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Former Ratings Champs See Significant Declines

Jun 6, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Claire Atkinson

Advertising Age

For all the talk about the revival of the broadcast networks, a relatively large number of shows ended the season with ratings declines but are nevertheless sticking around for fall.

The 2004-05 broadcast season had more unexpected twists than a summer reality show. Fox took its first win in the adults 18 to 49 demo, while CBS provided knockout performances everywhere else. ABC’s revival and NBC’s decline also surprised everyone.

Despite a lukewarm reception, NBC plans to keep “Will & Grace” in its Thursday night slot, along with “ER.” The formerly strong sitcom is down 40.8 percent in the 18 to 49 demo against last year and enters its final season this fall, while “ER” is down 20.9 percent among 18- to 49-year-olds.

Similarly, media agency researchers noted that Mark Burnett’s “The Apprentice” was down 30 percent in total households between season one and season three. Season one aired during the 2003-04 season, while seasons two and three aired during 2004-05. Still, the show will return in two separate guises, one fronted by Donald Trump and the other by Martha Stewart.

The Wednesday night edition of “Law & Order” doesn’t exactly have viewers locked up, either: The drama dropped off by 24.1 percent in 18 to 49-year-old viewers. “Scrubs,” benched while lead actor Zach Braff completes a movie with the Weinstein brothers, was off by 38 percent.

Fox also saw a big dropoff-30.6 percent-for “Malcolm in the Middle,” which is being shifted to Friday. The network’s big hit, “The O.C.,” was down 29.5 percent, but held its own among the younger set. The teen-oriented melodrama also moved to a tougher slot on Thursday nights. “That ’70s Show,” set to lose two main actors-Ashton Kutcher and Topher Grace-when it returns next season, tumbled 30.6 percent.

ABC, which came back from the dead thanks to “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” still has some clunkers on the schedule that will be back for fall. “Less Than Perfect” was down 37.8 percent. “The Bachelor” saw its 18 to 49 ratings drop 37.9 percent, while “The Bachelorette” dropped 25 percent.

At The WB, “Smallville” was down 4.8 percent and “Reba” lost 13.3 percent of its household audience. While CBS nixed most of its underperformers, the ironically titled “Still Standing” was down 22.5 percent and is coming back.

Brad Adgate, senior VP for corporate research at Horizon Media, said some of the drops could be explained by shows that were moved or simply faced tougher time periods: “The entertainment people at the networks think that it’s better to keep what they have than [roll out] what they have in development. There’s a high failure rate for new shows.”

“There are reasons for keeping shows on-air and giving them different lead-ins and -outs,” said Lyle Schwartz, senior VP and director of national research at Mediaedge:cia. “It’s not just about the audience.”

A number of buyers, who spoke on background, were expecting a bumper midseason for 2005-06 and were amenable to buying poorer-performing shows on the expectation of landing their clients in the next big hit come January.

Many of this season’s hits were not fall launches. “Grey’s Anatomy” debuted late in the season, as did Pamela Anderson’s “Stacked,” which returns in the fall on Fox. Mr. Adgate mentioned other late bloomers, such as “Cuts” on UPN and “Living With Fran” on The WB. ABC in particular is believed to have a strong midseason development slate with “Emily’s Reasons Why Not,” and “What About Brian,” both launching in January along with buzzed-about “Treasure Hunters” on NBC, a reality show.