to attract audiences. Even marketers count on audiences to flow through a night. The CW, for example, is cranking up the hype for its 8 p.m. Tuesday entry “90210”—and praying viewers stay tuned for “Privileged” at 9.
So which nights promise to be the bloodiest battlegrounds this season? How have the networks reassembled the chess pieces this year in their bid to achieve maximum ratings advantage? And which network will come out on top?
What follows is TelevisionWeek’s nightly guide to the fall 2008 campaign, complete with an industry expert’s analysis of each evening’s showdown and our own take on how each skirmish should unfold. (We’ve skipped Saturday, since the night remains filled mostly with repeats and the same handful of original programs that have aired there for years.)
What’s new: On the major networks, absolutely nothing. The CW, however, is leasing out its airtime to Media Rights Capital, an independent production company that has put together a slate of shows that feel very distinct from the rest of The CW’s female-friendly lineup. Comedy “Surviving Suburbia” is sandwiched between dramas “In Harm’s Way,” “Valentine, Inc.” and “Easy Money.”
What’s different: Very little, scheduling-wise. CBS replaces the now-dead “Shark” with “The Unit” at 10 p.m. Everything else is in the same place it was last year. ABC, however, is making a major change to “Desperate Housewives”: Creator Marc Cherry decided to fast-forward the show five years into the future. And Dan Patrick will reunite with Keith Olbermann, joining the crew of NBC’s “Football Night in America.”
Ask an expert: Fox scheduling overlord Preston Beckman is intrigued by the “Housewives” play, calling it “a ballsy move to take a show that’s creatively still very good” and shake up its plot foundations.
“Without changing their schedule, they made the most radical move of the night,” he said. “If I were going to bet, I’d say they’ll probably benefit from it.”
Mr. Beckman also predicted NBC will get a boost from a strong lineup of NFL games, and he believes Fox’s long-running animated lineup will “do what we do” (Read: Perform strongly with young men).
As for CBS, Mr. Beckman said the network “has the most possible downside. There’s nothing there on Sunday that’s in growth mode.”
TVWeek’s take: Football dominates, but the other networks will continue to see slow slippage in their numbers for the night. ABC and Fox have well-established niches, but CBS has to be mulling some major changes to Sundays come midseason (perhaps a return of summer success “Password”?). The MRC shows will be dead on arrival, unless they manage to dramatically exceed expectations (and their corny titles).
What’s new: CBS tries its hand at single-camera comedy with “Worst Week,” an adaptation of a British show about a man who’s about to get married to his pregnant girlfriend. Buzz on the show has been positive since advertisers first saw clips in May, but its stylistic differences could make it an awkward fit with lead-in “Two and a Half Men.” At 10 p.m., NBC hopes it’s finally found a suitable companion for “Heroes” with the Christian Slater action drama “My Own Worst Enemy.” Other than a few seconds of action from Olympics promos, however, not much is known about the show, which got a late start on production.
What’s different: The 8 p.m. hour is more competitive than ever, thanks to the addition of “Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles,” the Fox action hour that started strongly last winter (though it faded toward the end of its strike-shortened run). Producer Josh Schwartz will face off against himself, with NBC’s “Chuck” returning from a nine-month hiatus to competition from The CW’s “Gossip Girl” in its 8 p.m. Monday slot. “Heroes” has been radically revamped at 9 p.m., with NBC hoping viewers have forgotten all about the show’s poorly constructed second season. And “Boston Legal” moves to Mondays for its final season, with ABC hoping the older audience that watches “Dancing With the Stars” will help the David E. Kelley legal soap opera.
Ask the experts: NBC scheduling chief Mitch Metcalf said Monday “is an interesting night because there aren’t too many new shows on the air. There’s a lot of stability on the night.”
A lot of stability, and a lot of solid shows. Mr. Metcalf acknowledged that the 8 p.m. hour will be “incredibly tough” for “Chuck.” “With the comedies on CBS, ‘Sarah Connor,’ ‘Dancing With the Stars’ and ‘Gossip Girl,’ there are a lot of different segments being served,” he said. “But ‘Chuck’ has a great star with great appeal, great guest stars and great storylines. It’s being set up for a good season, and there’s no reason to believe that it can’t build next year.”
Mr. Metcalf is even more enthusiastic about 9 p.m., where he believes “Heroes” will recapture any momentum it had lost. “The stories this year are just top-notch and compelling,” he said. “It feels like it’s coming out of spring training strong.”
The executive also thinks “Enemy” has a shot at 10 p.m., arguing that “CSI: Miami” last season was “showing some signs of age” and that “Boston Legal” is entering its final year.
“The rebuilding of NBC is really predicated on continuing success on this night,” Mr. Metcalf said. “It’s incredibly important to us. If 10 p.m. works as I think it will, we should take the night from 8-11 p.m.”
TVWeek’s take: It’s gonna be a dogfight. Assuming it lands a good bunch of celebs, ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” will dominate in total viewers and give a big boost to “Samantha Who?” and “Boston Legal.” CBS and NBC will fight it out for the demo lead, with Fox doing OK with its male-skewing shows.
What’s new: Three of the season’s most-hyped freshman will try to get noticed on this super-crowded night. At 9 p.m., Fox is betting big on “Fringe,” the mysterious procedural drama that has elements of “Lost” and “The X-Files.” Also at 9, CBS has what many believe to be the sleeper of the season with “The Mentalist,” a Simon Baker-led detective series whose DNA meshes perfectly with the Eye’s audience profile. And at 8, The CW is all but staking its future on high school revival “90210.”
Other newcomers include the family-friendly game show “Opportunity Knocks” on ABC and The CW soap “Privileged.”
What’s different: Fox moves “House” (again) to the 8 p.m. slot in a bid to give “Fringe” a solid lead-in at 9. “The Biggest Loser,” which started as a one-hour show and then expanded to 90 minutes, puts on more weight and now will fill a full two hours on NBC. And the network’s “Law & Order: SVU” gets two new competitors, with ABC and CBS relocating “Eli Stone” and “Without a Trace,” respectively, to the 10 p.m. hour.
Ask an expert: ABC scheduling honcho Jeff Bader expects ABC to “do fine” with the “Dancing With the Stars” results show anchoring the night at 9. “The real wild card, what everyone is going to be looking at, is ‘Fringe’ on Fox,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind it will premiere [well]. The question is, will it hold up?”
Mr. Bader is hopeful about “Opportunity,” calling the series “Extreme Gameshow: Home Edition.” “We’re hoping that it’s broad and that we’ll get everyone from kids to grandparents,” he said. The fact that “Wipeout” has done so well in the same 8 p.m. time slot all summer can’t hurt.
The 9 p.m. hour promises to be brutally competitive, Mr. Bader said. “It’s a lot of counterprogramming within genres,” he said. “It won’t be so much a case of winners and losers, or who comes in first. You can have two or three shows do well in a time period now.”
Mr. Bader thinks ABC should improve its performance with “Eli Stone” at 10, with “Dancing” a much better lead-in for the young show than “Lost,” the show “Eli Stone” followed last spring. Still, “It’s ‘Law & Order’s’ time period to lose.”
TVWeek’s take: All the pre-season hype for “90210” and “Fringe” could make it tough for both shows to live up to expectations, even if they turn out well. It won’t be hard for “The Mentalist” to look good. But keep an eye on “Opportunity Knocks,” one of the coolest ideas for a game show in a while.
What’s new: After a successful test run as a two-hour movie last winter, NBC is bringing back ’80s relic “Knight Rider” as a weekly series. Expect the show to be radically different from the poorly reviewed telepic. Two comedies pop up: The Jay Mohr vehicle “Gary Unmarried” on CBS and Fox’s “Fawlty Towers” wannabe, “Do Not Disturb.” The CW also hopes reality competition “Stylista” fits with “America’s Next Top Model.”
What’s different: CBS is opening up a second night for comedies, transplanting “The New Adventures of Old Christine” from Mondays to serve as a lead-in for “Gary.” Fox shifts “Bones” to 8 p.m. and moves its comedy block to 9 p.m. And “Lipstick Jungle,” which ran on Thursdays last spring, returns on its new night at 10.
Ask an expert: CBS scheduling master Kelly Kahl (who also oversees the grids for The CW) said Fox’s decision to move its comedies out of the 8 p.m. hour made it easier for the Eye to jump onto the night. “We’re lucky to have several good comedies, and this seemed to be a good time and a good place to branch out,” he said. “We like the way they fit with each other.”
Mr. Kahl gives props to his rivals for solid scheduling on Wednesday.
“This is a night that’s well programmed by all of the networks,” he said. “There’s an audience for each show along the way, so everyone has a reason to be optimistic. This looks like an old-school night of programming and counterprogramming.”
There’s no better example of that than the 9 p.m. hour, which pits a soapy serial (“Private Practice”) against a crime drama (“Criminal Minds”), a game show (“Deal or No Deal”), a comedy block (“’Til Death,” “Do Not Disturb”) and a reality competition (“Stylista”).
Still, while Mr. Kahl likes what his peers have done, he likes his own handiwork best. “I like our chances to win the night [in total viewers],” he said.
TVWeek’s take: Mr. Kahl should get his wish, though among adults 18 to 49, CBS will be in a tight race with ABC for the lead. The Alphabet’s decision to bring back last fall’s Wednesday schedule intact makes a lot of sense—assuming, of course, that viewers haven’t fallen out of love with the three shows they crushed on last fall.
What’s new: It’s a night of imports. At 8:30 p.m., NBC tries to shore up its comedy block with “Kath & Kim,” a remake of the Australian hit about two very different sisters. In the 10 o’clock hour, as “ER” begins its final season, the other networks try to establish toeholds with reimaginings of British shows. ABC has the time-traveling cop drama “Life on Mars” (ABC), while CBS has the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced actioner “Eleventh Hour.” And, in a last-minute addition to the night, Fox kicks off the 8 p.m. hour with “Hole in the Wall,” a wacky stunt-driven game show with Japanese roots.
What’s different: NBC finally gives “30 Rock” the time slot it deserves: right behind “The Office” at 9:30 p.m. Fox hopes foul-mouthed chef Gordon Ramsay can spice up the 9 p.m. hour with the second season of “Kitchen Nightmares,” which relocates from Wednesdays. Elsewhere, “Survivor” now is being filmed in HD; “CSI” prepares for the departure of star William Petersen and the arrival of Laurence Fishburne; and New Yorkers like Regis Philbin should pop up more frequently on “Ugly Betty” now that the ABC show has shifted production from Los Angeles to New York.
Ask an expert: “It’s another night where a couple of strong lineups can do well against each other,” said CBS scheduling whiz Kelly Kahl. He believes CBS has “a chance for growth” at 10 p.m. with “Eleventh Hour,” which goes up against “ER.”
“There’s a new show and a show in its last season in the time slot,” Mr. Kahl said. “That gives our show a heck of a good chance.”
Mr. Kahl expects NBC’s comedies to continue to do well with younger demographic groups and calls “Life on Mars” a “wild card.” As for Fox, he said the network’s reality shows tend to be “hit and miss.” “They do a great job getting attention for these shows,” he said. “The real question is, will any of it have legs?”
TVWeek’s take: While Mr. Kahl is right to question the long-term viability of “Hole in the Wall,” the show could be a short-term sleeper. There are a lot of aging shows in the 8 p.m. hour, and “Betty” showed signs of fading last spring. The summer success of “Wipeout” proves viewers are looking for some mindless entertainment they can enjoy with the family. Overall, ABC will continue to win younger demos, while CBS should hold on to its viewer lead as “CSI” gets a boost from its cast shuffling.
What’s new: After a few weeks on Monday nights, reality show maven Thom Beers’ “America’s Toughest Jobs” moves to Fridays for part of September and October. When that’s finished, NBC slots “Crusoe” in the 8 p.m. time slot, in the hope that viewers will check out its action-filled take on the literary classic “Robinson Crusoe.” Not satisfied with the small but loyal core of fans who appreciated “Moonlight” last season, CBS once again will go for romance in the 9 p.m. hour with newcomer “The Ex List.” Like so much on TV this fall, it’s an import—of an Israeli show. Also going the import route: MyNetworkTV, which snaps up “WWE Smackdown!” from The CW.
What’s different: ABC and Fox go unscripted and family-friendly for the night. ABC relocates dependable documentary series “Wife Swap” and “Supernanny” to the 8 and 9 p.m. slots, while Fox brings Thursday game shows “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?” and “Don’t Forget the Lyrics!” to Fridays. At 10 p.m., NBC gives “Life” a shot in the time slot that once played host to another low-rated critical darling, “Homicide: Life on the Street.” And with The CW giving up wrestling, the network hopes comedies “Everybody Hates Chris” and “The Game” can find an audience and serve as an OK lead-in to repeats of “America’s Next Top Model.”
Ask an expert: Fox scheduling guru Preston Beckman said he considers his Friday shows the network’s “bullpen.” “These are very serviceable shows,” he said. “There’s little risk of failure. They’re not gonna be huge, but they’re not gonna be embarrassments, either.” “Fifth Grader” and “Lyrics” both did nicely when they aired on Thursday last season, and Mr. Beckman thinks they should have no problem improving on the short-lived “The Next Great American Band” and “Nashville.” “If we can’t grow from where we were last year, I will quit,” the veteran executive promised.
As for the other networks, Mr. Beckman expects CBS to come in first at 8 p.m. with “Ghost Whisperer,” but he calls 9 p.m. “a total toss-up.” “The Ex List’ is a weird show to put between ‘Ghost Whisperer’ and ‘Numbers,’” he said. “But if it does well, CBS will have a solid night.”
TVWeek’s take: Friday night ratings have been falling fast in recent years, threatening to turn the night into the new Saturday (i.e., a dead zone). The networks are smartly fighting back, with ABC and Fox wisely programming evergreen reality shows that viewers can drift in and out of. NBC insiders have been talking up “Crusoe,” but it’s hard to imagine families flocking to a drama on a Friday. CBS needs “Ex List” to work, if only to prove it can launch a new show without detectives of some sort.