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ABC Takes an Early Lead

Oct 17, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By all accounts ABC had a good start in prime time last fall, powered by freshman breakouts “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost.”

But so far this season-even without any out-of-the-box hits-the network is enjoying an even higher-rated prime time as it develops the depth in its schedule observers have said it needs to continue its comeback.

For the first three weeks of the 2005-06 season, ABC is delivering its most competitive start in the adults 18 to 49 demographic since 1993, back when comedy stalwarts Tim Allen and Roseanne Barr were cracking wise on the network. Driven by three of the top five shows, ABC is No. 1 season to date in adults 18 to 49 with a 4.3 rating, according to Nielsen Media Research. That’s a 10 percent increase over the network’s year-ago performance as well as a 10 percent lead over its nearest competitor, CBS, which three weeks into the season last year held the top spot in the demo among the networks.

ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” have continued to strengthen in their

sophomore seasons, with “Housewives” in the top spot in the demo among all series and “Lost” at No. 3. Adding to ABC’s top 10 success are its Sunday night series “Grey’s Anatomy,” which debuted midseason last year, and sophomore “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” as well as ABC’s sole long-term top 10 resident, “NFL Monday Night Football.”

For the first time in a decade, ABC has nearly a full bench of programming, said Bill Carroll, VP and director of television for Katz Television Group.

“They do have some strength,” he said. “At one point, the whole ABC Network was “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” “Whose Line Is It Anyway” and Drew Carey. It’s now a complete lineup. That makes a huge difference.

ABC, the third-place finisher in adults 18 to 49 in 2004-05, is likely to give demo competitors CBS, Fox and NBC a healthy race well beyond the fall, Mr. Carroll said.

“They are off to a good start,” he said of ABC. “Since it is built on continuing series, you have to believe that is in place for the rest of the season.”

For the 2004-05 season, Fox scored a 4.1 in adults 18 to 49, which was closely followed by CBS (4.0), ABC (3.7) and NBC (3.5), the tightest competition for the top spot in the demo since the introduction of Nielsen Media Research People Meters in 1987. Industry insiders expected last season to be a close three-way race among CBS, Fox and NBC. ABC’s resurgence expanded the charge to four challengers.

For 2005-06, ABC’s early lead means the other networks are having to play catch-up with ABC. The scenario could change, but likely won’t before January, when Fox unleashes the fifth installment of “American Idol,” Mr. Carroll said.

“As in the last of couple of years, as the race has gotten closer, any of the contenders have a shot at [winning] adults 18 to 49,” he said. “The only factor that is not in place right now and will be triggered in January is ‘American Idol.’ What happens with ‘American Idol’ is the factor that is going to go into who ends up where.”

Fox’s “Idol” was so successful last season that even with a dismal start, Fox was able to rise to No. 1, thanks to the continued success of the pop music competition. Whether “Idol” will retain its four-year role as a pop culture phenomenon remains to be seen, but its potential to alter the current rankings is still considered very real.

In addition, Fox’s early performance gives it a leg up this season it could only dream of last fall. Despite being more than a full rating point behind ABC for the first three weeks of the season, Fox’s growth over the same period a year ago is 20 percent, the highest of any network.

Like ABC, Fox is benefiting from the continued success of a sophomore series, in this case the Tuesday drama “House.” But ABC’s early ratings success is being further propelled by debuting performers.

The fact that two of the three debuting series-Wednesday’s “Lost” lead-out “Invasion” and Wednesday’s 9 p.m. political drama “Commander in Chief”-that broke into the top 20 were from ABC also bodes well for the network, Bruce Goerlich, executive VP and director of strategic resources for Zenith Media, said.

“I would say ABC is doing pretty well so far,” Mr. Goerlich said.

ABC’s most recent debut, last Wednesday’s premiere of the sitcom “Freddie,” also added to the network’s momentum. “Freddie” built on its “George Lopez” lead-in and won its 8:30 p.m. (ET) half-hour in the demo with a 4.2, beating out its closest competitor, Fox’s Major League Baseball playoff game, by 17 percent. It was the fourth consecutive Wednesday the network won the demo and total viewers.

Making any long-term conclusions about ABC’s performance was still premature, Mr. Goerlich said, adding, “It’s a nice place to start.”