Fox Reality Sneak Attack

Mar 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

When NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker told TV critics at the press tour in January that “Dateline” would do a one-hour special on pop star Michael Jackson’s changing face, everybody laughed and thought he was joking.
Two bidding wars and three Michael Jackson specials later, nobody’s laughing. Michael Jackson has become the poster boy for a February sweeps period that CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves called the “craziest sweeps in the history of show business.”
“Turns out it was too good of an idea and I shouldn’t have announced it,” Mr. Zucker said on a conference call with reporters last week.
This February sweeps was marked by last-minute scheduling changes that even TiVo couldn’t keep up with. NBC made a whopping 13 scheduling changes in February, while ABC made nine, CBS made four and Fox made one, according to data from the networks.
When the dust cleared, Fox walked away with its first sweeps victory ever in the adults 18 to 49 demographic. Not only did Fox go from fourth place in November sweeps to first in February, it broke NBC’s 11 sweeps winning streak by almost an entire ratings point (5.7 vs. 4.8).
Fox’s victory has also loosened NBC’s grip on the 18 to 49 race for the season. Mr. Zucker went so far as to say Fox could pass NBC to win the season in the 18 to 49 demo. “Fox has fresher legs, so the pressure is on us and that’s OK,” Mr. Zucker said. “It’s going to be a fun final three months of the season.”
With short-term reality series able to inject instant life into a struggling lineup, ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne said in future sweeps periods the networks will see more movement .
Fox Faces Reality
Much of the credit for Fox’s sweeps victory goes to its hit reality shows “Joe Millionaire” and “American Idol.” However, Fox Television Entertainment Group Chairman Sandy Grushow said Fox was able to capitalize on those reality shows and use them to boost scripted programming such as “24,” up 26 percent over November 2002; “That ’70s Show,” up 36 percent; “Cedric The Entertainer,” up 27 percent; and “Bernie Mac,” up 58 percent.
“We had a plan that has been more effective than we have ever hoped for,” said Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman. “And for the most part the schedule that won the sweep is the same schedule that will carry us forward through March and beyond. This has real value for affiliates because it allows them to monetize the ratings.”
One thing that will be missing from Fox’s schedule as it attempts to wrench away the season 18 to 49 crown from NBC is “Joe Millionaire.” In its place starting today will be “Married by America,” followed by another relationship show, “Mr. Personality”-about how looks affect love-which will air in late April after “Married” finishes its run.
Ms. Berman said Fox doesn’t expect those shows to pull the phenomenal ratings “Joe Millionaire” did, but added that the network does expect them to do well.
While the network originally thought there was no way to do another “Joe Millionaire,” given its unique twist, Mr. Grushow said, “Plans for the next `Joe Millionaire’ are already under way.”
They wouldn’t divulge how the show will work, but Mr. Grushow said, “There will be men. There will be women. There will be romance. There will be money at stake.”
Over at CBS and The WB, stability was the key word.
CBS won the total viewers crown by 1.5 million viewers (14 million vs. NBC’s 12.5 million)-its largest margin of victory since 1993. “The thing we’re most proud of-this was done with our core schedule,” Mr. Moonves said. “This is not a fluke. We have built our schedule for now and the future. The schedule you saw in February will be the schedule you see for the next few months. It’s not based solely on reality. Other networks have based their success purely on that.”
Mr. Moonves insisted total viewers are important and pointed to the fact that CBS is one of only two networks profitable in prime time, with NBC’s being the other. “Viewers are important,” he said. “Viewers mean cash. Viewers mean profitability. We are taking these viewers and translating them into dollars.”
The WB credited the strength of their regular scripted programming, not short-term reality series, with its 21 percent growth in persons 12 to 34 and 35 percent growth in adults 18 to 34. “The measure of long-term success is going to be your performance of scripted series,” Entertainment President Jordan Levin said.
ABC, which introduced reality series “Are You Hot?” and “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!” during sweeps to go along with the final episodes of “The Bachelorette” and “Celebrity Mole,” renewed seven of its scripted series for another year, diverting attention from their fourth-place finish in the 18 to 49 race. ABC finished with a 4.0 in the demo, two-tenths of a ratings point away from CBS’s third place.
While not happy about a fourth-place finish, ABC Entertainment Chairman Lloyd Braun said ABC did grow 30 percent year to year in the 18 to 49 demographic. “I’d rather finish fourth and be up 30 percent than finish first and be up 7 percent,” he said. “[But] the truth is I want to finish first and be up 30 percent. I don’t like us finishing anywhere other than first. The reality of the television world today is it’s going to be a totally new story every single sweeps period. I don’t like it but I’m much more focused on the rebuilding of this network.”
UPN was down across the board with a 20 percent drop in adults 18 to 49 and a 25 percent drop in adults 18 to 49. “I think everybody was a little surprised at how strong the reality shows really came on,” said UPN Entertainment President Dawn Ostroff. “I think everybody was pretty surprised at the impact `Joe Millionaire,’ `American Idol’ and `The Bachelorette’ and even the Michael Jackson specials had.”