Rivals Setting Sights on NBC

Sep 1, 2003  •  Post A Comment

NBC has had more of the prized 18 to 49 viewers than any other network for seven of the past eight seasons, but as the new fall season approaches, the network is not looking as invincible to its competitors as it has in the past.
With “Friends” in its final year and “Frasier” most likely gone after this season, competitors are salivating at the chance to jump ahead of NBC.
Only two-tenths of a ratings point separated NBC from second-place Fox in the demo race last year. This year Fox is bringing back “American Idol,” “Joe Millionaire” and a new slate of shows that TV critics have called better than any of the other networks’ new development.
And nobody’s afraid of NBC’s Thursday night anymore. CBS has become the night’s total viewers champion and continues to close the gap in adults 18 to 49. Fox is putting two younger-skewing dramas on the night in hopes of grabbing the younger half of the 18 to 49 demo. And ABC is challenging with a reality alternative in “Extreme Makeover” and a series from Stephen King at midseason.
The new season officially kicks off on Monday, Sept. 22. To help you prepare for another broadcast season, TelevisionWeek answers some of the biggest questions heading into the fall.
What effect will the networks’ summer programming choices have on their fall launches?
Not much.
Executives at all of the broadcast networks agree that broadcast TV is becoming a 52-week-a-year business for original programming, whether it be unscripted or scripted. This summer, the networks all have used their summer time to jockey for the best fall starting position by creating the best platform possible to promote their new series.
NBC has won 13 straight weeks in adults 18 to 49 this summer with a heavy dose of reality programming.
“We embraced the concept of a 52-week schedule, taking off a lot of our scripted repeats, and went to a lot of reality as early as possible after May sweeps,” said Mitch Metcalf, senior VP of program planning and scheduling at NBC. “That momentum, with the 13-week winning streak, positions us nicely for the fall and gave us a great base for all of our new show promotion.”
ABC, The WB and UPN have used summer to expose returning shows to more viewers with multiple repeats. ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne said that by heavily repeating its six returning comedies this summer, the network is up 5 percent in adults 18 to 49 and, more important, has exposed the sitcoms to a significant new audience.
“Our expectation, our hope, is that as a result of this we can launch in the fall with stronger numbers,” she said.
That’s the same strategy that has worked for The WB in the past. The WB Entertainment President Jordan Levin said every summer the network loads up on repeats of two or three shows that it wants to attract more viewers in the fall. This summer, The WB has heavily repeated “What I Like About You” and “JKX: The Jamie Kennedy Experiment.”
“With both shows, through multiple runs a week, we’ve been getting some very strong numbers on those shows,” Mr. Levin said.
CBS has used a combination of young-skewing reality shows and repeats to keep viewers tuned in. “Like we’ve found for the last few summers, having a good mix of original programming like ‘Big Brother’ and some strong repeat performers like ‘CSI’ and ‘Without a Trace’ will give us a leg up in terms of awareness for our new shows,” said Kelly Kahl, executive VP of program planning and scheduling at CBS. “I think that’s been borne out in our ability to launch new shows.”
Fox has tried to get a jump on fall by launching two scripted series in the summer-“Keen Eddie,” which was canceled due to low ratings despite positive critical reviews, and “The O.C.,” which debuted poorly but is gaining momentum.
“Getting ‘The O.C.’ launched this summer, getting it exposed to a significant part of the 12 to 34 population, will help us to get a toehold on Thursday night,” said Preston Beckman, Fox’s executive VP of strategic program planning. “If we can succeed in getting a show or, hopefully, two shows established on Thursday night, then we’re finally a seven-night network again and we’re positioned for the following year.”
But will each network’s summer victories translate into more fall viewers? Media buyers and TV critics say the networks shouldn’t get their hopes up.
“Viewers still think of them as separate seasons,” said Bill Goodykoontz, TV critic at The Arizona Republic. “I don’t think anybody’s really going to say, ‘I really enjoyed “Dog Eat Dog” this summer and I think that Rob Lowe show will be good.'”
Stacey Lynn Koerner, executive VP and director of global research integration for Initiative Media, said no network really stands out as being poised to benefit from its summer programming.
“Of all the players who are in reality, NBC has done the best. But they’ve also done the most,” she said. “From that respect, they may be bringing in more original viewers than some of the other folks. But I really don’t think based on what we’ve seen in the summer that anyone has a better leg up than the other.”
Regardless of what programming a network runs in the summer, viewers will still tune in for premiere week and sample new shows, Mr. Goodykoontz said. “Viewers still watch TV in an old-fashioned enough way that they see the beginning of the fall season as one of the last big TV events,” he said. “Of course you are going to go back to your old favorites, but I think they see it as a clean slate. They are willing to sample stuff at least once.”
ABC stopped the bleeding last year, but will it improve this year?
A little bit.
ABC finished last season tied with CBS for third place in adults 18 to 49 with a 3.8 rating and 10 share. That was a step better than its 2001-02 finish in fourth place with a 3.6/10. But ABC still had major disappointments last year, including its inability to launch a single new drama and the damage it inflicted upon “The Practice” when the network moved it to Monday nights.
On the bright side, ABC brought back its three new comedies and hopes to build on that with a 10-comedy schedule.
“ABC may show slight improvement, but it will probably not be the breakthrough season they had hoped for,” said John Rash, senior VP and director of broadcast negotiations at Campbell Mithun in Minneapolis.
Ms. Lyne said she sees the network’s biggest potential gains on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday nights. Tuesday nights performed well last year, especially before “American Idol” started, and should continue to do well. Fridays will see a return to ABC’s once-successful “TGIF” lineup. “Alias” finally gets a more compatible lead-in on Sundays with “10-8.” As for Wednesdays, Ms. Lyne said, “We developed specifically for that 10 o’clock time period. We think ‘Karen Sisco’ is a great show to follow ‘The Bachelor,’ so we are expecting gains there.”
Tim Goodman, TV critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, said ABC is a hard network to call because the shows that do well in the ratings for the network aren’t loved by critics. “‘My Wife and Kids,’ ‘8 Simple Rules,’ ‘According to Jim’-those are all formulaic, right down the middle, not particularly funny shows,” he said. “The shows that they’ve added are also not very good, not very clever or very funny, so it’s hard to tell from a critical standpoint if they will stick.
“I’m not sure they are as cured as they said they were.”
ABC’s question marks lead observers to conclude that the network will see minor improvement at best.
“They won’t have the Super Bowl this year, which is going to hurt them,” said Brad Adgate, senior VP and corporate research director at Horizon Media. “I don’t see them really improving too much. I think they’ll be maintaining what they have.”
Does CBS have a chance to beat NBC in adults 18 to 49 on Thursday nights this fall?
Not much. However, look for CBS to keep closing the gap.
Two seasons ago, NBC held a 48 percent advantage over CBS in 18 to 49 ratings. This season, CBS has narrowed that gap to 19 percent. NBC is ahead by 1.6 ratings points with an 8.6 to CBS’s 7.0.
This summer,
CBS’s combo of “The Amazing Race,” “CSI” repeats and “Without a Trace” repeats has been beating NBC’s repeat Thursday lineup by two-tenths of a ratings point, or 6 percent, in adults 18 to 49. A big part of that is thanks to the repeat performance of soon-to-be-sophomore drama “Without a Trace,” which has been beating “ER” repeats by a 23 percent margin in the demo.
“I think we’ve made incredible progress the last few years,” Mr. Kahl said. “[NBC’s] got quite a history or track record going for them. It will certainly be difficult, but with the momentum we have, we’ll hopefully be closer than we’ve been at any time in recent history.”
Another factor in CBS’s favor in the Thursday night race is that NBC’s “Friends” has only 18 original episodes to stretch out over 35 weeks instead of the usual 22 to 24 episodes.
“[CBS] has a chance,” Mr. Rash said. “Depending on which week has fresh episodes, they may win on a weekly basis. But NBC should be able to retain the 18 to 49 crown based on the last year of ‘Friends’ and the water-cooler buzz of ‘Coupling.'”
NBC’s Mr. Metcalf said he expects the network to retain its young adult dominance on Thursday nights. “‘Without a Trace’ has had a good summer; no doubt about it,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to mid-September, when ‘ER’ and ‘Without a Trace’ will face each other in originals. ‘ER’ will be the clear time period victor.”
Last season, “Trace” never beat “ER” when both shows aired original episodes.
Has Fox found a solution to postseason baseball by airing reality show finales during premiere week and postponing the start of the new season until after baseball?
Not really, but the network is doing the best it can.
For the past two years Fox has been hampered by having full broadcast rights to Major League Baseball’s postseason. While a good baseball playoff series gives Fox a ratings boost, it wreaks havoc on launching new fall shows since post-season play starts in October, just two weeks after the new season begins.
“For the last two or three seasons Fox has by far had the best development of any network, and they haven’t been able to launch a show,” Mr. Goodman said.
This year, Fox is pitting finales of its reality series “Paradise Hotel” and “Temptation Island” against the other networks’ new series debuts during premiere week and is saving most of its new show launches until after baseball ends. Fox also got an early jump on one series, launching “The O.C.” on Tuesday, Aug. 5.
Buyers and critics praised Fox for being innovative and trying to come up with solutions such as counter-programming with reality. But they don’t know whether there is a real fix to this annual problem other than shedding some of the network’s baseball rights the next time they are up for negotiation.
“They are all good ideas,” Mr. Goodykoontz said. “I don’t know if it’s enough.”
Fox finished fourth in adults 18 to 49 in last year’s November sweeps before rebounding to win February and May sweeps once the network got its regular schedule in place and added “American Idol” and “Joe Millionaire.”
Ms. Koerner said she doesn’t think it makes a big difference whether Fox launches new shows in September or November.
“There is so much clutter that goes on in September, it’s not as if people have really established all of their loyalties come October because a lot of viewers do peel off and watch the postseason baseball games,” she said. “I think it’s smart of them to just wait until November and make an event of it.”
And Mr. Rash did see one silver lining to starting most of the season in November. “It reserves more fresh episodes for subsequent months,” he said. “Fox should be able to build momentum if any of their new programs catch on.”
The WB vs. UPN – who will finish No. 5 this year?
We predict it will be The WB.
While UPN may have won the 2001-02 season before The WB regained the title of “fifth broadcast network” in 2002-03, industry observers say this year is no contest.
“The WB will easily be the fifth network this year,” Mr. Adgate said. “There’s a lot of branding behind the network. UPN really has a lot of nights it has to work on.”
Mr. Goodman put it more bluntly. “This is the real race: Will The WB get a hit comedy before UPN ceases to exist?”
The WB finished the season up 13 percent in adults 18 to 49 and up 5 percent in its target audience of persons 12 to 34. UPN finished the season down 17 percent in adults 18 to 49 and down 16 percent in its target audience of adults 18 to 34. UPN continues to be maligned for not having a clear audience flow between nights, while The WB is praised for having a clear identity and brand.
Both The WB and UPN executives dislike the inevitable comparison between the two youngest broadcast networks.
“To be perfectly honest, we really focus much more on what we’re doing vs. where we are competitively with them,” said CBS’s Mr. Kahl, who also oversees scheduling of sister network UPN. “If we can show some growth and improvement this year, that will be what we will consider a successful year for UPN.”
Mr. Levin said The WB considers its competition any entertainment that attracts the time of its core audience of 12- to 34-year-olds, whether that be computers, video games or cable networks.
“We’ve been in more competition from a business standpoint with Fox and ABC than we are with UPN at this point,” he said.
Ms. Koerner said she thinks The WB will beat UPN this year because UPN has a lot more work to do to shore up its schedule. But she added, “The fact that [UPN] was able to do something with the model reality show [‘America’s Next Top Model’] just goes to support the idea that with good programming you will find viewers.”
Which nights are up for grabs for any network to win?
Tuesday nights and Friday nights.
Blame it on “Law & Order: SVU.” NBC’s move of the show from Friday night at 10 p.m. to Tuesday night at 10 p.m. has left both nights wide open for any network to win.
Tuesdays are considered the more competitive night because more people are watching television that night, making it a more profitable night than Friday. But Friday night will see eight new shows, with five of the six networks making serious changes.
This season, NBC easily won Friday nights in adults 18 to 49 with a 3.7/12 average. However, with freshman drama “Miss Match” leading off the night and sophomore drama “Boomtown”-which is critically acclaimed but ratings-challenged-taking “SVU’s” place, NBC’s lock on the night is no longer a sure thing.
CBS is attacking by moving established hit “JAG” to 9 p.m. to anchor the night and following with a new drama, “The Handler,” starring Joe Pantoliano. ABC is returning to its “TGIF” strategy of four sitcoms from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. The WB is adding two new sitcoms. And Fox is trying two sitcoms leading into “Boston Public,” which is in a new time slot at 9 p.m.
“The most up for grabs night is probably Friday because there are so many shows on the night that have not been on the night [before],” Mr. Levin said. “You have almost entirely new schedules on most of the networks.”
At least one critic is happy to see the increased competition on the oft-ignored Friday night.
“It’s kind of cool to see them at least trying on Friday nights again,” Mr. Goodykoontz said. “I hope that some things are going to work. Some aren’t, so I hope they don’t get so discouraged that they decide, ‘We’ll just go back to a movie of the week or “Big Brother” reruns.'”
Tuesday nights are also a tough call. Fox won the night last year by a large margin with a 6.3/16 in adults 18 to 49-and that was with “American Idol” on only half the year. However, ABC’s sitcom lineup performed well last year and could continue to grow. NBC is expecting big gains with the move of “SVU” to 10 p.m. and a rejiggered comedy lineup that it is hoping will give more support to the ailing “Frasier.”
“We’ve done a lot of good for ourselves by moving ‘SVU’ to 10 o’clock,” Mr. Metcalf said. “We’ve already seen the evidence in the summer repeats that that show is going to handle that time period quite
nicely. Now it’s up to us to get the comedies rolling from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. No network is controlling that night, and we’re going to know early on in the season if anyone can come out of the blocks quickly there.”