Fox Seizes Top Spot in Ratings

Jan 20, 2008  •  Post A Comment

“American Idol” is back and decimating the competition.
Fox slid into first place last week and is presumed to win the season.
If only the ongoing writers strike wasn’t casting a long shadow over the broadcast universe, Fox might be able to celebrate a whole-hearted victory. But it’s tough to make an industry wake feel like a party.
The seventh season of “Idol” opened last week to a 13.8 rating and 33.2 million average viewers—down a little more than 10% from recent years yet easily breaking every other record set by every other show this season. The second episode was down more, about 19% in the demo.
Then you add in the mitigating factors: It’s the seventh season of a reality show. Increased DVR use. Slightly lower viewership levels in general in recent weeks, likely due to the strike.
Most important, “Idol” is a show with enough viewers that its second episode could endure two more 20% ratings drops and still easily win over any other broadcast network series.
“Fox has a problem every network wishes they had,” said John Rash, senior VP and director of media negotiations at Campbell Mithun. “‘Idol’ is experiencing erosion similar to other seminal series in that no matter how strong it is, there’s enviable erosion beginning around season five.”
Fine, except the phrase “similar to other series” has rarely described “American Idol.”
“Idol” has consistently distinguished itself by seeming almost preternatural in its appeal and longevity. Last year, the first chink in its armor appeared when the show went from a series-high premiere to consistently averaging less than the previous season. Observers were unsure if the numbers reflected a temporary lack of high-appeal performers or were the first signs of a downward trend.
Not Immune
With this season’s ratings drop, it seems “Idol” may be mortal after all.
Competitors were even able to get a slightly better grip on competitive time periods. Typically only CBS’ scripted procedurals, whose audiences skew much older than “Idol’s,” can withstand the show’s dominance. But on Tuesday, NBC’s “The Biggest Loser: Couples” lost a third of its viewership yet nonetheless matched an original episode of CBS’ “NCIS” (both 3.0) to dramatically improve its repeat-filled time period versus last year.
On Wednesday, ABC’s “Wife Swap” and “Supernanny” also were down 30%, yet up 16% compared to how they performed against “Idol” previously. NBC’s “Deal or No Deal” (3.1), whose “Million Dollar Mission” sweeps-style programming stunt continues to reap dividends, was down 14% for the week yet up a steep 41% compared with last year.
Given how unpredictable this season has been, Fox executives said they are pleased with the returns.
“‘Idol’ continues to do things that astonish,” said Fox Entertainment Chairman Peter Liguori. “In a year where only two shows broke a 20 share, this is miraculous. I’ve seen all the talent that we have and the show is going to reach incredible heights during the competition. The best is yet to come.”
Fox has good reason for continued confidence this season. Unless there’s a mass exodus of “Idol” viewers, it’s tough to mathematically find any way for a competitor to win with the current strike-affected schedules.
Last week, Fox slipped into first place season-to-date, earning a 3.4 average rating in the adults 18 to 49 demo compared to its major broadcast competitors, who are tied at a 3.3. It was the earliest Fox has moved into first place in the past three years, which is partly a credit to its fourth-quarter strategy that kept the network from having to leapfrog the competition from a distant fourth place this month.
“It’s not just about where we are, but how we got here,” Mr. Liguori said. “It was a triumph of scheduling and creative.”
The network’s scripted drama “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” also got off to a great start due to a football lead-in last week, then fell sharply to a still-solid 4.2 rating last week. Given that the series built on the lead-in “Prison Break” audience, Fox is hopeful the program can maintain a respectable viewership.
On Wednesday, Fox debuts its lie-detector game show “The Moment of Truth,” which is
expected to receive some significant initial tune-in given its post-“Idol” time period.
“It’s old-time Fox,” Liguori said of “Truth,” which asks contestants wearing lie detectors awkward personal questions they must truthfully answer in order to win. “I will not be watching that show with my wife in the same room because the one thing I don’t want my wife asking is, ‘What’s your answer to that question?’”
Fox isn’t sending a review copy of the show to critics, but the network is prepared to hear a certain amount of oh-the-humanity blowback after the program airs.
“The intent is to reveal a person’s honest feelings,” Mr. Liguori said. “The intent is not, ‘Let’s go rip up this family.’ But it is wild because the contestants are asked these questions before they go on stage, then they go in front of millions knowing those questions are coming their way.”
In February, Fox will air the Super Bowl, which will be infused with “Idol” talent (Ryan Seacrest hosting a red carpet; a music video debut from Paula Abdul).
In April, the competition reality series “Hell’s Kitchen” will receive its first in-season slot. Given that the show’s popularity has grown each summer and that Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares” made inroads with viewers this fall, “Hell’s” is poised to make a strong showing in a post-“Idol” time period.
Still, ad buyers are mourning the loss of “House” and “24,” both shut down due to the strike. Their absence sounds an increasingly worrisome note with ad buyers.
Campbell Mithun’s Mr. Rash called Fox’s seasonal standing is “a laudable accomplishment,” adding, “but it’s done in the shadow of a writers strike that threatens to dramatically effect non-reality TV viewing.”
Agreed Shari Anne Brill, VP and director of programming at Carat: “We’re not worried about ‘Idol’ [ratings erosion]. We want to know what’s going to happen toward the balance of the season. We want to know about the new shows for fall. A ‘Bachelorette’ is no substitute for a ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’”
By and large, ad buyers value scripted programming over reality since it tends to attract more affluent viewers. Sources said that whatever network wins the 2007-08 season, it’s quickly becoming a Pyrrhic victory if the broadcast season—and possibly much of next season as well—is left in tatters.
“We should hook the writers and [the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers] up to a polygraph,” Ms. Brill said. “That’s the ‘moment of truth’ I’d like to see.”


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