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TV Rating: Midseason Wisdom

Feb 1, 2009  •  Post A Comment

As the national economy slides deeper into a recession, viewers appear to be turning to familiar favorites to ease the pain, making it harder for many newer shows to get noticed.
That’s proving to be a challenge for the cable networks that rolled the dice in December and January on several high-profile original drama premieres.
So far, while executives are preaching patience, none of the newcomers appear to be out-of-the-box hits.
“I think that when I look across the competitive landscape, you see really smart networks with really good programming, and you see shows doing less than those networks would like,” said Bob DeBitetto, president of A&E, which launched original drama “The Beast” starring Patrick Swayze in January.
On the plus side: Established successes on both broadcast and cable networks—from Fox’s “American Idol” to USA’s “Burn Notice” and TNT’s “The Closer”—are in many cases doing better than expected, providing a much-needed warm winter after a brutal fall. Viewers seem hungry for comfort food, and networks that have such shows on their programming menus are being rewarded.
It’s only February, but TVWeek has already found five lessons TV can learn from the first month of 2009 ratings trends.
For cable, launching new dramas in January can be tough. A&E’s “The Beast” opened with lower-than-expected numbers, and TNT’s heavily promoted premiere of “Trust Me” held onto just 40% of its lead-in from “The Closer.”
“It’s a much tougher landscape when you’re playing anywhere between October and May,” said Michael Wright, executive VP and head of programming for TBS, TNT and Turner Classic Movies. “It’s a necessary part of our growth and evolution that we start to expand in these months.”
Mr. DeBitetto said “The Beast” might have been a victim of unrealistic high expectations because of all of the publicity surrounded Mr. Swayze’s health.
Another Turner show, “Leverage,” was down significantly in January from its December premiere. Mr. Wright said “Leverage” is likely to be renewed because it’s performing above its goals and improving its timeslot with the benefit of a strong lead-in.
While getting new dramas off the ground has been a challenge, some of cable’s biggest hits—including TNT’s “The Closer,” USA Network’s “Burn Notice” and FX’s “Nip/Tuck”—more than held their own in January.
Bonnie Hammer, who oversees USA as president of NBC Universal Cable Entertainment and Studio, said the performance of “Burn Notice” on Thursday at 10 p.m., once a premier broadcast timeslot, opened the door to putting more originals on in the first quarter.
“We put our toe in and we didn’t get burned. In fact, we flourished,” Ms. Hammer said.
“I think cable can start going toe-to-toe with broadcast,” she said. “The difference between broadcast and cable in the public’s eye is getting smaller and smaller. If you build it, if you have the right show, they will come.”
Overnight ratings are dead … or at least a lot less relevant. That’s the lesson many cable and broadcast executives are trying to push these days. With DVR viewership on the rise, and often counting for a big chunk of a show’s overall viewership, many network insiders believe it’s a mistake to judge a show solely by how it does in the live-plus-same-day national ratings.
“The percentage of DVR viewership … is becoming more and more an indicator that we pay attention to,” said A&E’s Mr. DeBitetto. “I have a hunch that the DVR viewership for (“The Beast”) is going to be pretty high, and unfortunately you have to wait three weeks. I’d like to see some of that data come in.”
Other networks agree. FX believes the ratings picture will look different for shows like “Damages” when the live-plus-seven-day ratings arrive, while ABC regularly touts the expanded ratings for shows such as “Lost.”
Unscripted hits aren’t showing their age; just the opposite. Case in point: “American Idol.” Fox’s singing sensation has still got its sizzle, returning last month to its traditional perch as TV’s most-watched series, by a mile. And last week’s Wednesday night episode notched 27 million viewers, nearly 1.5 million more than the same episode last year.
Overall, “Idol’s” total viewership is down 6% from last year, but in an era of double-digit declines—and considering the show is in its eighth season and faced tough competition from the Obama inauguration recaps on Jan. 20—those numbers have to be considered a major victory for Fox.
But “Idol” isn’t the only reality show hitting high notes this winter.
NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” is proving to be a Nielsen heavyweight, scoring its most-watched season premiere yet and posting double-digit gains over its performance last January.
ABC’s “The Bachelor,” which a couple of years ago seemed ready to call it quits, continues its comeback. Its 3.5 rating/8 share among adults 18-49 this season is up 25% versus last January, while its overall viewership of 9.6 million is the best for the show since 2004.
And on cable, MTV’s “The Real World,” despite being older than many of its viewers, began a new season last month by improving its adults 18-34 ratings by 6% compared with its last installment.
Other encouraging notes for reality: NBC just ordered 12 more episodes of Friday newcomer “Howie Do It.” And ABC’s new “True Beauty” has showed unexpected spark behind “The Bachelor,” averaging a 2.9/7 in adults 18-49 and improving the network’s performance in the timeslot by 61% against last January, when “October Road” aired.
You can compete against “American Idol.” While Fox has to be pleased with how its juggernaut is doing, other networks are realizing they don’t have to roll over and die opposite “Idol” judge Simon Cowell’s death stare.
NBC’s “Loser” has built strong ratings despite facing an hour of “Idol” from 8-9 p.m. on Tuesday. Last week, CBS’ “NCIS” drew 19.63 million viewers competing against “Idol,” the second-biggest audience ever for the network’s crime drama. And when The CW’s “Smallville” faced a special Thursday “Idol” last week, the CW series actually grew by 40% among women 18-34.
Laughter is the best medicine for ratings blues. CBS’ Monday comedy lineup, fierce during the fall, is even hotter this winter.
“How I Met Your Mother” drew its biggest adults 18-49 rating ever (4.8) on Jan. 12, while “Two and a Half Men” hit a season high the same night. And the last three first-run episodes of “The Big Bang Theory” have been the show’s three most-watched episodes yet.
NBC also continues to do well on Thursdays, with “The Office” and “30 Rock” still drawing viewers and buzz. 

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