In its heyday more than a decade ago, A Current Affair generated buzz and big ratings, thanks to its uniqueness, its groundbreaking stories and host Maury Povich’s sly glances into the camera. Today, Lachlan Murdoch, chairman of Fox stations, is championing a new Affair, anchored by Tim Green. This one is generating its own kind of noise.
But this time around, the industry’s attention is focused more on the minutiae of ratings interpretation than on any scoops uncovered by the magazine show. Depending on who is doing the talking, the varying spin on the numbers can be spectacular. As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Competitors see the glass as half empty. Even in a year when there is a shortage of first-run product to go around—thanks in part to Twentieth’s own programming failures this season—they’re quick to point to the negatives.
From its debut on March 21 up to April 15, Affair, airing in a variety of early and late-fringe news-adjacency spots (as both lead-in and lead-out), averaged a 2.9 rating/5 share for its primary runs in the metered markets. That, according to competitors, is down 19% from its lead-in of 3.6/7 and down 12% from the year-ago time-period average of 3.3/6.
Affair numbers eroded in big markets like New York, where Twentieth execs counter they inherited a difficult time period formerly inhabited by a popular sitcom.
“Moving into very established time periods occupied primarily by long-running top off-net sitcoms such as The Simpsons, Seinfeld and Friends, ACA had a challenge to maintain, let alone build upon, those time periods. It is a very different type of programming than off-net sitcoms,” says Joanne Burns, executive VP of marketing, research and new media for Twentieth.
In other words, she says, sitcom viewers are not exactly the core audience for Affair.
With Twentieth hoping to avoid another high-profile failure this season, and under a corporate mandate to get the show “up and running” prior to May sweeps, Burns points to some encouraging trends (including growth in 14 markets from weeks two to four and some good numbers in week four). Ultimately, Twentieth wants to take the show to more markets.
Burns also blames extenuating circumstances for the show’s ratings weaknesses: Affair got a big first-week bounce from heavy promotion but inherited time slots averaging 2.8/5; the program has basically maintained those numbers. In the meantime, daylight-saving time reduced overall viewing (see In Focus, at right), and spring break and major news events disrupted viewing patterns, sending the key Affair male demo elsewhere.
So the story is a mixed bag, but one thing is clear: Few of the 28 stations now testing Affair will dump it any time soon, unless Murdoch has a change of heart. Why? Because Fox owns 26 of them.