The broadcast portion of the Television Critics Association winter tour is usually devoted to unveiling new network shows. This year, most of the excitement focused on familiar hits, such as Fox's American Idol, CBS' Everybody Loves Raymond and the shakeup at CBS Evening News.
Things got off to a dramatic start when Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman told critics that American Idol's ratings could slip in its fourth season. Conventional wisdom holds that reality shows have a finite shelf life. But the show's Tuesday, Jan. 18 debut pulled in phenomenal ratings, handily winning among 18-49s with a 14 rating/33 share. It was the most-watched program of the 2004-05 season to date, beating game seven of baseball's American League Championship Series between the Yankees and the Red Sox, as well as the 100th episode of CSI. The results are noteworthy, given that the network placed fourth in the November sweeps, after CBS, NBC and ABC.
Even Fox's competitors were envious of the response to Idol's return. “Clearly, they are going to have a better second half than first half,” CBS Chairman Les Moonves told the TCA critics. “The numbers are phenomenal.” Idol's second show of the season topped the Wednesday, Jan. 19 ratings chart, beating the ABC hit Lost and making Fox the No. 1 show for the night. Still, its 11.2 rating among 18-49s was 7% below its numbers a year earlier.
Simon Cowell, the judge known for his vitriolic tongue, said it is too early to predict future ratings, since it depends on the finalists. Cowell compared Idol to the Super Bowl: If great teams are playing, the game gets great ratings. If the ratings do slip, Cowell joked, he has a strategy for boosting them: “One of the judges is going to get killed this year. But I can't tell you which one,” he said, adding, “It isn't me.”
Raymond Crew Says Thanks
While it is too early to predict how Idol will fare this season, the future of Everybody Loves Raymond is clear. Raymond's cast met with critics after reading the script for the series finale, which was scheduled to be taped Jan. 21. Raymond's Patricia Heaton, who plays Ray's wife, said she wept. The show's creator, Phil Rosenthal, and its star, Ray Romano, took a moment to thank critics for their support of the show, particularly in its infancy when ratings were mediocre.
“We wouldn't be here without you,” Rosenthal said. “Right,” Romano echoed. “You guys kept it on the air because you wrote some good things about it. Les Moonves was kind of forced to keep it on the air.” Rosenthal added: “But he liked it, too.”
Even though Raymond is a huge financial success, Rosenthal said he just can't pull off another season. “We've done every single thing we could think of. We are bone-dry. If we have ideas beyond this, we'll have to save them for the 20-year reunion.”
Still, Rosenthal did manage to plug the show's DVD collection.
Changes at CBS News
One of the tour's most intense sessions was a press conference with Les Moonves, CBS chairman and Viacom co-president and co-COO, that focused on the disarray at CBS News. Moonves surprised the TCA audience by saying the three news producers asked to resign hadn't yet done so. “There are discussions going on with them,” he said, declining to elaborate on pending legal matters.
Moonves also talked extensively about plans for the news division in the wake of the controversy over George Bush's military record. He said he wants to “turn lemons into lemonade.” Though he has talked about shaking things up at CBS News before, his remarks at TCA were his strongest on record, telling the crowd the future will look more like a revolution than a face-lift.
“We're not going to keep doing what we're doing,” Moonves said. “We've got a great opportunity here. We can try something different. Perhaps we'll be on the cutting edge.”
He fielded inquiries about the nature of the changes but provided few details. Reporters asked him about several possible anchor candidates, including Julie Chen (The Early Show host and his wife), Today show anchor Katie Couric and The Daily Show's Jon Stewart. “I'm not talking about anybody I'm talking to,” Moonves said. One scenario could entail using more than one anchor for the CBS Evening News. But the changes will not necessarily go into effect the moment Rather signs off.
Given the recently released report, how has CBS News staff responded to the investigation results? “Morale has been pretty low for the past couple of months,” Moonves admited. “Now is the beginning of the rebuilding, and I think people are feeling good about it. That report is behind them.”
Ferguson Faces Critics
On the lighter side of CBS, comedian Craig Ferguson faced critics for the first time since he took over The Late Late Show on Jan. 3. The Scottish immigrant is a rookie in the genre. He is a standup comic best- known for playing Nigel Wick, the ruthless boss on The Drew Carey Show. In his first week, The Late Late Show pulled in an average of 2 million viewers each night—its biggest audience in a year. Early reviews of the show were mixed. Some critics even have trouble with his name.
During a press conference, one TCA member addressed him as Colin. Ferguson jumped in with a correction, pointing out that there is a serial killer named Colin Ferguson. “Everybody says to me, 'Colin.' It kind of creeps me out,” he said.
The talk-show novice is learning the ropes as he goes. Most newcomers spend several months in intensive rehearsals before going live. Ferguson got exactly 2½ days.
Although the show is still a work in progress, Ferguson says things are getting easier. Cue cards were one source of trouble. They distracted him in his first days on air. But he's learning to cope and claims he is at his best in casual one-on-one chats with his guests rather than more structured formal interviews. “They come on, and you talk to them,” he said. “It's a great job.”