The November sweeps concluded last week with two networks competing in a historic photo-finish race, but it was the future scheduling plans of two other networks not in contention for the sweeps ratings crown that provided the most prime-time drama so far this season.
For the first time in five years, ABC and CBS tied for the No. 1 spot in the adults 18 to 49 demographic this sweeps period, in a race that wasn’t decided until the final night’s ratings were counted. But on the last day of the November sweeps, which ran from Nov. 3 through last Wednesday, Fox announced it was keeping its top-rated reality music competition “American Idol” on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, bucking rumors that the network would move the show to Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Fox’s schedule maneuverings had been closely monitored by several of the competing networks, since any movement of “Idol,” last season’s top-rated show in adults 18 to 49 and a ratings behemoth in virtually every other demo, would have had a ripple effect across all the network schedules.
One executive at a competing network even admitted to having nightmares the day before Fox laid out its midseason strategy.
But those fears proved to be unfounded, since Fox never got beyond the discussion phase when it came to moving “Idol” from its traditional Tuesday-Wednesday slotting, said Preston Beckman, executive VP of strategic program planning and research for the network.
“People spread rumors all the time, and these rumors take on a life of their own,” Mr. Beckman said of an “Idol” move. “We pretty much knew it was going to stay where it was, but we felt no reason to confirm or deny anything.”
While Fox kept its strongest player in the same place, NBC announced Dec. 1 it is making a move to improve its fortunes on Thursdays. Starting in January NBC will shift its new Tuesday comedy “My Name is Earl,” the highest-rated comedy of the season, and the critically acclaimed “The Office” to the advertiser-friendly night. Both the comedy “Joey” and the reality series “The Apprentice” will stay off the air until after NBC broadcasts the Winter Olympics in February.
With the shift of “Will & Grace” to the 8 p.m. (ET) time period, and the midseason addition of “Four Kings” to 8:30 p.m., NBC is returning to its classic Thursday night two-hour comedy block.
Fox’s decision to stay the course and NBC’s strategy of big changes look like the right choices, said Shari Anne Brill, VP and director of programming for Carat USA.
“If they were to go with the results show at 9 p.m. [on Thursdays], it would be impacted by [CBS’s] ‘CSI,'” Ms. Brill said of an “Idol” move on Fox. “Why jeopardize that?”
Despite the risk of tampering with a Tuesday night that has been a solid demo winner, NBC has more to gain by shifting “Earl” and “Office” to Thursdays, she said.
“It’s much more important to shore up Thursday night because of all the lucrative movie and retail dollars,” Ms. Brill said.
Fox did not leave its Thursday night untouched, however. With the failure of the 9 p.m. drama “Reunion,” Fox is moving its comedies “That ’70s Show” and “Stacked” into the hour block-a break with traditional network scheduling practices, considering the night opens with a drama, “The O.C.”
“It’s not unheard of,” Mr. Beckman said of scheduling two sitcoms after a drama. “We’ve been looking to get some comedy presence on Thursday night.”
The renewed interest in sitcoms on Thursday was welcomed by Ms. Brill.
“On the night of CBS’s best drama, NBC wisely decided to go with two comedies,” she said. “And Fox is doing the same.”
Schedules can be tweaked for different reasons, Ms. Brill said, but coming up with alternatives to successful competition is the way to go, something NBC and Fox have appeared to embrace.
With CBS duking it out with ABC for most of November sweeps through the use of regularly scheduled programming, it was ironic that CBS was able to keep a handle on the top spot in the demo for November, thanks to a classic bit of holiday Claymation.
Last Wednesday’s 41st annual telecast of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” on CBS scored a 5.8 rating in the demo, according to Nielsen Media Research, giving the network the No. 2 program for the night behind “Lost” and CBS a first-place tie for the night with the usual clear-cut winner, ABC.
While ABC was able to tout its first demo win in a sweeps since May 2000, CBS boasted of its first back-to-back November demo win since the 1960s. NBC, which had been tied or trailing Fox, took third place with another last-minute bump from the two-hour “The Biggest Loser” finale on Tuesday. Despite coming in fourth place for the sweeps, Fox was up 10 percent from its November 2004 performance.
On the Move
Highlights of the Big 4’s midseason schedule changes.
Thursdays: “Dancing With the Stars” returns with a two-hour premiere Jan. 5 at 8 p.m. “Dancing” runs 90 minutes starting Jan. 12, with new comedy “Crumbs” premiering at 9:30 p.m.
Fridays: “Dancing With the Stars” results show premieres Jan. 6 at 8 p.m. with “Hope & Faith” moving to 8:30 p.m.; new drama “In Justice” premieres at 9 p.m.
Mondays: “The Jenna Elfman Show” (working title) premieres Jan. 23 at 9:30 p.m., replacing “Out of Practice,” which returns in March.
Tuesdays: The music industry drama “Love Money” debuts Jan. 17 at 9 p.m., bridging the season’s two “Amazing Race” installments.
Mondays: “Skating With Celebrities” premieres in the 8 p.m. hour Jan. 23, running until the return of “Prison Break” Mar. 13. After a four-hour premiere on Sunday, Jan. 15, and Monday, Jan. 16, “24” settles in for an all-original run Jan. 23 at 9 p.m.
Tuesdays: “American Idol” premieres Jan. 17 at 8 p.m., replacing “Bones.”
Wednesdays: “Idol” audition episodes premiere Jan. 18 at 8 p.m. followed by a “Skating” special, with “Bones” moving to 9 p.m. Jan. 25.
Thursdays: On March 2 comedies “That ’70s Show” and “Stacked” replace the canceled “Reunion” at 9 p.m.
Tuesdays: “Fear Factor” replaces “The Biggest Loser” Jan. 3 at 8 p.m. Two original episodes of “Scrubs” air back to back starting at 9 p.m.
Wednesdays: Self-contained episodes of “The Biggest Loser: Special Edition” replace “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart” starting Jan. 4.
Thursdays: “Will & Grace” replaces the sidelined “Joey” at 8 p.m. on Jan. 5. “Four Kings” debuts at 8:30 p.m., followed by former Tuesday comedy “My Name Is Earl” at 9 p.m. and “The Office” at 9:30 p.m. “The Apprentice” will sit out for the winter.
Fridays: “Most Outrageous TV Moments” becomes an 8 p.m. series Jan. 6. “Dateline NBC” moves to 9 p.m., with new drama “The Book of Daniel” running at 10 p.m. until the Winter Olympics premiere Feb. 10.