ABC’s dramatic story this season played like the roller-coaster fortunes of a protagonist from one of its female-centric soaps.
The network took the biggest gambles of the fall by moving “Grey’s Anatomy” to Thursday night and passing NFL “Monday Night Football” to ESPN. Both moves paid off—”Grey’s” flourished in its new time slot, besting time-period incumbent “CSI,” while losing the pricy NFL contract seemed to make little overall difference in the Nielsens.
Week after week, ABC topped the ratings chart with heavy hitters such as “Grey’s,” “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives.” Meanwhile, newcomers “Brothers and Sisters” and “Ugly Betty” gained significant traction with viewers.
Then came 2007, and suddenly ABC began to drop in the ratings. At fault was a mix of factors both within and beyond ABC’s control. Fox’s “American Idol”-fueled ratings machine powered up, while CBS rolled out the Super Bowl. The 13-week hiatus for “Lost” coincided with a creative nadir for the show and an “Idol”-protective time-period change to 10 p.m. ABC’s midseason shows, particularly its comedies, couldn’t catch fire.
By March, the early arrival of daylight-saving time helped knock the wind out of everybody’s sails and ABC found itself in third place.
Still, take sports out of the equation and the network is down only 5 percent from last season, and most of the recent challenges do not necessarily hamper ABC in the fall.
The network has arguably the most anticipated new drama of the season in “Grey’s Anatomy” spinoff “Private Practice,” from O’Taye Productions and Shondaland, as well as the most discussed new sitcom pilot in “Cavemen” from ABC TV Studio and Management 360, based on the Geico commercials. One crime drama, “Women’s Murder Club” from 20th Century Fox, is also on the network’s hot list. And sources say ABC executives are excited about “Pushing Daisies,” a Warner Bros. drama about a man who can bring the dead back to life.
Look for ABC to announce a few ways to round out its schedule to prevent another roller coaster next season. Launching “Lost” in January will take away one of ABC’s biggest fall guns, but will hopefully make winter much less chilly once the show returns for the first of its planned trio of nonstop 16-episode seasons.
The biggest challenge for the network is the same faced by most of its competitors: launching sitcoms.
“They’ve probably got the most anticipated new show of the season, but their comedy development slate has been pretty disastrous, just like everybody else,” said Brad Adgate, senior VP at Horizon Media. “How long can you count on ‘George Lopez’ and ‘According to Jim’?”
When: Tuesday, May 15, 4 p.m. (ET)
Where: Lincoln Center
Key executives: Steve McPherson, Entertainment President; Anne Sweeney, President of Disney-ABC Television Group; Mike Shaw, President of Sales and Marketing
Adults 18-49 season to date: 3.5, -13%
Total viewers: 9.8 million, -10%
2006-07 breakouts: “Ugly Betty,” “Brothers and Sisters”
Biggest holes: Wednesdays at 8 and 9 p.m.; Tuesdays at 8 p.m.
Source: Nielsen Media Research ratings data for Sept. 18, 2006, to May 5, 2007, compared with Sept. 19, 2005, to May 7, 2006