In Depth

Ratings Preview: It’s Fox, ABC

With the new television season about to begin, at least one media agency has publicly issued projections for which networks will be winners and losers.

Carat last week released its prime-time preview report, which sees Fox and ABC as the leaders in the adults 18 to 49 demographic targeted by most advertisers.

The Carat programming team, led by Shari Anne Brill, expects both Fox and ABC to average a 3.0 rating during the first quarter. Carat is using C3 ratings, which measure commercial viewership in live and delayed viewing within three days of broadcast. The agency looks at the fourth quarter, because after that the networks are likely to change their announced schedules, making its predictions moot.

Carat predicts that CBS and NBC will each average a 2.7 during the fourth quarter and that The CW will average a 1.1 rating.

CBS fares better when looking at average total viewers, with 10.2 million. ABC follows with 9.4 million viewers. After that it’s Fox with 7.6 million, NBC with 7.3 million and The CW with 2.5 million.

Carat expects Fox to continue to strengthen last season’s No. 1 performance by playing to its strengths in science fiction and edgy animated series. The report noted Fox is committed to year-round program development and plans to air its new series “Fringe” and “Dollhouse” with only five minutes of national ad time per hour. Fox hopes these tactics will ensure higher C3 ratings for those shows, Carat says.

Carat says ABC’s strength is in its hourlong series, with hits including “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost,” “Brothers and Sisters” and “Ugly Betty.” However, ABC’s comedy slate is still a work in progress. The network finished third in total viewers last year and tied CBS for second in adults 18 to 49.

After years in the top spot among total viewers, CBS was displaced by Fox last season. CBS also tied for second place in the 18-to-49 demographic. Carat said the network stumbled trying to program edgier content during the 2007-08 season and returns to its comfort zone this fall with several new procedural crime dramas. CBS will again attempt to put back-to-back comedies on Wednesday nights, a strategy that has been unsuccessful in the past, the agency notes.

Carat says NBC remains unable to improve its fourth-place status among adults 18 to49. The media buyer said NBC’s returning freshman series were borderline performers before the writers strike and the network has made numerous scheduling changes since announcing its program lineup early in what it dubbed an “In-Front.”

“Unless its new shows outperform the ones they have replaced, the network will remain vulnerable,” said Carat, noting NBC has largely decided to forgo the traditional, if expensive, pilot process for developing new shows. Carat considers the move “very risky.”

In its report, Carat reminds readers that of the 30 new series that launched last fall, only 11 will be back during 2008-09. ABC is the leader with four shows entering their sophomore season: “Samantha Who?,” “Private Practice,” “Dirty Sexy Money” and “Pushing Daisies.”

Factoring in midseason replacements, you get 53 new shows during last season, with just 16 surviving. That’s a .300 batting average.

In previous years, Ms. Brill has put in her guesses as to which new shows are most likely to succeed, as well as those that probably are going to have a very short life. This year, the feature didn’t make the cut because few pilots of new shows were available.

Carat also mothballed its “shrimp-o-meter,” because CBS and ABC didn’t hold their usual upfront parties stocked with wall-to-wall shellfish.

For all the talk about Americans forsaking the tube to enjoy online goodies, the Carat report notes households now spend two more hours per week with TV than they did five years ago. Those coveted 18- to 49-year-olds spend another hour with TV above and beyond their consumption in the 2003-04 season. Despite the writers strike, households and adults spent more time watching TV than they did the prior season.

In prime time, however, viewership is flat. It rose a bit during the 2007-08 season after slipping from its peak 2005-06 season.

Time-shifting using digital video recorders is having a growing effect on whether people who watch TV still watch commercials. The Carat report cites statistics from Nielsen showing that DVR provides the broadcast networks with an 18.8% increase in audience over live-only viewing.

But adding in DVR usage increases the amount of commercials watched by just 8.4%.

And since advertisers are buying spots based on C3 commercial ratings, the networks aren’t getting as much of a boost from a revenue perspective as the audience numbers would indicate.