ABC’s ratings have plummeted since the start of the year, dropping the network from first place season-to-date down to a third-place tie with NBC.
The drop comes after a strong performance last season that continued into a top-rated fall, with ABC winning November sweeps for the first time in seven years. ABC had risked moving its Sunday hit “Grey’s Anatomy” to ultra-competitive Thursday night and paired it with newcomer “Ugly Betty.” The move proved to be a scheduling masterstroke and ABC is now up 96 percent among adults 18 to 49 on Thursdays, the most lucrative night of the week for advertising.
Outside of Thursdays, however, the schedule is rough sledding. ABC’s ratings are down five out of seven nights, including down 40 percent on Sundays, 36 percent on Mondays and 31 percent on Wednesdays. The current schedule has too many repeats and low-performing shows filling space, almost resembling Fox during the fall season before “American Idol” and “24” returned.
With the Academy Awards airing on Sunday and “Dancing With the Stars” coming back for another round in March, analysts expect ABC to reverse its downward trend to avoid coming in fourth, settling into third place for the season. But that’s down considerably from last year, when ABC came in second after giving leader Fox a run for its money deep into the May sweeps.
The drop increases pressure on ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson, who has helped architect ABC’s return to glory since assuming his current position in 2004. Having the network go from a first-place tie the week ending Jan. 7 to a third-place tie the week ending Feb. 11 begs the question:
Too many freshman flops: After a trio of new popular dramas in recent years (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives”) as well one major reality hit (“Dancing With the Stars”), ABC premiered and canceled five series this season—more than any other network.
The frustrating part is that ABC deserves credit for ordering ambitious single-camera comedies and clever, mind-bending dramas. “Day Break,” “Knights of Prosperity,” “Six Degrees” and “The Nine” at least tried to break the mold rather than stick to genre formulas.
The “Lost” hiatus: ABC has taken an enormous amount of flak for its three-month “Lost” hiatus, not all of it deserved. Fan frustration with “Lost” has more to do with the show’s content than any scheduling sins the network may have committed. If viewers are willing to wait a year or two for “The Sopranos,” they could wait three months during a “Lost” hiatus. The fall episodes had the show’s three main leads in jail cells, enduring various forms of torture, and Matthew Fox shouting a lot. Still, by holding out until February sweeps to bring back the series during the show’s creative nadir, ABC fanned the flames of viewer discord. The show returned to a season low two weeks ago, and last week it hit a series low.
Stiffer competition: CBS had its Super Bowl boost (which ABC had last year, along with “Monday Night Football,” two factors in last year’s success). Fox has “American Idol.” NBC has … well … NBC shouldn’t be neck-and-neck with ABC, but it is.
An empty pipeline: At the Television Critics Association press tour, critics were surprised that ABC only had two series panels—for “Lost” and the struggling “In Case of Emergency”—while most networks had at least four. The lineup suggests the network wasn’t prepared for this many holes in its schedule this early in the season.
As a result, ABC is running “Grey’s Anatomy” twice a week, with repeats on Fridays and, for two weeks, airing two episodes of “Lost” per week, repeating on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. Veteran clip show “America’s Funniest Home Videos” has become ABC’s 8 p.m. equivalent to NBC’s “Deal or No Deal,” an all-purpose filler against heavy competition—but without “Deal”-size ratings.
What ABC Can Do
Less serialization: This season, even some of ABC’s comedies were serialized. “Knights of Prosperity” and “Big Day” had serialized elements, as did “Day Break,” “The Nine” and “Six Degrees.” Even when a serialized show like “Lost” or “24” works, it’s easier to lose viewers than gain them midway through the season, as the ongoing story line discourages latecomers.
Run “Lost” straight through: Mr. McPherson has said he wants to run “Lost” straight through a la “24” next season. Given the controversy of the hiatus and subsequent ratings flap, he almost surely will. But that raises a Catch-22: Launch in September and the show has to air during the holidays, and ABC risks once again putting too many eggs in its fall basket. Launch in January, and some will complain the network is waiting too long to bring back the series. Still, the winter model is the safest bet; fans complained the first time “24” made the move to January, but the strategy worked.
Find comedies that click: Every network is looking for scripted comedies, but for ABC the matter is more urgent: CBS has a Monday night block, Fox has Sunday night animated comedies and NBC has Thursday sitcoms. ABC has been unable to get a mid-week block off the ground this season.
Refresh reality: ABC revolutionized its drama slate, but many of its reality shows feel very 2003. Monday night’s “The Bachelor,” “Wife Swap” and “Supernanny” don’t mesh with the network’s cutting-edge dramas and have recently been a fourth-place finisher. The idea is to target women and compete with “Monday Night Football” on ESPN, but the network would be well-served by adding some fresher unscripted ideas rather than falling back on “Funniest Videos” for 8 p.m. slots.