ABC Has Little To Brag About

Network ends season in third place; its fall slate gets mixed reviews

ABC may have "stopped the bleeding" during the season that just ended, but it's clear to the network that this season it better keep a good supply of Band-Aids around. While this season looks better than last, ABC is a long way from being fully competitive.

This season, the network limped to a third-place tie with CBS in the 18-49 demographic and barely beat Fox for third place in viewers. Reviews of its new fall programming are mixed at best.

"They are more on track than they have been, but they didn't have a good year from an affiliate's standpoint," says Alan Frank, president of Post-Newsweek Stations. "They had a start last fall, and then they totally departed from their strategy and got wiped out. They ran after reality and forgot shows that were working. It was a big mistake."

ABC Entertainment Chairman Lloyd Braun and ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne say the network met its goals for the year. "This was our best year-to-year improvement in more than 22 years, excluding the Millionaire
year," Braun says. But according to the numbers, those goals were accomplished by only the narrowest measure.

With the season's final numbers in, ABC was up 6% in adults 18-49 and 3% in total viewers. Without the Super Bowl, though, the network would essentially be flat with the 2001-02 season, and that season was a post-Who Wants To Be a Millionaire

If Braun is worried, he's not admitting it. "I believe we are on the right track as to how to rebuild ABC," he says. "Every network has a different blueprint and a different profile. I am 100% confident that we will make even further strides next year."

For ABC, only reality shows and Monday Night Football
broke into this season's top-30 list of prime time shows in adults 18-49. None of ABC's scripted shows—not Alias, not The Practice, not NYPD Blue, not 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter—made the list. Tuesday's NYPD Blue
is ABC's top 18-49 scripted show at No. 35, while Wednesday's My Wife and Kids
is its top scripted comedy at No. 39.

Several of ABC's reality shows—The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Celebrity Mole
and Extreme Makeover—fared better, ranging from No. 10 for The Bachelorette
to No. 28 for Extreme Makeover. Even the much maligned Are You Hot
was No. 49, beating renewed Life With Bonnie, Less Than Perfect
and Dragnet.

The rest of ABC's renewed comedies fall into the middle range, with According to Jim
at No. 43, George Lopez
at No. 44 and 8 Simple Rules
at No. 45. And all those mid-rated shows are the building blocks for the 2003-04 season and the basis for Braun's optimism.

The Practice, which is undergoing a major facelift with most of the cast departing the show, ranks only No. 58 out of the top 18-49 shows, suggesting that, even if the show declines, it may make little difference in ABC's overall performance. ABC's moving the show to Mondays at 9 p.m. certainly hurt its ratings. Its return to Sundays at 10 p.m. with a mostly new cast, altered storyline and halved license fee might be the show's death knell.

"There's some duplicitousness here," Frank says. "You don't cut a fee from $7 million to $3.5 million and expect nothing to happen. I appreciate trying to get more- reasonable rates, but, when you hurt a product in order to get it cheaper, you get a product that is maybe worth less."

Few are impressed by ABC's 2003-04 schedule. "The problem ... is that there's not a good amount of audience flow from one hour to the next," says Steve Sternberg, director of audience analysis at Interpublic Group's Magna Global USA. "I think families do want to watch television together, but I'm not sure ABC has all the pieces yet."

"ABC was the worst," said one researcher. "I didn't even understand the schedule."

"With Dragnet
coming out of the Wonderful World of Disney
on Saturday nights, what were they thinking?" asked another. "Where are their minds?"

Many ad buyers are down on ABC's drama development, particularly 10-8
on Sundays at 8 p.m. and Threat Matrix
on Thursdays at 8 p.m. Some thought Karen Sisco
on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. looked promising but wondered whether it could sustain against NBC powerhouse Law & Order.

Others were not so tough on the network, saying they thought the return of ABC's family TGIF lineup would work on Friday nights. They also praised some of ABC's comedy development, particularly I'm With Her
on Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. and Hope and Faith
on Fridays at 9 p.m.

"I think their concept of bringing back TGIF is a really good one," says Paula Barra, associate director of communications insights at OMD. "I don't know how they are going to keep people through Back to Kansas, but I think Hope and Faith
has a lot of potential."

"At least, they are trying to build some nights using the moderate success they had last year," said Stacey Lynn Koerner, executive vice president of global research integration for Initiative Media. "They will be able to stabilize or improve slightly with the schedule they brought out."