Scheduling troubles

Networks discuss moves to help boost primetime ratings


November 25, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The programming heads of the major networks yesterday finally came out of hiding to take questions about one of the worst fall seasons in the medium's history. But after a day of conference calls filled with wall-to-wall spin about their November sweeps ratings and overall performance during the first three months of the television year, one thing became crystal clear: They have no new answers as to how to fix schedules suffering an overall drop of 10 percent compared with last year's viewership numbers.

Leslie Moonves, the chairman of CBS who claimed overall victory in the November sweeps for his network, wanted to tell a story of CBS dominating the competition. Instead, he spent most of his hour on the phone with reporters defending the network's controversial decision to pull The Reagans, a miniseries about former President Ronald Reagan, from the November schedule in reaction to organized opposition from conservative groups and a threatened advertiser boycott. And, while Moonves began the session by proudly announcing that CBS had the four highest-rated new series on network television this fall - with the sitcom Two and Half Men and the dramas Cold Case, Joan of Arcadia and Navy NCIS - he later acknowledged that none of them is a "breakout hit."

"Two and a Half Men, Cold Case and Joan of Arcadia are shows that have improved their time periods and are creatively working. Are they in the category of a CSI, a Survivor, or a Friends when those shows first came out? No, they are not that kind of a breakout hit," he said.

Typical of network confusion in reaction to the ratings downturn, reporters heard Jeff Zucker, the president of NBC, tell them that the biggest lesson he learned this fall is that the audience has changed in recent years, becoming "incredibly savvy" about seeking out and sticking with shows they like. As a result, he said, programmers are free to move regular series from night to night on the primetime schedule and air new reality programs and other specials without much advance promotion - his plan for the rest of the year. But in another news conference, executives at ABC said the message they took from the fall is that viewers want a stable schedule without disruptions, pre-emptions and displacement of their favorite series from night to night.

The plan to win more viewers that was offered by Zucker, whose network suffered one of the fall's biggest flameouts with the quick cancellation of the sitcom Coupling, was the most depressing of the day. NBC is going to bank on more reality television - starting with a second version of the Average Joe series that features an attractive woman picking her mate from a very ordinary crop of male suitors.

Another major NBC reality entry will be The Apprentice, starring Donald Trump as himself. Trump joined Zucker yesterday to announce that the series, which features 16 men and women competing for a $250,000-a-year job as Trump's apprentice, will debut Jan. 8 in NBC's best time slot, right after Friends. Even Trump yesterday joked about the network's dismal fall, saying, "This press conference has already lasted longer than Coupling."

But as bad as things might have been for Zucker, it was nothing compared to what Moonves faced. At one point, he pleaded for a moratorium on questions about the CBS decision not to air The Reagans, which had been scheduled as a showcase sweeps presentation. But the questions kept coming. In fact, the tempo of the questions increased after he denied that the cancellation had anything to do with the organized opposition to the miniseries.

"I began the process that led to cancellation when I read the script and was told that this was going to be a love story, and that the politics would be secondary," Moonves said. "But after seeing the film, I didn't think that was the case. Nor did I think the film was balanced."

He defended the decision by Viacom, the parent company of CBS, to air the film Nov. 30 on Showtime, one of its premium cable channels, by saying, "Pay cable can do things we at a broadcast network cannot do."

Moonves resisted the suggestion that perhaps viewers should expect "balance" in any film showing anywhere on television when it comes to a history. He argued that it is all right for pay cable or a feature film to "be interpretive and take a very decided point of view on historical issues," but that he would not find such a stance acceptable for CBS. Moonves cited Oliver Stone's controversial JFK film about the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

"Oliver Stone accused Lyndon Johnson [Kennedy's vice president] of orchestrating the assassination of John Kennedy. I could not have put that movie on CBS. It wouldn't be appropriate. And, so, we felt The Reagans was something that would be better off on cable. These are the kinds of standards we impose on ourselves at CBS," he said.

But, typical of the shifting sands on which such network standards are built, Moonves said he still hopes to air a Michael Jackson special for which the network reportedly paid $10 million before pulling it from this week's lineup after Jackson's arrest.

"No, the Michael Jackson special won't end up on Showtime," Moonves said. "We have postponed it. We are reserving the right, and hopefully if the charges are dropped or the situation changes, we will air it."

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