To say the broadcast network lineups are going through some change on Thursday nights this fall would be a gross understatement.
ABC is moving its top-rated Sunday drama “Grey’s Anatomy” to 9 p.m. (ET) on Thursdays to do battle against CBS’s “CSI.” NBC’s comedy block is shifting to 8 p.m., where it will compete against ABC’s new series “Ugly Betty,” and the media story of the moment, a racially divided “Survivor” on CBS.
But changes in the 10 p.m. hour, which has been virtually ignored among preseason prognosticators, may be one of the most significant of any schedule shifts this season.
While all of Thursday prime time is prized as a platform for advertisers to market to weekend consumers, the 10 p.m. hour is especially important as a lead-in for local stations with 11 p.m. local newscasts. And some major changing of the guards are due at 10.
Two new dramas will debut in the 10 p.m. mix this fall against the time period stalwart “ER,” still NBC’s top drama in the demo last season, its 12th on the air. Thursday at 10 p.m. in fact has an entirely different dynamic, giving ABC its first chance to perform in adults 18 to 49 on the night in years.
For most of the last decade, NBC was the dominant network in the sought-after 18 to 49 demographic on Thursday night, with “Friends” at 8 p.m. and monster hit “ER” rounding out the night.
But over the past five seasons, CBS cut into NBC’s demo dominance thanks to the retirement of “Friends” and the success of “CSI” and CBS’s own 10 p.m. powerhouse, “Without a Trace.”
In 2005-06 “Trace” took the top spot in the time period among adults 18 to 49 from “ER.” But “Trace” is shifting this fall to Sundays, leaving CBS with a high-profile but unproven performer on Thursday at 10 p.m.: new legal drama “Shark.”
“The advantage always remains with the dominant player currently on Thursday night, which is CBS,” said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz Television Group. “Probably one of the most sought-after time periods [on network television] is after `CSI.”‘
“Shark,” which stars James Woods as a defense attorney-turned-public prosecutor, fits into the CBS wheelhouse, said Shari Ann Brill, VP and director of programming for media buyer Carat.
“I see a really good compatibility with `CSI’ and `Shark,”‘ Ms. Brill said. `There will be that built-in flow. James Woods is a known quantity.”
While CBS has “CSI” in its arsenal, ABC has doctors from Seattle Grace on its side to help its new lead-out, the 10 p.m. relationship drama “Six Degrees.” For close to 20 years ABC has counterprogrammed in the time period with news product, most recently “Primetime Live.” But this fall ABC is eschewing the newsmagazine for executive producer J.J. Abrams’ relationship drama “Six Degrees,” in the hopes of building off “Grey’s” expected ratings momentum, Mr. Carroll said.
“You have to believe the move of `Grey’s Anatomy’ on the night is going to bring new viewers to ABC,” he said, noting that it will provide its lead-out a large potential audience.
“Degrees,” which follows the lives of six disparate New Yorkers, is the kind of concept that does not have the marketable and easily understandable hook of a “Grey’s Anatomy” or a “Shark,” Ms. Brill said.
“Is that pilot episode enough for viewers to care in subsequent weeks and months to come?” she asked. “For me it’s a question mark, and it may be a question mark for viewers.”
On NBC, “ER” has been a solid if waning performer among adults 18 to 49. But the intensely competitive nature of Thursday night has given the long-running medical drama an additional challenge, Mr. Carroll said.
Initially NBC scheduled the Aaron Sorkin Hollywood drama “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” as “ER’s” lead-in at 9 p.m. for the fall. But soon after the May advertiser upfronts, NBC moved “Studio 60” to a less competitive time slot on Mondays, and shifted in the game show “Deal or No Deal,” the only reality offering in a slot dominated by dramas. The move may protect a new piece of NBC business, but it could also affect the success of “ER,” Mr. Carroll said, an unavoidable consequence on an increasingly tough night.
“Given the investment they had in the show, to take on `Grey’s’ would be almost impossible,” Mr. Carroll said of NBC’s moving “Studio 60.” “Then once you do that, you have to make other decisions.”