Fox Makes Its Move

Next Month, NBC Could Be Swept Away

With NBC off to a slow start this season, Fox may use the momentum from its postseason baseball success to swipe NBC's 18-49 demo crown in the November sweeps.

NBC will spend much of November supersizing and stunting, while Fox focuses on launching its fall lineup. But Fox has a huge leg up over last year because of the wildly successful playoffs, which gave the network early-season ratings wins and a big promotional platform. Meanwhile, NBC has problems.

"Even the most objective observer has to say that NBC is not achieving what they hoped for with some of the new shows and with some of the scheduling moves they made," says Bill Carroll, vice president, Katz Television Group. "One or two shows that appeared to be on everyone's probable hit list were Coupling
and Miss Match, and expectations were maybe too high."

Fox gave itself something of a head start, launching The O.C.
early and then double- and triple-pumping it through the end of summer until it built into a hit. With that show returning on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET, the return of The NextJoe Millionaire
on Mondays and Tuesdays through sweeps, 24
on Tuesdays, the reliable Sunday-night comedy lineup, and Skin
on Mondays at 9 p.m., Fox could very well stay strong until January, when American Idol
comes back.

If Fox manages to run on all cylinders through December, it will be tough to beat in May. Fox's big problem is Fridays, where it hasn't been able to get any traction.

But NBC has heard this sky-is-falling scenario before. "The story that NBC is ripe for the kill is a very tired refrain," says Mitch Metcalf, senior vice president of program scheduling for NBC. "People say it because we have been at the top for so long. Do we have problems? Sure. But we are not complaining about baseball or whining about Nielsen problems, because we are all affected by all these things. When I look across seven nights and 22 hours, I like where we are."

Bright spots on NBC's schedule are Mondays at 9 p.m., where drama Las Vegas
is the No. 1 new show among 18-49s, although it is improving the time period by only 5% in the demo. (NBC last week placed a full season order for the show.) NBC will be following Las Vegas
with new reality show Average Joe
and moving Third Watch
to Fridays.

On Tuesdays, Whoopi
and Happy Family
are performing better than expected. NBC has been frequently repurposing Whoopi
to try to build its audience, last week pulling the much hyped Coupling
on Thursday night in favor of re-airing of last Tuesday's episode of Whoopi Goldberg's comedy. The West Wing, now under John Wells instead of creator Aaron Sorkin, has shown new life, and Friends
continues to be the best 18-49 performer in prime time. Yet there are ominous asterisks for the venerable sitcom: It's down 25% in adults 18-49 and 23% in viewers from last season.

The worst news is that none of NBC's new fall shows have broken out, even though Warner Bros. Television President Peter Roth conceded that, so far, nothing on any
network looks like a hit, even among the shows his own studio produces.

"What is breaking out this year? Nothing. A show has got to be different and distinctive to break out," Roth said last week at a Museum of Television & Radio luncheon in Los Angeles.

Not only are none of NBC's shows breaking out, but Coupling, Miss Match
and The Lyon's Den
have been underperforming their time periods.

is underperforming last year's Good Morning, Miami
by 21%, although NBC's entire Thursday-night lineup is down 21% and lead-in Will & Grace
is down 18%. Besides pulling Coupling
last week, NBC plans to pull it for the start of sweeps on Oct. 30, instead airing super-sized episodes of Friends, Scrubs
and Will & Grace. Coupling,
once "the show everyone is talking about," according to NBC publicity, is now unfortunately the show everybody is talking trash about.

But, with hopes evaporating for Coupling, NBC could be left without a reliable replacement for Friends
next season, which could force the network to cede its Must-See Thursdays to arch-rival CBS.

In the past three years, NBC has managed to develop some solid shows, such as Crossing Jordan
and American Dreams, but it hasn't found the big hit—the next Friends, ER
or Law & Order—that is going to take it into the next era. November will tell the story. With Fox coming on strong, ABC on the mend and CBS solid across the board, NBC really needs to find a new hit somewhere.