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Who’s Got Moonves’ Moxie?

Oct 24, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Wanted: a programmer who has the cojones that Leslie Moonves has.

Moonves, CBS’s programmer extraordinaire, has talent and guts. It’s how he has built up CBS to its current status as the most popular broadcast network on TV.

Nowhere is that more evident than on Thursday night. What many industry observers want to know is, where’s the competing major network programmer who will challenge Moonves on Thursdays? Is Fox’s Peter Liguori or ABC’s Steve McPherson or NBC’s ReillyZucker up to the challenge?

The discussion centers around making a big, brassy, Moonvesian play, like ABC’s moving “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy” to Thursday. Or Fox’s bringing “The Simpsons” back there, maybe with “Family Guy,” and pairing them with “House.” Or, dare it be suggested, moving the mega-popular “American Idol” to Thursdays?

The networks may be doing themselves a disservice if they don’t go after Thursday’s riches, said John Rash, senior VP and director of broadcast operations for ad agency Campbell Mithun.

“The advertisers and audience opportunities are so significant on Thursdays that it is often worth the risk,” Rash said. “Indeed, the biggest risk is to not be aggressive enough. CBS’s planting of the flag on Thursday has paid off not only on the evening but with [its entire] schedule.”

The point about Thursdays, of course, is that it’s the night many high-spending advertisers love the most, as viewers plan their weekend entertainment. Led by the movie studios, the night has long been a gold mine for those networks able to draw the most eyeballs in the 18- to 49-year-old category. There is no question that NBC’s financial fortunes for many years were spurred by its Thursday night success. Driven by its Don’t Blink Thursday night lineup, CBS has written about $400 million more in ad revenue this year, Moonves told The New York Times last week.

A little background here, in case anyone has forgotten:

It’s the May sweeps, 2000. As Moonves is preparing for that year’s upfronts he’s looking at Thursdays and sees NBC’s juggernaut. On Thursday, May 12, 2000, for example, NBC scored a 12.4 in the advertiser Must Buy 18 to 49 demo, according to Nielsen Media Research. CBS did a lowly 2.1.

In a frightfully scary bet-the-house move, Moonves, nine months later, decides to challenge NBC head-on, taking what at the time were two of CBS’s strongest new shows-“Survivor,” which had premiered that summer to huge ratings, and the freshman crime series “CSI,” which was growing nicely in the 18 to 49 demo-and moving them to Thursday in February 2001.

Fast-forward to almost five years later. Season to date, CBS is pulling a 7.6 in 18- to 49-year-olds on Thursday, and NBC is doing a 4.8. Over the past five years, since Moonves made his gutsy move, the seismic shift that has occurred on Thursdays has meant a remarkable 61 percent increase for CBS and a remarkable 367 percent decrease for NBC.

This season ABC moved “Alias” into the Thursday 8 p.m. time slot, but the show is hardly one of the network’s biggest guns. Moving a new hit like “Lost” or “Grey’s Anatomy” to Thursday would be a risk for ABC, but a calculated one. By now “Lost” has taken advantage of its first-season accolades and great word of mouth, and surely its fans would follow. The same for “Grey’s Anatomy,” which is growing its viewership even as the show it follows, “Desperate Housewives,” is losing viewers.

Most important for a shift to Thursday night, both “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy” are in the top five shows in the 18 to 49 demo.

The biggest Moonvesian play would be if Fox moved “American Idol” to Thursday. But already that show garners more than $500,000 per 30-second commercial, so the additional financial benefits may be limited.

And yet, Fox has thought about the move.

“On two occasions we’ve had to run results shows on Thursday night, and both times we did quite well,” said Preston Beckman, executive VP of strategic program planning and research for Fox. “We know there is an opportunity there. It’s the one show we are probably a little bit more conservative with, just because a wrong move could be very costly to us. But we talk about it. We fantasize.”

Last season Fox amped up the competition by moving teen drama “The O.C.” to Thursdays at 8 p.m. It followed up this year by scheduling one of its most high-profile new series, the mystery “Reunion,” at 9 p.m. But Fox has so far declined to move its newest hit drama, “House,” to the night, or move its current top show in the 18 to 49 demo (after “Idol”), “The Simpsons,” to Thursday. Some will recall that it was Bart and family who took on NBC’s “Cosby” on Thursdays more than 15 years ago.

As for moving “House” to Thursday, Beckman said it wouldn’t be a good idea. “You want to go with something that’s young,” he said. “You want to go in there and grab those 12 to 34 viewers. ‘House’ isn’t the kind of show that will do that for you.”

NBC itself also needs a dramatic Thursday night play. The problem the Peacock has is a dearth of hits. Freshman sitcom “My Name Is Earl” is clearly a possibility, as The New York Times reported last week. Another dramatic move for NBC would be pairing two Dick Wolf shows, “Law & Order: SVU” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” as a two-hour block. “SVU” does well in the demo, and on Sunday night’s “Housewives”-hampered “Criminal Intent,” the return of Chris Noth, and his relationship with Annabella Sciorra, is starting to steam up TV screens.

NBC is hardly blind to its Thursday tribulations, but making those kinds of changes can come with a price, said Mitch Metcalf, NBC’s senior VP of program planning and scheduling.

“There’s always a discussion of when to move something, when not to move something,” he said. “There’s no perfect time to do it. It’s something we’re constantly evaluating. What you don’t want to do is move a show before its time or when it’s too late in its life cycle. When we make a move on Thursday or any another night, we’ll do it when it’s in our long-term, best strategic interests.”

The WB clearly realized the financial importance of Thursdays when it moved “Smallville” and “Everwood” to that night. “The WB was very smart for putting ‘Smallville’ there,” said Steve Sternberg, executive VP and director of audience analysis at Magna Global. “That’s doing very well.” So well, in fact, that “Smallville” is breaking its own ratings records in some demos and is helping The WB post time-period highs.

The most dramatic, most Moonves-like move on Thursdays this season, not surprisingly, was made by the master himself, along with his team at UPN. (UPN reports to Moonves, whose current title is chairman and CEO of CBS and co-chief operating officer and co-president of Viacom.) They took the new show with the most buzz for UPN-“Everybody Loves Chris”-and, instead of playing it safe and putting it on a far less competitive night, gave it the prime 8 p.m. Thursday night time slot and then spent a gazillion dollars promoting it. And voila-it’s UPN’s highest-rated show to date in both total viewers and viewers 18 to 49.

Any network worth its salt is already thinking about what to do on Thursdays next season, especially since CBS’s schedule is starting to age. The top contender for great change is ABC, said Brad Adgate, senior VP and corporate research director for Horizon Media in New York.

“Probably in a year or so, when ABC strengthens its position with ‘Invasion’ or ‘Commander in Chief,’ it may move one of those popular shows,” he said.