Remember When Media Buyers Battled for Ad Time on Juggernaut Must-See Thursdays? NBC Hopes for Return to Glory Days
By John Consoli -- Broadcasting & Cable, 3/20/2013 11:02:55 AM
So potent and popular was the Peacock's once-indestructible Thursday night lineup back then that media agencies risked losing major marketers as clients if they failed to get the desired prime ad inventory in each of those shows, which were all among the top 10 most-watched on television.
Fast-forward to this season and, amazingly, combining the viewership and 18-49 ratings for all five shows in NBC's current Thursday night lineup does not equal the total for three of those individual 2003 shows, or the 18-49 ratings for four of them.
That season, the sitcom Friends opened the night as the first of four sitcoms, much the way four sitcoms open the night for NBC this season. Friends at 8 averaged 21.4 million viewers and a 9.8 18-49 rating; Scrubs at 8:30 averaged 15.9 viewers and a 7.9 18-49 rating; Will & Grace at 9 averaged 15.6 million viewers and a 7.6 in the demo; Good Morning, Miami, the weak link at 9:30, averaged 13 million viewers and a 6.6 demo number; and drama ER at 10 averaged 19.5 million viewers and a 9.1 18-49 rating.
This season's current NBC Thursday night lineup is averaging a combined 15.8 million viewers and a 6.8 18-49 rating for all five of its shows, according to Nielsen data. Community at 8 is averaging 3.1 million viewers and a 1.3 18-49 rating; Parks and Recreation at 8:30 is averaging 3.1 million and a 1.5 demo number; The Office is averaging 3.8 million viewers and a 1.8 demo rating at 9 p.m.; 1600 Penn is averaging 2.9 million and a 1.2; and Law & Order: SVU repeats are averaging 3.9 million viewers and a 1.0 18-49 rating, similar to Rock Center with Brian Williams, which it recently replaced in the 10 p.m. time period.
During that 2002-03 season, NBC did get some competition from CBS, which took in about $2.2 billion in that same upfront, and which was then starting to finally make inroads into the NBC Thursday night juggernaut.
CBS that season opened Thursday nights with reality competition series Survivor, which was ranked in the top 10 among series and in the 18-49 demo, averaging 21.2 million viewers and an 8.5 demo rating. Drama CSI, also a top 10 series, averaged 25.6 million viewers and an 8.9 demo rating. And then 10 p.m. CBS drama Without a Trace averaged 16.9 million viewers and a 5.4 demo rating.
The four NBC sitcoms that season all had a median age younger than 40. Survivor had a median age of 41, CSI's median age audience was 49 and Without a Trace viewers were 51.
Meanwhile, Fox that season was putting most of its energies on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights, with American Idol airing on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. And ABC started the fall with two ill-fated new series, Dinotopia and Push Nevada, both of which were cancelled before reaching their initial orders of 13 episodes.
When Jerry Ruled
Looking back even further at the primetime ratings numbers five years earlier -- the final season for, Seinfeld -- NBC was even more dominant. During that 1997-98 season, CBS was airing two aging dramas on Thursday nights. Promised Land at 8 (median age of 58, very old for those days) was averaging 11.5 million viewers and a 2.6 18-49 rating. And Diagnosis Murder at 9 p.m. had a median age of 60 and averaged 12.8 million viewers and a 2.9 demo rating.
They were no match for NBC. Friends opened Thursday nights like an all-star leadoff hitter with 24 million viewers and a 12.5 18-49 rating; sitcom Union Square at 8:30 averaged 19.9 million viewers and a 10.4 18-49 rating; Seinfeld averaged a whopping 34.1 million viewers and an 18.0 demo number; comedy Veronica's Closet at 9:30, helped by the Seinfeld lead-in, averaged 24.3 million and a 13.2 demo figure; and ER averaged 30.2 million viewers and a 16.2 demo rating.
The following season, with Frasier as the 9 p.m. show leading into Veronica's Closet, the later series fell to 19.3 million viewers and a 10.1 demo rating. Frasier averaged 22.5 million viewers and an 11.3 demo rating, which was still solid but nowhere near Seinfeld's numbers.
Broadcast networks over the years have had their ups and downs relating to viewers. CBS was the fourth-place network when Leslie Moonves came aboard in the summer of 1995 as its entertainment president and it took several years for the Eye Network to produce a competitive programming lineup. ABC took a major hit when its over-reliance on the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire put the network in a programming hole beginning during the 2000-01 season that took several years to climb back out of.
Now NBC, once the ratings kingpin, is languishing toward the bottom of the ratings list, and it's going to take several years to turn things around, particularly on Thursday nights, where CBS seems to be sporting its own "Must See" lineup.
The good news is that there are so many advertisers who want to reach viewers on Thursday nights before the weekends that there is plenty of room for new programming to establish itself on the night. Media buyers love competition and much like their giddiness over Fox adding a new competitor to ESPN in the sports network arena, agency execs and marketers would like nothing better than to see history repeat itself in the form of an NBC revival on Thursday nights.
While the chances are mighty slim that we'll ever again see a regular series on any night of the week average 34 million viewers like Seinfeld did in its final season, the competition between American Idol and CBS sitcoms The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men on Thursday, and the competition between ABC's Dancing With the Stars and NBC's The Voice on Monday and Tuesday, proves that networks can each draw between 12-18 million viewers head-to-head on the same night with the right programming -- and also draw the best out of each other in terms of popular programming competition.
Yes, CBS rules Thursday nights, for now; in a few seasons that could all change. Meanwhile, with all of NBC's programming shortfalls on Thursday, is it possible that we may see a few episodes of The Voice added to that night's lineup before this season is over?
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