Post-Op Prognosis

Sep 25, 2006  •  Post A Comment

ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson has a lot riding on the numbers this week: Early audience ratings for his fall television slate will portend whether he can find new hits that were missing last year.

Mr. McPherson is making some bold gambles this season, launching more fresh programs than any other network. He also moved one of his strongest programs, “Grey’s Anatomy,” to Thursday, where last week it proved itself a serious challenger by beating out “CSI,” which has helped keep CBS atop the ratings on the night most prized by advertisers.

That may let Mr. McPherson breathe easier as his new shows hit the airwaves in the next month. “Grey’s” 11.0 adults 18 to 49 rating, with more than 25 million total viewers, was the best-performing season premiere for any network program so far this season, according to Nielsen Media Research. It also helped ABC achieve its best Thursday night of entertainment programming in six years.

Now Mr. McPherson will watch the ratings returns for his new series, hoping they perform better than ABC’s slate of shows in 2005-06, when only one of seven debuting scripted series returned to the schedule.

ABC’s strong Thursday performance, while ratifying Mr. McPherson’s scheduling change, doesn’t put the network entirely at ease, said Jeff Bader, executive VP of program planning and scheduling for ABC Entertainment and one of Mr. McPherson’s top lieutenants. “It’s the same pressure,” Mr. Bader said. “The success of ABC will always be based on creating successful nights of programming.”

While Mr. McPherson performed some of the most radical surgery seen on network schedules this week, his competitors also are watching the early ratings returns. NBC needs to improve its fourth-place standing in adults 18 to 49, and most of Fox’s debuting series have opened weakly or suffered ratings declines. The CW is contending with the uncertainty of an entirely new network slate, and CBS may struggle to remain dominant on Thursday against “Grey’s.”

TV networks in the past 11 months have been buffeted by aftershocks from the ABC-iTunes deal, which has focused their attention on how to make money piping shows through the Internet and gadgets. This season’s first weeks marked a perhaps reassuring return to a fall ritual for executives: gobbling and digesting every piece of available data on how their shows performed.

The first week of the season is always a tough one for the network chiefs, said Jordan Levin, a former president of The WB and now a partner at the production and management company Generate. “I’m a notorious night owl, and a very slow goer in the very early morning,” he said. “It was the one of the few times of the year I could not sleep and was up at the crack of dawn.”

Like Mr. Levin, former Fox Network chief turned producer Sandy Grushow noted, “You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t experience some anxiety” about the start of the new season, “but at the same time, it’s really important to keep your feet on the ground and not overreact to the first set of numbers that come in. Each year feels extraordinarily challenging and each year has its own idiosyncratic issues to contend with.”

With ABC launching its new shows through October, the network can’t determine much from the first few weeks of ratings this season, Mr. Bader said. Mr. McPherson wasn’t available for comment.

The networks’ evening-by-evening battles for ratings supremacy this season is heightened by the tenuous health of the TV advertising market. Spending at the last upfront market, where about 70 percent of prime-time spots are sold, fell 1 percent this year to $8.4 billion. With some spending shifting to the Web and other media, a breakout show can mean more than ever to a network executive.

“There is such an inflection point in the business in terms of distribution and technology and reaching viewers from multiple perspectives,” said Rusty Mintz, a media consultant and former network scheduler for The WB.

For the companies that own networks, the impact of a bad slate this season may be buffered by increased political advertising revenue this year at television stations they own, said Soleil Group’s senior media analyst, Laura Martin.

ABC may be in the best position among networks this fall as it builds on ratings momentum from last season, when it was a close second behind Fox in viewers 18 to 49, she said.