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No ‘Survivor’-size hits, but nets stem erosion

Jul 15, 2002  •  Post A Comment

While none of the broadcast networks can yet claim a ratings bonanza akin to “Survivor’s” or “Fear Factor’s” this summer, Fox, NBC and CBS have found ways to stem viewer erosion with new reality series.
With NBC and Fox aggressively scheduling their overall summer prime-time lineups with 40 percent original programming, their new “Dog Eat Dog” and “American Idol” reality series, respectively, have each network either holding down ratings declines to single-digit percentages or maintaining position among the key young adults demographics.
“The whole strategy is to get as much viewers back to TV for the summer and for them to see our promos to come back in the fall,” said Mitch Metcalf, NBC Entertainment’s executive VP of program planning and scheduling. “We’re not going to commit suicide by not serving up repeats just to blunt the cable networks’ efforts, because our focus is to remain cost-efficient in the summer [with original reality series] as well as remaining competitive into the fall.”
Preston Beckman, Fox’s executive VP of program planning and scheduling, said Fox is using a similar strategy.
“What we have done in terms of staying even in some demos and growing in adults 18 to 34 is pretty remarkable, because the other [broadcast] networks are largely down in most of the key demographics,” Mr. Beckman said. “The bottom line is that every move we’ve made this summer has increased our circulation as well as our scheduling options” when it comes to using “American Idol” and other summer reality series to fill scheduling gaps next season.
“American Idol,” a “Star Search”-like competition melded with a “Gong Show”-like format, has been the closest thing to a breakout series Fox has had during the past several years. Tuesday airings of “American Idol” average a top-ranked 4.8 rating among the key adults 18 to 49 demographic. Additional airings on Wednesday nights for “Idol,” however, have been averaging somewhat lower mid-4 ratings-bringing it down to a 4.6 rating average in the key demo over the two nights it has aired for its first five weeks.
Still, factoring in Fox’s other debuting summer reality series, “Looking for Love: Bachelorettes in Alaska” (2.8 rating) and “Beyond Belief” (2.0 rating), Fox has been able to maintain its year-to-year prime-time position-including its repeat programming-among adults 18 to 49 as the five other major broadcast networks have registered slight decreases.
NBC’s extreme “Dog Eat Dog” stunts competition, which has been averaging a top-ranked 4.7 rating in adults 18 to 49 and just over 10 million viewers for its 9 p.m. Monday airings, has kept the network in its season-long front-running position in adults 18 to 49. It has also helped that NBC’s “Crime & Punishment” (3.3 rating) and “Spy TV” (3.3 rating) have given the network three of the five top-ranked reality series this summer.
Even CBS, which has seen its series such as “CSI,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Becker” hold up in repeats among total viewers and households, got a big boost from “Big Brother 3’s” premiere last Wednesday, when it tied “American Idol” at a 4.1 rating/12 share scores in adults 18 to 49.
Nevertheless, a summer-to-date ratings analysis from ad-buying giant Initiative Media North America highlighted Nielsen Media Research data that pointed to a 43.3 percent viewer share for the seven broadcast networks in June. In addition to reaching a historic low for the month, the broadcast networks held a 25 percent disadvantage to the basic cable network universe’s 57.5 percent share of all TV viewers.
While largely crediting NBC and Fox for launching more original unscripted reality series, Initiative’s Stacey Lynn Koerner said the cable networks’ “aggressive stance” on launching new scripted dramas and comedies (such as USA Network’s “Dead Zone” and Comedy Central’s “Crank Yankers”) has created a “sizable creative, qualitative and competitive advantage” this summer.
“The broadcast networks have been more aggressive in launching new unscripted series, but there still seems to be a perception gap with viewers who think there is more of a smorgasbord of new quality scripted series to be found on the cable networks,” said Ms. Koerner, Initiative’s senior VP and director of broadcast research. “Undoubtedly, reality series are considered cheaper [and] cost-effective by the broadcast networks in the summer, but holding all of their original scripted series for the regular season creates the impression there is less to watch on broadcast during the summer.”
With the exception of NBC’s planned four-episode network run of “She Spies” for 10 p.m. Saturday nights starting July 20 (in advance of the drama’s subsequent launch in syndication), NBC and Fox are debuting more lower-cost alternative series this summer.
And the broadcast networks aren’t done introducing new alternative series this summer.
NBC will roll out over the next few weeks “Meet My Folks,” a hybrid reality/game show in which male and female courtiers are put to the marital test-including such antics as facing lie detector tests-by future in-laws (a la the film “Meet My Parents”); “The Rerun Show,” an unusual hybrid scripted/improv series; and “Love Shack,” a single guy/girl relationship series where pairs of opposite-sex suitors will attempt to break their bond and can be “voted” out of the “shack.” Fox this Wednesday night will debut two alternative series “30 Seconds to Fame” and “Meet the Marks.”