Falling Into Place
CBS triumphs, ABC scores, NBC holds its own in the new season
By Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/3/2004 8:00:00 PM
ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson is jazzed about his network's thriller drama Lost, a clear hit after two weeks, and strong showings by reality shows Wife Swap and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Early returns are strong: Buttressed by an aggressive marketing campaign, Lost held its audience, drawing 18.6 million its first week and keeping 17 million the second. But McPherson, in his freshman year on the job, isn't popping the champagne just yet. His network, much maligned for its fourth-place finish last season, still has an eight-month race ahead. "It's such a long season," he says, "I'm not sure the nervousness ever goes away."
The new fall season officially kicked off two weeks ago, but broadcasters are shopping their shows over an eight-week span, betting that staggered premieres will nab more-finicky viewers. NBC started the assault post-Olympics, and Fox will wait until after the World Series. ABC opted to hold soapy drama Desperate Housewives and Practice spinoff Boston Legal until Oct. 3. Once a show debuts, it typically takes three weeks, research execs say, to assess its staying power.
It may be early, but CBS is already riding high. The network won the first week (Sept. 20-26) in total viewers, adults 18-49 and adults 25-54. Overtaking NBC in 18-49s—the Peacock's foundation—was impressive. CBS's trio of CSIs and Survivor are setting the pace, led by CSI: New York, which beat the venerable Law & Order. All four ranked among the top 10 shows in 18-49s, joined by Without a Trace, ER, The Apprentice, Will & Grace, Monday Night Football and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. But don't expect CBS to coast.
Dr. Phil's prime time special and the Amazing Race finale helped boost its week-one marks. By last week, the nightly races tightened. In 18-49s, ABC took Monday night, NBC claimed Tuesday, and CBS grabbed top marks on Wednesday. "Viewers are trying to sample everything the networks are putting in front of them," says Roy Rothstein, vice president of national broadcast research for media buying firm Zenith Media.
"While everyone likes to speculate NBC might lose its lead in 18-49s," says Steve Sternberg, senior vice president, Magna Global USA, "it's by no means a given."
To sway viewers, networks are getting creative with their schedules: CBS opted for a CSI repeat Sept. 29 as a lead-in for red-hot spinoff CSI: N.Y., while NBC scooted The Apprentice to Wednesday because of the Sept. 30 presidential debate. Both yielded impressive results. In the key 18-49s, Apprentice nabbed 14.1 million viewers and a 6.5 rating, while CSI collected 16.4 million viewers and a 5.4. ABC has been getting creative, too, with a sneak peek at Wife Swap a few days before its timeslot debut and an Oct. 2 repeat of the first two Lost episodes.
Fox isn't even a factor yet. The network is waiting until November to usher in its schedule. And The WB may be benefiting from the absence of little new from Fox. The WB's youthful dramas are performing well, and after one week, the network's 18-49 ratings climbed 20% compared with last year. CBS was the only other broadcaster with growth, 15%, in 18-49s.
As for the NBC-CBS showdown, "it will be tight all season long," predicts NBC Universal Television Group President Jeff Zucker. Thursday night, the key battleground, is home to heavyweights CSI, Survivor, The Apprentice, ER and Joey, the rookie sitcom just picked up for a full season. It is the preeminent advertising night, and NBC is used to being top dog in 18-49s. CBS may have taken round one on Sept. 23, but Zucker says NBC's shows are exceeding projections. "This is a business," he says. "It is all about our internal sales projections."
The perception that you're the comeback kid can help, too. No one is feeling that more than ABC. Suddenly, the network is showing momentum, a critical asset for entertainment chief McPherson as he courts creative talent: "This means we can launch shows."
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