Not 'Lost': Finding the Way at ABC
The network still faces plenty of challenges
By John M. Higgins -- Broadcasting & Cable, 12/12/2004 7:00:00 PM
The folks at ABC have been mighty quiet about their sudden success in the ratings. At the end of sweeps, top performers typically brag about their results and spin, spin, spin against their rivals. Not ABC.
The network squeaked by NBC to finish in second place among Madison Avenue's favorite demo, adults 18-49. But the network was relatively silent, skipping the conference call. That's because they know something that's getting lost in the success of Lost.
Amidst the network's dramatic Nielsen ratings rebound this fall, ABC still has plenty of challenges. Its sitcom strategy is hurting. The network still has no meaningful audience on Thursdays, the most lucrative night on television. Reality franchise The Bachelor is stumbling in the ratings. The network's biggest hits are serial dramas that aren't expected to hold up well in repeats. And the traditional post-NFL-season blues are ready to set in after Monday Night Football ends and ABC tries to find something else to draw an audience.
As if that weren't bad enough, ABC's new hit lineup has yet to face Fox's steamroller, American Idol. The new season of television's strongest show debuts Jan. 18.
Steve McPherson, president of ABC prime time entertainment, freely acknowledges those challenges and says that's why ABC's not boasting about its successes. “In a way, we're not competing with the other networks right now,” he says. “We're competing against ourselves, to rebuild ABC.”
But doesn't he feel like gloating just a wee bit over nudging past NBC during sweeps, pushing the longtime champion into third place? “I've been in this business too long to not know that it's a long road.”
Certainly, no one's complaining about the success of Lost and Desperate Housewives, which are critical breakthroughs and have helped lift ABC's average 18-49 prime time audience 9%, according to Nielsen Media Research. “Out of desperation comes inspiration,” says NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly, who praises both shows.
But ABC has fizzled on one key front: sitcoms, its lone strength last season. Tuesday night, anchored by According to Jim, has been one the network's few shining spots. And during the upfront ad market, McPherson and his boss, Anne Sweeney, promised to rebuild Friday's “TGIF” night, a powerhouse dating back to the Olsen twins' pre-tabloid days, as the home for family comedies.
But Tuesday night is flat. New entry Rodney—about a frustrated blue-collar standup comic—is unimpressive. Friday is a disaster, with viewership off about 30% despite the hype over the grating Complete Savages.
McPherson notes that viewership is off for everybody on Fridays. “With all the networks down on Friday night, we all kind of woke up in the fall,” he says. “We're all a little bit puzzled.”
As for Tuesday, ABC faces one of NBC's few successes this season, weight-loss reality show The Biggest Loser, as well as CBS' resurgent The Amazing Race. “It's a different landscape than when we planned it in May,” says McPherson.
But he and his team are proud of staying disciplined in their schedule without resorting to some of the usual tricks, such as CBS' tossing episodes of its CSI shows on weak nights or Fox's running sitcom Bernie Mac.
“We didn't really program to sweeps,” McPherson says. The network didn't even air four new episodes of Desperate Housewives and Lost during the November contest that network affiliates use to set local ad rates. “That really wasn't the goal. We're taking the long-term approach and not looking at the quick fix.”
That's what killed ABC during the era of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, whose power made ABC the top network in terms of ad sales as recently as 1999. Media executives fault ABC for loading its schedule with Millionaire, but that's missing the point. “The issue wasn't putting Millionaire on four times a week; it was not having anything to build around it,” says Sanford Bernstein Media Analyst Tom Wolzien.
ABC's fight will escalate after the holidays. American Idol's planned twice-a-week schedule (Tuesdays at 8 p.m., Wednesdays at 9) doesn't directly attack ABC's strongest shows, but it does pinch the Tuesday sitcoms. “It will be a busy night,” says McPherson.
But Fox is likely to expand the show and try different nights as other problems on its schedule erupt. ABC hopes its thriller Alias, rescheduled from Sundays to Wednesdays, will feed off of Lost's fat lead-in audience (both shows were created by producer J.J. Abrams.) To keep the storyline running, Alias will run 19 consecutive weeks with no repeats.
Monday is being reworked as reality night, with The Bachelorette moving away from Idol on Wednesdays. And ABC breaks out the Hamburger Helper, reworking outtakes of Sunday hit Extreme Makeover: Home into a spinoff series, Extreme Makeover: How'd They Do That? The third entry is Supernanny, which hopefully is much better than Fox's dreadful Nanny 911.
Disney's ABC definitely needs to make more magic. The network will start the year with about 10 new episodes each of Lost and Desperate Housewives. Most of those will be scheduled for the February and May sweeps. Since they are not expected to repeat well, that leaves many weeks without fresh material.
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