Looking at the first four weeks of the fall season, NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly says he’s reminded of the last time his network was on the verge of a major ratings comeback.
During the 1982-83 season, NBC’s freshman shows were critically praised underperformers like “Cheers,” “Family Ties,” “St. Elsewhere” and “Remington Steele.” The network decided to keep the titles, then added populist midseason replacements “The A-Team” and “Mama’s Family.” The next year the entire schedule rebounded, with the critical favorites becoming hits as well.
This fall, NBC once again has underperforming critic’s picks: “Friday Night Lights” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” And Mr. Reilly has at least one populist breakout: “Heroes,” the top-rated new drama of the season.
Now he has to see if he can generate enough sparks for the whole network to catch fire.
“We put one more `Heroes’ into the mix,” Mr. Reilly said, “and the whole equation can change.”
The network’s lineup so far has given NBC a 15 percent season-to-date bump compared with last season among adults 18 to 49-a success that’s been overshadowed in the wake of 700 NBC Universal layoffs announced last week.
With rising production costs and networks increasingly creating lavish theatrical-style dramas amid a stingy ad market, such gains can seem like mountain climbing up an avalanche.
As programming chief for a network long overdue for some good news, Mr. Reilly is focused on pressing ratings upward. Thus far this fall he has done just that, though in unexpected ways.
The massively promoted and anticipated “Studio 60” has been a middling performer in its Monday 10 p.m. slot, and last week dropped to its lowest rating yet, a 3.1 18 to 49 rating, according to Nielsen Media Research. Fellow “SNL” parody “30 Rock” is dropping like, well, a rock, from a 2.9 to a 2.3 last Wednesday at 8 p.m.
“Heroes” has swooped out of nowhere on the same night to grab a 5.7.
The critically beloved “Friday Night Lights” is struggling, earning a 2.7 last Tuesday at 8 p.m. But new game show “1 vs. 100” built on its “Deal or No Deal” lead-in to win Friday night with a 4.2. NBC is holding its breath to see if viewers return for the second week.
“That’s the nature of the game,” Mr. Reilly said. “There are shows on the air that are literally making networks that they thought were their last-place show.”
Meanwhile veteran 10 p.m. medical drama “ER” is suddenly a ratings driver again now that ABC’s medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” is in the 9 p.m. hour and CBS’s “Without a Trace” has been moved out of Thursday competition to Sunday.
John Rash, senior VP of ad buying agency Campbell Mithun, said “Studio 60” and “Friday” are unlikely to dramatically improve, but that NBC should continue to bank on quality dramas.
“By programming multiple genres and sub-genres-meaning reality and game shows, comedies and dramas-NBC has stabilized and begun to grow again,” Mr. Rash said. “The poor performance of `Studio 60′ and `Friday Night Lights’ shouldn’t discourage the network from still trying well written and well-produced dramas.”
Last week, the industry also took notice of NBC Universal Television Group CEO Jeff Zucker’s proclamation that NBC will no longer program comedy and drama at 8 p.m., due to dwindling ad rates.
Mr. Reilly said the 8 p.m. rule is not going to be a light-switch change and that counter-programming will still have to be considered.
“There are times strategically it’s not going to make sense,” Mr. Reilly said, having noted that putting reality against the likes of “Dancing With the Stars” would not be a viable tactic. “But we’re going to try and play to that target. This time next year will we be still doing the likes of `Studio 60′ and `Heroes’? Absolutely.”
As for “Friday,” “30 Rock” and “Studio 60,” Mr. Reilly said he’s frustrated they’re not getting a larger audience, but is proud to have the shows on the air. Mr. Reilly has put “Friday” into “Studio 60’s” Monday 10 p.m. time slot this week.
“`Friday’ and `30′ couldn’t be in worse time periods, self-starting at 8 p.m.,” he said. “For `Studio 60,’ expectations were way out of line, yet I know we’ve hit an audience that absolutely loves it, and with that kind of talent you can’t count it out.”