Upfront Central

Remember When Media Buyers Battled for Ad Time on Juggernaut Must-See Thursdays? NBC Hopes for Return to Glory Days

3/20/2013 11:02:55 AM Eastern

During the 2003 upfront selling season, NBC became the first
TV network to take in more than $3 billion in ad money. It's no surprise that
the haul came largely because of its vaunted "Must See" Thursday night schedule
from the 2002-03 season that included Friends, Scrubs, Will & Grace, the
rookie Good Morning, Miami and powerhouse drama ER.

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?

October

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