ABC led the network ratings race all season-until now. Suddenly it is one of a trio of networks in a perfect tie for first place, and none of the three is expected to end the season on top.
As of last week, ABC, CBS and NBC each averaged a 3.6 rating among adults 18 to 49 season to date, according to Nielsen Media Research. The expected “American Idol”-fueled surge of fourth-place Fox, which is averaging a 3.1, has gotten off to an early start thanks to high-flying “House” originals and college football games.
A tight race for first place after the holidays is not unusual. What’s surprising is that NBC is, for a brief moment, one of the contenders; that Fox has quietly earned a head-start on its January surge (the network has crept back to the same rating it held at this point last year); and that some analysts are betting that stable CBS, not ABC, is going be in a neck-and-neck race with Fox for most of the season.
Nobody expects the balancing act to hold for long.
ABC has been losing ground since “Lost” went on hiatus and “Dancing With the Stars” waltzed off of its schedule. With a few of its top dramas showing signs of erosion, and having not gained any traction from its midseason non-starters like “Day Break,” analysts forecast that the network will continue its fall. With the exception of the Academy Awards and the return of “Lost,” the network has little relief in sight.
Tied for the top spot, NBC finds itself in an unfamiliar position. Like ABC, however, one of its biggest ratings generators has been turned off: NFL football, which has paid off for the network since returning to the schedule this season. Though NBC will presumably continue to score with “Heroes” and its Thursday night comedy block, it doesn’t have any obvious blockades to head off Fox’s surge.
Still, it is worth noting that at this time last year NBC had a 3.1, not a 3.6. None of the other networks can boast of a season-to-date increase like NBC can.
“It’s extraordinary, everybody has a 3.6 right now,” said Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media. “But last year CBS and ABC were doing 4s.”
Most analysts expect NBC to wind up in fourth place again, but this time not a distant fourth.
“It’s gratifying” said Mitch Metcalf, executive VP of program planning and scheduling at NBC. “It shows we’re on the right track. The news is not going to be what place we’re in at the end of the season, but how close we are to first. We expect three-tenths of a point to separate first and fourth.”
Though many expect Fox’s momentum from “Idol,” which returns for a sixth season Tuesday, and “24,” which also comes back this week, to propel it to another first-place victory, some, including Mr. Metcalf, think CBS is going to surprise everybody and take the crown.
Others say CBS and Fox are going to reduce the race to a two-network chase by late February, then go neck and neck for the duration.
With its stable of procedurals, CBS is the most consistent performer. This year the network also has the Super Bowl, which is traditionally good for two-tenths of a season-to-date ratings point.
For the moment, all eyes are on Fox.
Fox traditionally struggles in the fall, when playoff baseball disrupts its new season entertainment premieres. But this fall was particularly disastrous, putting the network down further in the ratings than the previous year. Due to record-high ratings for “House” and college football, particularly the BCS National Championship Game that drew a 9.8 rating, Fox has climbed from being far behind back up to the same season-to-date average it held at this time last year, a 3.1. That’s a half-point behind the trio of leaders.
“We were pleasantly surprised with the championship game, I don’t think any of us expected the game to perform the way it did,” said Preston Beckman, Fox’s executive VP of program planning.
Now it’s up to “Idol” and “24,” both of which are expected to retain most, if not all, of their previous audience.
Mr. Beckman, however, said the sneak attack is going to come from “House.”
The medical drama has averaged a 5.4 this season and been trending upward. The most recent episode earned a 7.2, which bests even top-rated “Grey’s Anatomy’s” season average of 7.0. Once “House” has an “American Idol” lead-in, Mr. Beckman said that the drama could become the No. 1- or No. 2-rated drama on television.
Mr. Metcalf said a “House” uprising is “not unthinkable,” especially if the other dramas get midseason erosions.
As for the season-to-date race, Mr. Metcalf said that with numbers this tight, anything is possible.
“Midseason shows are the wildcard,” he says. “When it’s this tight, if a midseason show were to break out, it could change everything.”