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Reality Settles in for the Long Haul

Dec 22, 2003  •  Post A Comment

“American Idol,” “The Bachelor,” “Joe Millionaire,” “Average Joe,” “The Simple Life” and “Survivor” were the most talked-about broadcast television hits of the year, proving that reality programming is no longer the ugly stepsister of scripted programming on the networks.
At the end of the 2002-03 season, six of the top 10 shows in the advertiser-coveted 18 to 49 demographic were unscripted shows, including Fox’s top two series-“American Idol” and “Joe Millionaire”-and ABC’s highest-rated series, “The Bachelor.”
Summer schedules full of reality shows did nothing to quell viewer appetite for such shows. Among the evidence: The two highest-rated shows in adults 18 to 49 so far since September (not counting the canceled NBC sitcom “Coupling”) are Fox’s “The Simple Life” (5.9/16, ranked No. 13) and NBC’s “Average Joe” (5.5/14, ranked No. 17).
What’s more, old favorites such as “Survivor” (7.7/21, ranked No. 4) and “The Bachelor” (6.4/16, ranked No. 8) keep going strong, with both placing in the top 10 shows in the demo season-to-date. ABC was also able to draw 17 million viewers earlier this month for the two-hour finale of “Trista & Ryan’s Wedding”-a feat no new ABC series has been able to accomplish.
Reality programs “Idol” and “Joe Millionaire” were responsible for Fox’s incredible shift from fourth place in adults 18 to 49 in November 2002 sweeps to first place in February and May sweeps, giving NBC a run for its money for the season-to-date 18 to 49 title. However, after May, Fox’s year was one of ups and downs. The network in the summer failed its first attempt to launch a scripted series with “Keen Eddie,” found success in its second attempt with “The O.C.,” drew huge numbers for one of the most memorable postseasons in Major League Baseball history, then fell to fourth place in adults 18 to 49 in the November sweeps after many of its scripted series, such as “Skin,” had disappointing debuts. Fox finally saw a glimmer of light with the successful debut of another reality series: “The Simple Life.”
Eye of the Tiger
While network executives love the ratings boost reality can give them, they all say developing successful scripted programming is the more important goal because it can be more profitable to the network in the long run. In that case, the true network winner this year is CBS, which was the only network last season to place three new scripted shows in the top 20 in adults 18 to 49-dramas “CSI: Miami” and “Without a Trace” and sitcom “Still Standing”-and is the only network to have a show, “Two and a Half Men,” in the top 20 so far this season.
CBS has continued its attack on NBC’s long-standing Thursday night dominance, even winning the night in adults 18 to 49 once during the all-important November sweeps. Season-to-date, CBS averages almost 4 million more viewers than NBC on Thursday night and has cut the 18 to 49 gap to eight-tenths of a ratings point.
ABC also has seen some scripted success, with all three of last year’s new comedies making it to a second year and all four of this fall’s new comedies getting full-season pickups. NBC managed to turn around Monday nights with the help of drama “Las Vegas,” but is still struggling to find worthy comedy successors to “Friends.”
With the start of the new season in September, all the broadcast networks saw a precarious drop in the male18 to 34 numbers. New shows weren’t attracting young men and most returning shows saw big drops in the demo, leading the networks to blame Nielsen Media Research’s measurement methods for the declines.
Nielsen stands by its claim that fewer young men are watching TV.
As the year comes to a close, with viewers fleeing to cable and it becoming more difficult to create a giant hit a la “Friends” or “CSI,” network execs can take comfort in the Cubs fan’s motto: There’s always next year.