Fox Again the Network Idol

Jan 24, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The return of “American Idol” may mean Fox’s lackluster rating performance is over.

After a fall and early winter in which most of Fox’s debuts and season premieres could charitably be defined as disappointing, the network enjoyed a huge surprise with the better-than-expected audience for the return of the music performance reality series.

“Idol” opened its fourth season on a very high note. Its two-hour debut last Tuesday beat its 2004 premiere numbers, growing 9 percent in the adults 18 to 49 demographic to a 14.0 rating, according to Nielsen Media Research. It was the highest-rated program of the season in every key adult demo.

In nearly every major demo, from male teens to women 25 to 54, “Idol” beat its five major network competitors combined in the ratings.

Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman, who had taken the stage to lead the Fox Network’s executive session at the Television Critics Association’s Winter Press Tour only the day before the “Idol” premiere, was managing expectations for the show’s imminent fourth-season debut.

“One can anticipate seeing some audience dispersion, “Ms. Berman said last Monday of “Idol,” before touting real-time action drama “24’s” premiere the previous week. “We do expect January to be a good time for us, even anticipating some declines for `Idol.”‘

Fortunately for Fox, reporters asked relatively few questions about the network’s rapidly yanked reality misstep, “Who’s Your Daddy?”-a restraint Ms. Berman may have taken as an early sign things are looking up for the network.

“We never anticipated growth, let alone this kind of growth,” she said in an interview with TelevisionWeek after “Idol’s” premiere numbers came out.

On Thursday, Ms. Berman was greeted with further good news-the Wednesday “Idol” pulled an 11.2 in the demo, down 12 percent from last season’s Wednesday premiere but still Fox’s best performance in the time slot in nearly a year. At 9 p.m. the premiere of drama “Point Pleasant” scored a 5.3, coming in second in the time period in the demo and doubling last week’s performance in the time period. It was Fox’s first win in adults 18 to 49 on Wednesday in 12 weeks.

Ms. Berman said the network understands the risk it takes by only doing one cycle of “Idol” per season.

“We pay a dear price when it’s not on our schedule, but we do that to have an event when it returns,” she said.

No News Is Bad News?

Viacom co-President and co-Chief Operating Officer and CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves, who appeared at the press tour last Tuesday for CBS and last Wednesday for UPN, found himself answering more questions about the Sept. 8 “60 Minutes Wednesday” story concerning President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard and the erroneous documents that formed the basis of the story.

“A lot of the questions have been answered,” he said, which did nothing to stop reporters from peppering him with questions. Mr. Moonves said the controversy over the story and the report that followed has created an opportunity for the network to evaluate its news division from top to bottom.

“It’s probably something we should have done a while ago,” he said. “Hopefully, we can turn lemons into lemonade.”

Mr. Moonves declined to say who will replace “CBS Evening News” anchor Dan Rather, who announced in November he is stepping down after more than two decades in the job. Mr. Rather, who was not present at the press tour, was the on-air reporter for the Texas National Guard story. Mr. Moonves also refused to talk about the possibility of naming an interim anchor, and deflected questions about either NBC’s Katie Couric or “Comedy Central’s” Jon Stewart playing roles on “CBS Evening News.”

“We have nothing to announce right now,” Mr. Moonves said. “Everything is a work in progress.”

Mr. Moonves did not rule out the possibility of a team of anchors or presenting the news from more than one location.

“It’s very possible it might not be the voice-of-god single anchor,” he said.

Jeff Zucker, president, NBC Universal Television Group, said emphatically last Friday at his press tour session that Ms. Couric is not leaving NBC News for CBS News, inserting a joke about Mr. Moonves’ new wife and CBS’s “The Early Show” personality: “If CBS goes after Katie Couric, we’re going after Julie Chen.”

On a more serious note, he added, “I’m very confident [Ms. Couric] will be with NBC for many years to come.”

Dealing With the FCC

The ongoing issue of Federal Communications Commission influence came up the first day broadcasters presented, Jan. 15, with Pat Mitchell, the president and CEO of PBS, announcing that two of three upcoming documentaries provided free of charge by cable network HBO had to be edited for either language or nudity. The edits raised the issue of leaving in otherwise provocative material because of historical context.

“[The FCC guidelines] are not hard and fast,” Ms. Mitchell said, pointing out that producers have to look at each program or documentary individually.

On Fox’s press tour day, Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the returning animated series “Family Guy,” responded to questions concerning the recent airing of an episode in which the bare rear end of one of the characters was pixilated. When the episode first aired years ago, the network opted not to pixilate the bare butt.

“It’s kind of a tightrope,” Mr. MacFarlane told reporters on Jan. 17, days before Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell announced his resignation. “It’s always sort of an ongoing conversation with Standards and Practices, as far as what we can and can’t do. All networks are under enormous pressure from the FCC, and we deal with that every day. I mean, the phrase `in this post-Janet Jackson world’ is kind of bandied about like they’re talking about Sept. 11.”

Ms. Berman also said the onus will have to fall on the FCC in terms of figuring out what is and isn’t acceptable to the commission.

“The FCC has to, ultimately, give us better guidelines,” she said at Fox’s press tour party before Mr. Powell’s announcement. “I think that that’s going to happen, otherwise people are going to be slapped with fines that are going to be capricious, and that’s something the FCC, I’m sure, doesn’t want to get involved with. Although I hesitate to speak for the FCC-I think I’m best just speaking for us-and that is that we’re looking for guidelines; we’re looking for clarity.”

Ms. Berman declined last Friday through a Fox spokesman to comment on Mr. Powell’s resignation.

Speaking Friday, following Mr. Powell’s announcement, Mr. Zucker echoed Ms. Berman’s perspective at NBC’s press tour session. “The key thing we are hoping for is uniformity,” he said in response to a question about what kind of impact he expects a new FCC chairman will bring. “Right now everything has been dealt with indiscriminately and differently in each case. If everyone understood what the rules were, that would be a step in the right direction.

At least one of Ms. Berman’s colleagues at a competing company looked at the issue differently. Mr. Moonves said he doesn’t envision the FCC providing guidelines.

“I don’t think that will ever happen,” Mr. Moonves told TelevisionWeek after UPN’s executive session, two days before Mr. Powell’s resignation. “It’s a little na%EF;ve to expect the FCC to put out a list of qualifiers to what makes a show unacceptable to them. I don’t expect that.”

Nancy Tellem, president of CBS Paramount Network Television Entertainment Group, agreed with her boss Mr. Moonves. She said at CBS’s press tour Jan. 18, also before Mr. Powell’s announcement, that her goal was to keep the issue of governmental guidelines away from writers, directors and actors, especially at this time of year, when the networks are deciding which scripts in development get pilot pickups.

“You really don’t know what [the FCC’s] leanings are [and] what kind of guidelines they are going to set,” she told TVWeek. “But as we’ve done in the past, we’ve really been focused on the creative. We don’t want to hamstring our producers in the development stage, in developing ideas, with this specter of amorp
hous guidelines.

“You have an eye to what the FCC is sensitive to, but certainly when it goes down to the producing level we are not going to impose any of these constraints.”