NBC slips off Thurs. night's throne

Good programs, wise strategy pay off for CBS, ABC

October 06, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

NBC is losing its stranglehold on Thursday nights. ABC is suddenly on the rise with a hit on Wednesday night. And CBS is winning all kinds of new viewers, including younger ones. The old network order seems to have gone topsy-turvy this new fall season, and the irony is that the best things are coming to those who have mostly stayed the same.

Just six months ago, industry gurus were claiming that the fall season was dead - and that the future lay in year-round programming. Meanwhile, conventional dramas such as NBC's Boomtown were being dropped left and right to be replaced by cheaper and hipper reality television shows.

Now all that seems to have fallen by the wayside. One month into the new season, the most successful networks are CBS and ABC - and both have done it the old-fashioned way: by scheduling a traditional fall season that features a mix of genres - reality shows, lots of drama and even a few sitcoms.

The network suffering the most, meanwhile, is NBC. It lost Friends at the end of last season, and Joey, the spinoff starring Matt LeBlanc, can't make up the difference.

Hoping to gain an edge by riding the wave of huge Olympics ratings in August, NBC started its new season three weeks early on Sept. 1. It also took the radical step of abandoning its four-sitcom Thursday night lineup after almost two decades of dominance to hang its hopes on Donald Trump's Apprentice 2 reality series.

So far, it hasn't worked. Joey is drawing only about three-fourths the audience as Friends Thursday nights at 8 against a powerhouse version of Survivor on CBS. And it's downhill from there the rest of the night for the Peacock network, with CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS) trouncing Apprentice 2, and Without a Trace (CBS again) beating ER, the first drama to accomplish that feat.

And Thursday is only the start of NBC's misery, with ABC's new survival drama Lost and CBS' CSI: NY spin-off delivering a surprisingly potent ratings wallop on Wednesdays to such NBC staples as Law & Order. (CSI: NY has twice beaten Law & Order head-to-head at 10 p.m. - both in overall viewers and the 18-to-49-year-old demographic, TV's most lucrative audience.)

"CBS, obviously, has been the most successful network so far this new season, but what's really surprising is ABC," said Brian Decker, executive vice president and media director for Eisner Communications, one of the East Coast's largest buyers of television time.

"While a lot of attention has been paid to the Thursday night battle between CBS and NBC, what's amazing is what's happening on Wednesday nights, which also used to be a big NBC night. NBC is losing its grip a little bit, and that's great news for ABC after years of struggle."

The mix that looks to be working best for both ABC and CBS is one of reality and drama. ABC's Desperate Housewives, a darkly comic drama about the private lives of five suburban neighbors, premiered on Sunday with a splash by attracting an audience of 21.3 million viewers. Housewives was the highest-rated show of the week, as well as being No. 1 with 18-to-49-year-olds.

One successful week does not make a hit, but producer J.J. Abrams' daring Lost, about airplane passengers trying to survive after crashing on a mysterious island now has held its huge audiences two weeks in a row. Analysts believe the show is here to stay.

In its debut two weeks ago, Lost drew 18.7 million viewers, making it the ninth-highest rated series of the week - ahead of such NBC series as Law & Order, Joey, Will & Grace and Apprentice 2. Last week, it drew 17 million viewers, and again won its time period with all age groups.

"We knew we had good dramas in Desperate Housewives and Lost, but we had no idea thery were going to premiere at the level they did. It is just pheneomenal," said Jeff Bader, executive vice president of ABC Entertainment. ABC starts its primetime Wednesday lineup at 8 p.m. with Lost, and closes at 10 p.m. with the reality series Wife Swap, which cleverly exploits unspoken social-class tensions as two families switch moms.

Wife Swap last week aired for the first time during what will be its regularly scheduled time (10 p.m.) opposite the longtime hit drama Law & Order. The new reality show beat the NBC franchise drama with 18-to-49 year-olds.

"Law & Order especially seems vulnerable, and that's bad news for NBC," Decker said, pointing out that the series is now in its 15th season and might be showing signs of wear - or, perhaps, the effects of losing co-star Jerry Orbach.

Still, the biggest victory for CBS is in the 18-to-49-year-old viewers it is winning away from NBC on Thursday nights. Last year, the six networks earned a total of $2.5 billion in prime-time advertising revenue on Thursdays. About 44 percent - $1.1 billion - went to NBC because of its dominance with the young demographic. But that looks like it is going to change this year.

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