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Not 'Lost': Finding the Way at ABC

The network still faces plenty of challenges 12/12/2004 07:00:00 PM Eastern

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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